Cris Carter still remembers the final conversation he ever had with his friend Korey Stringer.
Carter in No. 80 and Stringer in No. 77 crossed the pavement together - like every day of training camp - to the practice field on July 31, 2001.
"We talked about the kind of shape that he was in and about how he was really looking forward to the season," Carter recalled.
The Vikings offensive line had been shaken up during free agency, and Stringer anticipated an additional leadership responsibility a year after Randall McDaniel signed with Tampa Bay.
"It was time for him to be even more of a vocal leader. Because he didn't have to do that before," Carter told Vikings.com. "But hearing him verbalizing that - and we really had a lot of great leaders, like Randall, that he was following in the footsteps of. So that was going to be an adjustment."
Carter can still picture the field's layout. The way he and the other receivers snagged balls zipped through the JUGS machine not far from where Stringer worked on his footwork and hand placement.
"We were both just getting some extra work in for practice. Just like people had taught us, and just like you were supposed to do," the Hall of Famer said. "Never in my wildest imagination did I think that would be my last conversation, or did I think catching balls on that JUGS machine and him hitting the bag would be the last time I would see him alive.
"Those will be my lasting conversations and lasting memory of 'Big K,' " Carter added, heaviness evident in his voice.
Fellow Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss holds a similar moment close to his heart.
"The memory that stands out is seeing him, before we went to practice, he had his arms [outstretched] over the big, long bleacher," Moss told Vikings.com, extending his own arms to full wingspan. "I said, 'You ready big fella?' 'Yeah, I'm ready.' We're going out there, and that's the last time I was seeing him or speaking to him."
A beloved teammate with a gravitational pull
Today marks the 20th anniversary of Stringer's tragic death less than 24 hours after collapsing at Vikings Training Camp in Mankato.
Former teammates deeply miss their friend. They have preserved fond memories.
Bubbly. Smiling. Gentle giant. Made everybody laugh. Silly.
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who disliked the fun-loving, joke-cracking Stringer who grew up in Warren, Ohio, and shined for the Buckeyes before Minnesota drafted him 24th overall in 1995.
McDaniel recalled attending Stringer's introductory press conference at the team's headquarters shortly after the draft. He didn't normally attend such announcements in-person, McDaniel noted, but did that year because of the shared position group.
The Hall of Fame guard took Stringer out to lunch, and it became clear from the get-go that Stringer was a "great man" beyond his football skills.
"His personality - it just shined through. Always laughing, always smiling, always could make you feel better," McDaniel said. "I mean, he'd crack a joke, or he'd say something or imitate someone, and it could be a moment where everybody was in a bad mood - maybe we just left this meeting and everybody's not feeling great - and he would make a comment or do one little thing, and everybody would start to laugh. Like, 'OK, it's not the end of the world.' "
Longtime Vikings equipment manager Dennis Ryan reminisced about Stringer's knack for impersonations - specifically Fat Albert - and other entertainment he provided, creating a gravitational pull in the locker room.
Moss also expanded on Stringer's plethora of talents.
"He could sing," Moss said. "He knew music, loved music and could rap a little bit, so I just enjoyed the time we spent. The times that can't be replaced.
"We have a lot of [game-day] memories, me jumping up in his arms and things like, but those will last a lifetime," Moss added. "The ones you will never get back are when you spend the time away from work, away from the game, and get to know each other. And that's what me and 'Big K' were able to do."
Ryan remembers where Stringer sat in the Winter Park locker room, next to long snapper Mike Morris.
"He was on the west wall toward the back of the room, right about the middle of that bay of lockers," said Ryan, who noted that Stringer faced his chair outward, to the center of the room. "He always had a group of guys from all sorts of areas, positions, just sitting around on their stools with Korey basically entertaining the troupe."
Former Vikings running back Robert Smith played with Stringer at Ohio State before reuniting with him in that locker room prior to Stringer's rookie campaign.
"Big K" was just plain fun to be around, Smith explained.
"Always that way. Just such a genuinely good and fun person," Smith said. "We'd always come in and we'd talk about South Park. I remember the movie Half Baked was part of the line of jokes we'd use so many times."
And to Smith's recollection, Stringer never actually uttered the running back's first name.
"I don't know that Korey ever called me Robert," Smith laughed. "My nickname at Ohio State was 'Juice,' and then that name carried over to the pros, as well; a lot of nicknames do that. And then the other one was just a silly name - he'd call me Rupert, on purpose. It was never Robert; it was either Juice or Rupert."
Bring up Stringer to his former teammates, and you'll receive a variety of reactions.
McDaniel offered that slow, thoughtful nod.
Smith let out a joyful laugh prompted by cherished memories.
Jake Reed's eyes glistened as he stood just feet from Stringer's "Frozen in Time" ice column exhibit at the Minnesota Vikings Museum.
He tries not to think about it, he says. Twenty years later, the memory of losing his friend to heat stroke complications at the age of 27 remains raw and painful.
"It was one of the worst days in football in my life. I hate thinking about it. When I saw his picture over there, I said a little prayer," Reed said. "Because Korey was an unbelievable guy. Because when you see a player like that - Korey was big, strong, healthy, in-shape. That can't happen. If that happened to him, it can happen to anyone. It was so mind-blowing.
"Every time you hit that practice field, you thought about Korey. Every time you had a hot practice, you thought about him," Reed added, his voice trailing off.
Powerful and prepared protector
A brighter memory of Reed's is wrestling - or 'rassling,' in his authentic Southern drawl - with the offensive linemen. And let's be honest here: Reed was big for a receiver at 6-3 and 216 pounds, but he certainly was no match for the linemen.
"I don't know why ... I knew I couldn't do it," Reed laughed. "But I'd jump on their back, wrestling with them because they were big guys. We were a tightknit team."
