Soaring expectations can’t uproot Vikings’ Kirk Cousins from foundation formed in hometown
HOLLAND, Mich. The last Saturday in June for Kirk Cousins began with him crouched over a smartphone, poring over video in search of clues for how he can improve the way many of his days will start in Minnesota.
In this particular clip, Cousins could see he had made a strong step up through a wall of blockers and delivered a strike, feinting away from contact to avoid a hit after he followed through.
But after hed gone to the ground to avoid the yellow dodgeball whizzing by his head, hed had to Army crawl through a handful of his friends to return to the back line, as several more throws missed his neon green Nikes. Now it was time to account for what went wrong.
This was no Xs and Os breakdown at the Vikings practice facility: A video clip of the previous nights dodgeball game at Cousins youth camp had made its way to SportsCenter. This as Cousins congregated with several of his oldest friends before Day 2 of his camp at Hope College was a roast.
I kept waiting for somebody to pick me up and pull me back out, but nobody did! Cousins answered his high school buddies, his eyes widening in mock indignation as a grin crossed his face.
In much of the country, Cousins is a talking point. His name is attached to contract figures punctuated by exclamation points $84 million over three years! The first fully guaranteed contract for an NFL quarterback! and followed by a question mark Is he worth it?
Here, at Hope College in Cousins bucolic west Michigan hometown, he is just Kirk, the middle of three pastors kids, the once-scrawny quarterback who earned straight As at Holland Christian High School and split his time between sports and Living Hope, the schools competitive show choir.
He opens the camp by detailing for roughly two dozen coaches how his arrival in Minnesota was the product of answered prayer, before turning things over to his father Don. The next morning, after the group shares laughs and trades jabs over the dodgeball clip, Cousins older brother Kyle gets the last speaking spot for morning devotionals, sharing what hes learned after quitting a job with the Orlando Magic, studying in Jerusalem and sorting out what he should be doing with his life.
Kirk Cousins name is on the camp, but he blends in as often as not with the crowd, dispensing high-fives and life advice to middle schoolers, putting his arm around a teary-eyed camper and leaning forward to the edge of Smith Stadiums metal bleachers as he listens intently to what his father and brother have to say.
It becomes clear, in Holland, why Cousins seems so unfazed by the expectations attached to his mammoth contract. He understands, with bracing clarity, whats being asked of him, and how directly his perception in Minnesota will be tied to his production. But the contract, the pressure all of it is filtered through a worldview that was formed here, in the midst of friends and family that share his Christian beliefs. Even when Cousins is the center of attention, his status is not the north star.
Theres a dynamic where, because [his closest friends] knew Kirk before he was in the NFL, thats how they treat him, Kyle Cousins said. Its a safe place where Kirk can come back and just be himself. They give him a hard time, and we mess around; I dont think we hold him to any different standard than we hold ourselves.
Home sweet Holland
Before 7 a.m. on the first day of Cousins camp, staffers are hard at work making preparations for the 360 middle schoolers who will arrive later that morning. Athletic trainers from Hope College fill water jugs and unpack boxes of sports drinks to deal with the 90-degree heat, while placing bottles of sunscreen in ready view of the campers whod otherwise underestimate its importance.
The main job at this hour, though, is blowing up a dozen 5-foot high inflatable bubbles that will be used later this morning for games of KnockerBall, where campers step inside the bubbles, collide with each other in an effort to retrieve a football, then run it back across an end line.
Do not fumble my football, Cousins deadpans into a microphone, in between offering play-by-play of games between sixth graders. Later, as an impromptu dance contest breaks out, he says to a camper, Never lose that self-confidence.
There are few technique drills at Cousins camp, which purposely excludes most of the drudgery and take-a-knee lectures that bored the quarterback during the camps he attended. Mostly, as campers splash in pools, hurl dodgeballs at one another and memorize Bible verses, it seems Cousins is trying to help them make the kinds of friends he had in Holland.
The Cousins boys threw themselves into numerous sports when the family moved to Holland from the Chicago area in 2001. Kirk sang as a tenor in the choir at Holland Christian, studied poetry in his English classes and developed a group of friends that spanned a seemingly disparate group of activities.
