EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Blair Walsh acclimated to the NFL quickly in his rookie season for the Minnesota Vikings. Turns out he already understands how to uphold tradition as well.
Walsh, a 2012 sixth-round pick, set several team and league records in his first season with the Vikings and was named the NFC’s Pro Bowl kicker. But Walsh also wanted to recognize one of the players responsible for helping him get to Hawaii. So the rookie is treating one of Minnesota’s veterans to a trip to the islands.
That means long snapper Cullen Loeffler will get a Hawaiian vacation this week as Walsh prepares for the Pro Bowl.
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“He deserves it,” Walsh said earlier this month.
Walsh’s treat didn’t come without a little prodding. Punter Chris Kluwe made sure the rookie knew the team’s plan to award Loeffler. For years, Kluwe and former kicker Ryan Longwell had told Loeffler they would bring him along if they earned an invitation to play in the Pro Bowl. But neither Kluwe nor Longwell received the honor and Loeffler never got his vacation.
“There were so many times before that both Ryan and Kluwe were alternates for the Pro Bowl, and the deal was, ‘Hey look, if we make it we’re taking you with us regardless,’ ” Loeffler said. “And so, really, Kluwe informed him, ‘Hey, this is how it works.’ Because I can’t get voted in, I can only get invited. He obviously came through, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, definitely. I’m appreciative for everything that you’ve done.’ He’s just been a great guy.”
Finally this year, with Walsh taking the NFL by storm, Loeffler needed to pack his bathing suit in January. Walsh was fourth in the league in scoring with 143 points and set an NFL record with 10 field goals of 50 yards or more. In fact, he made all 10 of his attempts from that range and 35 of 38 overall. Walsh is is joining teammates Jared Allen, Jerome Felton, Chad Greenway, Adrian Peterson and Kyle Rudolph on the NFC team.
Of course, Walsh and Loeffler were hoping the trip wouldn’t be a financial burden for the rookie. Each conference’s coach gets the chance to invite one player, which is usually the long snapper. The hope was Loeffler would be recognized for his work and be named a Pro Bowler on his own.
But after Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy was named the NFC’s coach, he chose the Detroit Lions’ Don Muhlbach as the NFC’s long snapper.
The unfortunate part for Loeffler, and Walsh’s wallet, is long snappers can’t be voted in. Loeffler, who has carved out a nine-year career as Minnesota’s long snapper and signed a three-year contract extension in November 2011, would prefer the position be recognized by a vote.
“Of course I do because I play the position,” Loeffler said. “But it’s been that same way for a while now, and at the same time it’s worked out for situations like last year that, ‘Hey, you have both a punter and kicker go, of course their long snapper deserves to go.’ There’s no doubt that (San Francisco’s Brian) Jennings was very deserving of that because they don’t have that same type of success if a guy’s not playing to a high standard and doing great things for them. It’s a fine line.”
This time, Walsh, who was paid a $390,000 base salary this season as part of the four-year contract he signed after being drafted, will pay for Loeffler’s trip, and the veteran appreciates the rookie’s gesture.
“It means a whole lot to me,” Loeffler said. “We have a great relationship, obviously. He’s a great guy and obviously has done a tremendous job and is just so thankful for the, I think, for the transformation that he’s made from his senior year in college to now. As was our team being doubted before the season, so was he and the selection that they made. … He’s just stayed hungry, and he knows how important staying focused and doing things the right way are, and because of it, he’s had a great season.”