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C.J. Ham is finding niche with the Vikings as ‘a real football player’

Minnesota Vikings fullback C.J. Ham (30) reacts with tight end Kyle Rudolph (82) before the game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Arizona Cardinals at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Oct. 14, 2018. Jeffrey Becker / USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. -- A harmless exchange at the West Side St. Paul Boys & Girls Club on Tuesday, Dec. 4, perfectly encapsulated the unlikely NFL career of Vikings fullback C.J. Ham.

“Wait,” a little boy screamed, stopping Ham dead in his tracks. “Are you a real football player?”

“Nah,” Ham replied with a smile. “I’m one of those fake football players.”

“Yeah, I knew it,” the little boy replied without missing a beat. “You’re lame.”

Even before Ham could acknowledge the burn, the little boy was gone, onto chatting up the next “real” football player he could find.

Looking back on it now, Ham was pretty close to having to answer that question differently. Undrafted in 2016 despite a productive career at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., he eventually stuck with the Vikings. After parlaying a tryout at the rookie minicamp into a spot on the practice squad, he was promoted to the active roster before the final game of his rookie season.

Since then, Ham has become a staple, carving out a niche on special teams and as the Vikings’ starting fullback.

While his offensive snap counts have actually decreased under new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, Ham’s overall usage has increased, particularly when it comes to catching the ball out of the backfield. He already has set new career highs in targets (15), receptions (11), and receiving yards (85).

“It’s awesome that the coaching staff trusts me enough to put the ball in my hands every once in a while,” Ham said, adding that he prides himself on being versatile. “It’s been awesome to have an opportunity to make plays.”

It’s an opportunity that almost never came.

“It’s been a great journey,” Ham said. “Now I’m married with two kids, so they keep me humble and keep me pushing forward. I just want to go out there and keep doing my job and letting the chips will fall where they may after that.”

Must-win games

The importance of the last four games of the regular season is not lost on the Vikings (6-5-1). They know they likely have to go 3-1 the rest of the way to make the playoffs.

In that sense, Monday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks (7-5-) while important, isn’t necessarily more important the games against the Miami Dolphins (6-6), Detroit Lions (4-8) and Chicago Bears (8-4) — although Seattle is chasing Minnesota for a wild card spot.

“If we beat them and we go out and we crap in our hands the next three weeks, that doesn’t do us any good,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “We just have to go out there and play this game. We have four games in front of us — all (games) we can win if we play well. If we do that, everything will be happy again.”

Last man standing

With the dismissal Sunday of Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, Zimmer is the only head coach in the NFC North who was in his current position at the end of last season. Since then, Matt Nagy has taken over for John Fox in Chicago and Matt Patricia has taken over for Jim Caldwell in Detroit.

“I really didn’t think about it until (now),” Zimmer said. “It is what it is. We signed up for this production-based business. If we don’t produce, that is what happens.”