He was one of the few people who just didnt believe in cliques, said Eric Huizenga, whos been friends with Cousins since they played seventh-grade basketball together. He hung out with so many different friend groups, and that brought our grade together.
Two of the quarterbacks closest friends were Adam Winstrom, a student with Downs Syndrome who became the manager of the football team, and Chris Doornbos, who was born with cognitive and physical impairments.
He still connects with Kirk, Holland Christian athletic director Dave Engbers said. That stems from choir, freshman or sophomore year. They were choir buddies, and Kirk took care of him for the rest of high school.
Winstrom died in 2014, but this spring, when Cousins combined a fundrasier football game at Holland Christian with an event for special needs students, Doornbos handled the coin flip.
Each student got to carry the ball into the end zone for a touchdown, with a local radio host bellowing play-by-play calls into a microphone and the marching band playing the schools fight song. Nobody, Engbers said, enjoyed it more than Cousins.
I really believe its in his DNA, Engbers said. Kirk isnt perfect. Kirk is like the rest of us. I think hes been given an amazing gift to throw a football, an amazing mind to analyze things. But hes got such a built-in cultural awareness to consider others. Hes driven dont get me wrong. Its not all about others; hes driven for himself. But his faith changes how he views life. Thats where this place played a role in his development.
As weary coaches filed into the stadium for the second day of the camp, one shared his Fitbit reading from the previous day, which showed hed walked 17 miles. The coaches are paid for their time, but for many especially those who graduated with Cousins the draw to the camp is the fact it doubles as a reunion.
It seems like nothing changes, Huizenga said. It just feels like were in high school again. Thats unique, especially for someone like Kirk, whos in such a different setting. His willingness to come back and be silly and let the guard down, I think he appreciates that, too.
Connected through prayer
From the time he broke his ankle as a junior in high school and feared his college football prospects were ruined, to this springs discussions with the Vikings, Cousins rarely makes a life decision without consulting his family.
Don Cousins coached both of his boys in numerous sports growing up, rearranging his ministry schedule to be available for practices and games.
Kyle, he said, was likely the better athlete when both were children; the fact Kirk became the NFL quarterback seems not to have granted him superiority over his brother in his familys eyes.
Id be lying if I said I didnt have my moments, like anybody else, where [its hard] remembering I am something other than just Kirks brother, Kyle Cousins said. I am Kirks brother; thats part of my identity. Ive just thoroughly enjoyed it, and Kirk has made that enjoyable. His perspective is, I didnt get here alone.andthinsp;
Don Cousins now pastors a church in Orlando, where Kyle Cousins also works in marketing and sales for a builders services company. Both are in near-daily contact with the quarterback, along with a network of business mentors to provide him with financial wisdom. Kirk Cousins free-agent visit to Minnesota included a three-hour meeting with his father and co-owner Mark Wilf.
The Bible has a verse in Proverbs that says, There is wisdom in an abundance of counselors,andthinsp; Don Cousins said. Hes someone who seeks counsel.
When Kirk went to Michigan State, his father formed a small network of people to pray for his sons safety on game days, the decisions he would make in college and his ability to lead well. Now, Don Cousins said, that network numbers more than 200 people.
We dont pray for quote-unquote success, Don Cousins said. We dont pray for a big contract. We pray that God will be honored in what he does on the field and off the field. We pray for a platform, that he has a platform to have influence. Obviously, if hes a backup quarterback and he isnt playing, there isnt the same kind of impact.
At present, the network is interceding on behalf of the Cousins family friends, too.
Dave Siegers was among the earlier members of the prayer network, dating to when his son Kyle (who played football at Holland Christian and was in the same class as the Cousins daughter Karalyne) was killed in a car crash in 2009.
The tragedy led to a relationship with the Cousins family, as Don counseled Dave and Cindy Siegers through the loss of their son. Dave Siegers used his real estate background to help Kirk Cousins buy a house; the two talked about Siegers hobby of flying planes.
Then, in January 2016, Siegers noticed some twitching in his shoulder. An initial doctors visit raised the possibility of the worst that Siegers had ALS and a series of tests confirmed the diagnosis.