Stringer was part of the historic 1998 Vikings squad that went 15-1 but fell short of the Super Bowl in heartbreaking fashion.
And despite being the youngest of the group, he immediately fit in with an offensive line that featured (from left to right) Todd Steussie, McDaniel, Jeff Christy, David Dixon and Stringer.
"He had good hands, good feet. His technique was sound. And he was willing to do the work," McDaniel recalled. "When Korey got [his chance to start], he just clicked with that group. The line was complete.
"He came in ready to work, eager to learn," McDaniel added. "He'd watched film with us for hours as a rookie; everyone else is gone, and he's still in there with us. So it made it easy."
Stringer helped Smith notch four consecutive seasons with 1,000-plus rushing yards, including a career-high 1,521 yards and seven touchdowns in 2000 - Smith's final season before hanging up his cleats.
Reflecting back, Smith feels fortunate to have played behind such stalwart o-lines.
"And it's funny. During the course of a game, you're so focused on what you're doing that you're not even recognizing or realizing certain things, but you go back and you watch the film, and you always see the big paw of one of those guys," Smith said. "They follow you down the field and not only try and keep people off of you, but they're always there to help you up.
"It was always that type of relationship with my guys, but Korey in particular," he continued. "Even though I was older, it was always like he was the protector. He was always there to keep people off of you and to help you up. It was pretty cool."
A generous lifter of spirits
Stringer's football prowess spoke for itself.
His true legacy, though, lies in his kindness, generosity and heart much bigger than his jersey size.
Reed, Ryan and former Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper multiple times used "gentle" to describe Stringer.
"He was a big, gentle, people say 'teddy bear.' But on the football field, he handled his business," Reed said. "He wasn't a pushover, but just nice, fun, funny and enjoyable to talk to."
The overwhelming sentiment is that Stringer cared for and respected everyone, whether that person was a fellow first-round pick or an unknown name signed as an undrafted rookie.
Teammates and coaches alike gravitated toward Stringer's warm demeanor and welcoming nature. And Stringer didn't just bond with the offensive line room. There were no cliques as far as he was concerned.
"A lot of guys would talk to most of the guys in their position because those are the ones they were with most of the time," Reed said. "But with Korey, everybody talked to Korey. If you were having a down day, you'd talk to Korey. He'd have some silly joke for you, and he's got that smile and laugh that would make you feel good about your day."
Stringer looked out for every one of his teammates, whether he'd known them 10 years or 10 minutes.
When Culpepper was drafted 11th overall by Minnesota in 1999, Stringer was one of the first who made an impression on him.
"Me coming in as a rookie, he kind of put his arm around me and said, 'Hey man, if you have a tough day, don't worry about it.' He was one of those guys that motivated from a gentle angle," Culpepper said. "He was kind of like a gentle giant. That's what I would call him."
Amidst the fame and fortune that comes with being a first-round pick in the NFL, Stringer never lost sight of what truly mattered.
He regularly participated in Community Tuesdays, investing in the young people and families around him, and he gave generously.
Following his Pro Bowl appearance in 2000, Stringer didn't hesitate to sign the $15,000 check over to a youth football program in his hometown. Sports Illustrated's Steve Rushin wrote shortly after Stringer's death that the starting right tackle once pulled over on his drive home from the Metrodome to help a stranded fan change his tire.
"He was, of course, father to 3-year-old Kodie," wrote Rushin in 2001, "so the 335-pound Stringer sat on his Bloomington porch on Halloween and insisted that timid children take more candy from the bowl: Take a 'Korey handful,' he told trick-or-treaters."
And Stringer didn't wait until he'd set himself up to share with others. His generosity, rather, preceded his first NFL check.
"You figured it out early. My wife and I loved having him volunteer in our programs. That was a positive male role model, right there," McDaniel said. "As you always say, it's a life taken too soon. But he made a big impact on people in the time that he was here."
Added Carter: "He was a great man and a great football player - and that combination is [often] taken for granted."
Legacy of helping others
Stringer's life and legacy are not to be forgotten.
Just before last night's practice at TCO Stadium, fans turned attention to a videoboard tribute recognizing the 20-year anniversary of Stringer's passing. A moment of silence followed, and eyes cast on a pair of No. 77s painted on the field at the 25-yard lines. Another No. 77 has been added to the grass berm that rises above the Vikings practice fields.
And perhaps the greatest way in which Stringer's memory lives on is through Kelci Stringer, who worked to develop an exertional heat stroke prevention institute to honor her husband's legacy. Kelci teamed up with exertional heat stroke expert Douglas Casa, Ph. D, ATC at the University of Connecticut, and the Korey Stringer Institute became a reality in 2010.
The Vikings and the NFL Foundation teamed up with the Korey Stringer Institute to create the Korey and Kelci Stringer Athletic Training Scholarship with an initial $50,000 endowment that was announced Saturday. The scholarship will be awarded annually to benefit athletic training students in partnership with the National Athletic Training Association (NATA) Research and Education Foundation.
And while Stringer's life can never be replaced, his teammates realize that even after his passing, he's managed to do what he always did best: help others.
"[Korey's death has] completely changed the way that people look at heat-stroke deaths and the way that people talk about hydration," Smith said. "Something that 20, 25 years ago was used as punishment, even, at practice - withholding water - is something that's changed to, 'It's important for you to stay hydrated for your health,' and it's actually become something that people focus on for improvement of performance. It's a pretty dramatic change."
Moss carries Stringer's memory everywhere. He has a tattoo in honor of Stringer and made sure to mention "Big K" during the luncheon portion of the charity fishing tournament he hosted this week.
"It's important for us to not forget about a close friend and a dear teammate in Korey Stringer."
By: Lindsey Young
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