Stephanie Langhofer was 10 years old the first time she came to training camp.
She’d only watched Bud Grant and the rest of the Minnesota Vikings on television before tugging on dad’s shirt and asking for a close-up view. So he obliged and took her to training camp. And since then, she’s never missed a camp.
So on Sunday night, when the team finally arrived in Mankato to begin its two-week training camp, Langhofer was there, three-ring binder filled with memorabilia and autographs in hand, tracking down players and coaches to get as many John Hancocks as she could.
But she still remembers that first one.
“We could walk right on the field and talk to the players,” she said as she gazed down the sidewalk.
An important player was coming. Probably the most talked-about player of the past week. A certain former All-Pro quarterback.
“He’s coming, Mike,” she says to a fellow autograph seeker. “In the white shirt. The one everyone’s mobbing around.”
Donovan McNabb rolled by on a Trek bike, all smiles and polite rejections to the legion of game jersey-clad fans holding out footballs and Sharpies, hoping he’d stop pedaling.
“It’s camp, baby!” McNabb says, casually riding down the sidewalk between Minnesota State University’s Gage dorms and a classroom in Armstrong Hall.
“Donovan, can you sign this?” Langhofer asks.
“On the way back,” he tells her. “Definitely.”
Langhofer, of Fairmont, has been here long enough to know what they really mean. She’s been to enough training camp days and regular games — she and her husband Eric have season tickets to not only the Vikes, but also the Indianapolis Colts — that she knows most players or coaches who say they’ll come back and sign later usually are just being polite.
But McNabb, she thinks, sounded a little more sincere. She predicted he’d be back.
Every year at this time, for more than 40 years, the Minnesota Vikings have come to Mankato to gear up for the NFL season. And every year, throngs of fans are here to greet them.
On arrival day, the hard-core fans come out. Around the entrance at Gage Hall are people from all walks of life holding footballs, horned hats, pennants, keepsake scrapbooks or trading cards, all hoping a grid iron hero will oblige for an autograph.
Jay Dahlvang of Mankato and his son James, 12, have come to camp before, but never on arrival day. Sunday, they said, was their first. And in one way, they feel lucky to even be able to come.
“I’m just glad they’re playing, with the lockout,” dad said.
James, who participates in area youth football as a running back, says he eager to watch the players get busy.
“I like to get a couple of autographs,” he said. “And it’s just amazing to see how hard they work.”
Dustin Hlavac, 18, a Mankato West High School graduate and current Minnesota State University student, said he’s been coming to training camp since he was 8. Back then the big story was the fusing together of two of mammoth talents known as Culpepper and Moss.
He’s a fan. And he comes to see his favorite team up close.
“It’s not often you get to see the guys you see on TV come to town,” he said.
A moment later, he got to see one of the biggest names on the team — heck, in the NFL — come to town.
A few minutes before 4 p.m., and 10 minutes after just about all the players and coaches reported for their 4 p.m. meeting — a white Escalade pulled in and parked in the lot between Otto Arena and Morris Hall.
Seconds later, out popped running back Adrian Peterson, who strolled through the crowd, declined to sign autographs (he didn’t really have time), and hurried off to a waiting golf cart that carried him away.