NFL: Duluth native C.J. Ham still living the dream with the Minnesota Vikings
Fullback and family man never forgets his roots and what got him there.
EAGAN, Minn. — Then-Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski had some advice for Kirk Cousins after the quarterback arrived in Minnesota in March 2018 as the NFL’s big free-agent splash that offseason.
“He told me to just watch C.J. Ham because he does everything right all the time, and I’ve been here four years now and I would say that’s stood the test of time,” Cousins said. “He just does everything right all the time.”
While change is inevitable, Ham, a Duluth native, has been one of the few constants for Minnesota. The 5-foot-11, 250-pound fullback reflected on his career and talked about the upcoming season after training camp Wednesday, Aug. 3, at TCO Performance Center.
Ham has spent his entire career with the Vikings.
“When I look back on everything, it’s a blessing,” said Ham, who turned 29 on July 22. “It’s a blessing to be going into my seventh season here with the Vikings, being in my home state, and it’s truly a blessing to be one of the older guys out here.
“I just take it in. Sometimes when younger guys ask me questions, it just puts everything into perspective because at one point in my career, I was doing that. Still, being in year seven, I can still get so much better, so I’m always picking little things to get better at.”
New coordinator, new offense
Ham is used to dealing with change as it’s been an offensive coordinator carousel since his arrival.
Wes Phillips, the son of former Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills, and Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips, and the grandson of former Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints head coach Bum Phillips, will be Ham’s sixth offensive coordinator in his seven seasons.
Ham was asked how he fits in with the new system.
“I fit wherever they need me,” Ham said. “That’s kind of always been how it is with my position and who I am. I just try to be as versatile as possible and whatever they ask me to do, I go out there and do it at a high level.”
The offensive system didn’t change a whole lot in recent years, going from Stefanski to Gary Kubiak to Kubiak’s son, Klint.
That’s not the case this year as the Vikings also have a new coach in the 37-year-old Kevin O’Connell, a former backup to Tom Brady. O’Connell replaces Mike Zimmer, who was fired after going 72-56-1 in eight seasons but missed the playoffs the last two years.
O’Connell comes to Minnesota after serving as offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams.
That sounds wonderful, but the Rams didn’t use a fullback last season, something not lost on Ham.
“Being on the outside looking in, you see a guy coming in from L.A. where they didn’t need the fullback, so you automatically think that’s what it’s going to be, but coach O’Connell is his own man, right?” Ham said. “He was in L.A. and now he’s a Minnesota Viking. He’s going to throw his own wrinkles in everything, and I’m super happy he is giving me an opportunity to come out here and continue to play.”
For what it’s worth, O’Connell sure sounded high on Ham addressing the media after Wednesday’s walkthrough. Good coaches adjust to the talent they have on their roster, especially when they’re as dependable and versatile as Ham.
The Vikings always have room on their plate for Ham. Just ask O’Connell.
“I think what I like to do offensively absolutely fits with having a player like that,” O’Connell said. “C.J. can handle a lot. He’s really able to take much more on his plate than the traditional fullback: A) because he mentally can handle it and B) he’s a dynamic player. To have the strength he has in the run game, the understanding to be able to do some unique run-game concepts with him, and then ultimately use him as a weapon in the pass game … we’re going to try to activate C.J. in a lot of ways.”
New coach, new attitude, same Ham
Camp certainly has a different feel under O’Connell.
The media are limited to how much practice they can shoot, mostly drills, and the TCO Stadium big screen relays a similar message, “Vikings fans, please help our team, not the opponents, and refrain from taking videos of practice.”
Ham was asked how camp was going.
“It’s been going great. We got great energy out here,” Ham said. “It’s a lot of fun. We’re just out here playing ball. We all had to learn a new system and we’re working through that but the coaches are making it super easy for us, so we’re just going out here and competing.”
One can certainly tell O’Connell is a former quarterback the way he was chucking the pigskin around in practice Wednesday. He’s extremely hands-on.
Ham was asked if O’Connell has brought a new attitude.
“He’s brought his attitude,” Ham said. “That’s the great thing about it. He is who he is. He’s high-energy and loves to compete. He’s definitely for us and it’s been a lot of fun.”
The mood around camp also appears more family-friendly.
Training camp has always been more laid back. Of course it’s competitive, players are fighting for their jobs, but it’s still summer, and the season hasn't even started yet.
That is especially the case around TCO Performance Center, on the site of the former Northwest Airlines headquarters. Fans are allowed at training camp but it never seems busy, no hustle bustle on the roads around the facility, and the grounds are spacious. You feel like you’re walking around a golf course or retirement community.
Ham’s family hung out with the family of another Minnesotan, wide receiver Adam Thielen, for about an hour after practice Wednesday. Although the temperature pushed close to 90 degrees earlier, it felt comfortable with the seemingly perpetual breeze that blows through there, with one member of the media calling the facility a wind tunnel.
Ham and Thielen have worked out together the past four offseasons and have become close.
When the two sat down in lawn chairs on the far end of the field, kids running all around, green cooler between them, it looked like they could have been filming a Coleman camping commercial. Just fire up the grill.
“Their families come every day,” said a Vikings worker, before she added, “They love being dads, and that is so awesome.”
If Ham ever needed a reminder to stay humble and well grounded, he has a tattoo on his right forearm. It’s from the Bible, Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.
“That was my mom’s favorite verse,” Ham said.
Ham’s mother, Tina Ham, passed away in May 2020, about 14 months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was 57.
Cousins, the son of a pastor, cracked a big grin Wednesday when asked about Ham as a player and a person.
“It would be difficult to articulate and put into words because he’s meant so much to our team,” Cousins said, before going on to articulate it so well. “He is a very versatile football player. He can catch a go ball like he did against the Ravens last season. He can also block a defensive end who is 50 pounds heavier. He is the kind of player that when he is in the game in a crucial moment, you as a quarterback feel better that he is one of 11 guys in that huddle.
“He leads our Bible study most every week and he is the leader of it. He is just the total package and I hope for as long as I am a Minnesota Viking, C.J. Ham is a teammate of mine.”
That’s extremely high praise coming from the leader of your football team, but Ham has earned that respect.
Ham is a 2011 Duluth Denfeld graduate. Coming out of high school he flew well under the big-school college recruiting radar and ended up at Augustana University, an NCAA Division II program in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Ham got a free-agent tryout with Vikings, stuck it out on the practice squad and became an NFL Pro Bowler in 2019. Don’t tell him it can’t be done. Quit and can’t aren’t part of his vocabulary.
Ham was asked what he would say to kids in Duluth, or across Minnesota, who want to make a life out of football.
“As always, go out there and chase it,” Ham said. “If you have a dream, just go out there and chase it. I’m just a kid from the West End, West Duluth area, and I had a dream as a kid to make it to the NFL and there was a lot of hard work that went into that but I didn’t let anyone steer me away from my dream. I was able to come out here and do that. I believe anybody can do anything they put their mind to, as cliche as it is.”
With Ham, you start believing it’s not cliche, it’s the truth.