MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Vikings’ great survivor was 23 years old when he came to the Twin Cities unaware of where his new job would take him.
Kevin Stefanski packed up his car and headed to the Midwest with new coach Brad Childress, not to join the coaching staff or the front office, but to sit in a desk outside Childress’ office and take care of the day-to-day tasks that were beneath the head coach’s purview.
Since those modest beginnings, Stefanski has held four different coaching positions, endured two coaching changes and weathered some chaotic moments over the last 12 years. Now 35 and with gray flecks in his beard, Stefanski is the longest-tenured coach on the Vikings’ staff and in charge of the most important position on the field — the quarterbacks.
“It’s wild. I didn’t set out for that,” Stefanski said. “I got out here when I was 23 years old. I’m standing in a meeting making an announcement and there’s Brad Johnson who is 38. I’m thinking, `Is this guy even going to listen to me?’
“But my mentality was day to day, week to week and year to year. Now to sit back and look at it and say I’ve been here 12 years, I can say that is unique. But it’s not some magic trick. You kind of just show up.”
A former standout defensive back for Penn and the son of longtime NBA executive Ed Stefanski, Kevin got his start with the Vikings by putting together travel itineraries, taking marketing and public relations meetings, assembling scouting reports and organizing schedules, a jack-of-all-trades position that gave him an up-close view of the daily demands that a head coach faces.
“Being able to be in the nitty gritty of that was so important,” Stefanski said. “I learned as much in those years as any other job, to see each one of those circumstances and how those are dealt with.”
Occasionally Childress would allow Stefanski to break down film on a player or prospect to get his feet wet on the coaching side. Eventually he was promoted to assistant quarterbacks coach in 2009, the year that Brett Favre arrived. He held on to that job during Leslie Frazier’s three-year run as coach, and has coached tight ends, running backs and now QBs under Mike Zimmer.
“He’ll be a coordinator at some point,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “He’s just a great football mind. There’s a reason he’s withstood all the coaches he has.”
Not just coaches but drama. In Stefanski’s time with the Vikings, he has watched Favre come in, lead the team to an NFC title game and then exit the next season while being dogged by salacious off-the-field headlines. He saw the Metrodome roof collapse in a snowstorm and a new stadium open, and Adrian Peterson tear his ACL, win the MVP the next season after a 2,000-yard year and miss a season while facing child abuse charges. He worked under accomplished offensive coordinators Darrell Bevell, Bill Musgrave, Norv Turner and now Pat Shurmur.
“In terms of the things that have gone on, I’ve kind of seen it all. I’ve gotten a front-row seat in the NFL and year to year you never know what the season is going to bring,” Stefanski said. “We don’t know the things that are going to happen this year or last year. Just be able to rally no matter what happens.”
He has taken over a position group with an element of uncertainty simmering just beneath the surface. Sam Bradford set an NFL record for completion percentage last season but is entering the final year of his contract. Teddy Bridgewater, once deemed the future face of the franchise, is still recovering from a traumatic leg injury last August that forced the Vikings to trade for Bradford in the first place.
Bridgewater will start the season on the physically unable to perform list but has been pushing team officials to get him cleared to return to action this season. It all adds up to a potentially awkward room. But Stefanski has made a good first impression.
“I think those meetings with him have been some of my most enjoyable times spent in a quarterback room,” Bradford said.
Stefanski said he has tried to make things as collaborative as possible among Bradford, Bridgewater, veteran backup Case Keenum and developmental prospect Taylor Heinicke.
“It’s fun being back in that quarterback room because you can really dive into the rabbit hole here and get into the deep parts of the game, understanding the coverages and protections,” Stefanski said. “For me it’s been fun being back in that room. I feel comfortable in there. It’s nice to have four guys really pushing each other.”