Don Cousins made arrangements for the Siegers to fly down to Orlando, where he would introduce them to Don Jaeger, a man who was battling late-stage ALS in 1992 but miraculously recovered and still lives in the Orlando area, with no trace of the disease other than a slight limp in his leg, Cousins said.
After praying with Jaeger for two hours last month, Siegers said he was able to walk out of Jaegers office, through the parking lot and into his car longer than hed been able to walk in a month, Siegers said.
I felt like a weight had been lifted off of me, Siegers said. Now, I wasnt ready to run a 50-yard dash yet. But I didnt have any explanation for it.
He watched most of Cousins camp in a wheelchair under a tent in the end zone, while Cindy Siegers took pictures of the camp for the sixth straight year. Kirk and Kyle Cousins stopped by to chat with Siegers; Don Cousins closed the camp with his hands on Siegers shoulders as a group prayed for him.
We believe God has the power to heal, Don Cousins said. If hes going to be healed, its going to have to be God. Dave and Cindy pray for Kirk every day. Theyve become close friends of ours. Were praying that Gods going to do a miracle.
Sixteen Sundays are going to define Minnesota for me
The Siegers story, which Don Cousins shared on the first morning of camp, came right after Kirk listed off the ways he believed his arrival in Minnesota was a product of his own answered prayers.
Cousins had recently read a book by Washington D.C. pastor Mark Batterson called The Circle Maker, which helped him develop a more fervent prayer routine. He recalled being shocked at how the Vikings fulfilled every item on his long list of criteria for a new team, from big things (a contending team with stable leadership) to smaller ones (climate-controlled home games and a shorter commute than the one he had to FedEx Field with the Redskins).
He was in Minnesota for the Super Bowl when the Redskins traded for Alex Smith, all but guaranteeing Cousins would become a free agent. He and several friends drove around the Twin Cities, touring the area with a friend from Holland (Mike Nyhof) whos now stationed in Minnesota as a U.S. Marshal. After several days, Cousins told his friends, If theres a catch with Minnesota, Im not seeing it.
I had made a list in my phone, and didnt necessarily look at it as we got closer to the signing, Cousins said. But after signing, and going through several [organized team activities], I looked back at it. I couldnt believe how many of the boxes were checked.
He also knows how quickly his rosy relationship with Minnesota will change if the Vikings, coming off a 13-3 season and a trip to the NFC Championship Game, dont win.
When people ask how Minnesotas been, I just say, So far, its been amazing. But we wont remember April, May, June, Cousins said. Sixteen Sundays are going to define Minnesota for me.
Cousins fanatical preparation his adoption of a strict diet last year, his work with a brain training company called Neurocore that he says helps him focus on the details with 60,000 fans screaming on game day is a well-documented piece of his story by now.
The day before his camp, he moved into the new house he and his wife Julie built on the shore of Lake Michigan. His trainer, Wisconsin-based Joe Tofferi, was at the camp, waiting to return with Cousins to the new gym in his basement to go through their workout regimen designed to keep the 29-year-olds muscles long and limber.
Cousins knows the work and more than anything, the results will shape what Minnesotans think of him.
If possible, Id love for everybody to come here and get to know me, but thats not possible, Cousins said. I know that when you win, everybody tells you how great you are. You may not be a great guy, but everybody says, Oh, what a great guy, because you win. And if you lose, everybodys pointing the finger, and you could be the greatest guy in the world. Youve got to win, and hopefully we can get that done here.
Those who know him best ultimately value him by a different metric. Now, theyre looking forward to seeing what Cousins does with his grand opportunity.
You know what hit me recently? Kyle Cousins said. I thought, Hes going to the Vikings. Hes getting all the support that hes ever wanted. Hes got the talent, hes got the coaches behind him, the whole team and organization behind him, and the paycheck. And then hell have the commensurate responsibility and pressure.
But what I realized recently is, if youre playing quarterback in the NFL, youre going to be at this pressure level I dont know, maybe theres a couple cities where thats an exception but that pressure level is there, whether you have the tools or not. Im just excited. I think he feels like hes in a place that he belongs. Were thankful for that.