A Week Like No Other
John Carlson, a strapping 6-foot-5 Litchfield native, stood against the cement block wall of a stairwell at St. Cloud State's Halenbeck Hall on Friday, talking over a blaring high school band about his new job with the Minnesota Vikings.
Another tall guy in a dress shirt and basketball-theme tie topped the stairs and had barely made it through a nearby doorway when he was met by a small cluster of well-wishing family and friends.
John Carlson, the son, politely excused himself from the discussion and caught up with John Carlson, the dad, in the doorway. Son caught dad's attention with a muscular hand on the shoulder, and the stoic father and proud son exchanged a hug.
Most of the family and friends near them couldn't see the emotion on their faces or hear the words they spoke because, well, frankly, they're too short. But a lot of things went into that brief embrace.
It's been quite a week in the Carlson household.
In the span of five days, the son got a call from the Vikings and made an impromptu visit to the Twin Cities. He quickly agreed to a multi-million dollar contract to play for the hometown NFL team he cheered for as a boy.
Meanwhile, the dad coached his prep basketball team to sub-section and section championships and a spot in the state tournament for the first time since son John helped lead the hometown team to a third state title in four years in 2003.
"It's kind of surreal deal, in a lot of ways,"" said John Carlson, patriarch and Litchfield's head boys basketball coach. "I sat there, thinking, 'You've got to be kidding me!"' It would have been even more surreal if I hadn't been in the middle of basketball playoffs and had more time to think about it."
Son knew of what his father spoke.
"Honestly, I don't think it's set in yet," said the younger John Carlson. "It's been such a whirlwind week. I'm just really thankful for this opportunity.""
Rewind a couple of months.
The younger John Carlson was almost fully recovered from a shoulder injury and surgery that wiped out his 2011 NFL season, his fourth as a tight end with the Seattle Seahawks. Trouble was, he was an NFL player coming off an injury in his free agent season. He wasn't sure what his future held.
At about that same time, the older Carlson had seen his team reach a crossroads. The Dragons had been cruising along the first half of the season, winning 16 of their first 18 games. But then, in early February, the Dragons dropped three of four games, a losing skid that essentially cost them a shot at the Wright County Conference title. Where were they headed?
Fast forward a couple of months.
This week, John Carlson signed his five-year, $25 million contract with the Vikings, and a couple of days later, he got to sit in the stands and watch his dad's Dragons win the Section 6AA championship and a spot in the Class AA state tournament for the first time since 2003, which also was John's final prep season.
"There are a lot of guys from that '03 team out here,"" son John said after the game. "We don't get to see each other that often, with guys living away from here and having families and jobs. It was a great chance to reconnect with them and to see the guys playing really well. It was a big moment.""
Son John has had quite a few big moments lately. Along with the return to Minnesota and his new job with the Vikings, there are also preparations for the arrival of a second child. John and his wife Danielle will celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary in July. Their new baby is due to join 17-month-old son, William, on July 23, just as training camp is set to begin.
John's mom, Jo, said those life changes are good reasons to have their family back in Minnesota.
"I like having them close,"" Jo said. "With another baby on the way in July, it's hard to have them so far away. I'm spoiled, but it's nice to have them around."
What may have contributed to Carlson's good fortune didn't look good at the time. Last summer, in training camp, Carlson felt pain in his shoulder during practice after the Seahawks' first preseason game. The labrum was torn, and rest and rehabilitation weren't going to fix him. He and his physicians decided on surgery.
Seven months later, Carlson said his shoulder is just fine and the Vikings obviously agreed, handing him $11 million guaranteed.
Carlson's rookie contract, a $4.52 million pact that included $2.5 million guaranteed, expired this month. He was planning a visit to Kansas City just as free agency opened, on March 13, when the Vikings contacted him.
He made the trip to the Twin Cities and met with Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, general manager Rick Spielman and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Team doctors checked him out and all was in place.
He didn't have to make any other visits.
"The Vikings stepped forward aggressively when free agency opened," said the younger Carlson, who joins other former Irish players such as friend, center John Sullivan, and the tight end who succeeded him at Notre Dame, Kyle Rudolph.
Meeting with Musgrave also gave Carlson the feeling that he's truly back from his injury. When on IR, players tend to their recovery and little else; they rarely attend meetings or other team activities.
"We looked at plays, and he helped me get a feel for the offense," Carlson said. I'm excited about the offensive pieces that are in place and where he wants to be offensively. That side of it was cool for me because for a long time I've been away from the meetings and talking about the game. It was nice to be talking football again."
At about 2 a.m. the day he was scheduled to meet with the Vikings, Carlson contacted his father, who said he was still up "doing basketball stuff" with the Dragons in the middle of the section tournament.
Father said son had made his decision to sign with the Vikings, and they talked about what lay ahead of him that day and beyond.
"In that game, you have to go with the best opportunity because there's such a short window," the elder John said. "They made a pile of good friends in Seattle -- they really networked well. But they'll do the same thing in Minneapolis, I'm sure of that."
Carlson now joins a short list of "hometown" players who suit up for their hometown" team, such as Kent Hrbek, Joe Mauer and newly retired Viking Jim Kleinsasser.
But Carlson quickly put the brakes on any comparisons.
"First, I can't put myself in the same category with those guys," he said. "They are very accomplished players and it would be a long time before I could put myself in that group. Controlling the things I can control is all I can do, and all the outside pressure I just have to block out."
But there's no denying this has the makings of a magical time for the Carlson family.
"It's really cool to be playing for the team you grew up watching," he said. "When I was young, they had some really good teams. The 1998 team, that was really something to watch. To be a part of that, that's special."