Football: Faith and family come first for CJ Ham from Duluth

The Minnesota Vikings had just finished their first day of training with full pads and the players were tired as they walked off the pitch at the TCO Performance Center, but happy it was over.

A few selected players did interviews while others stayed to work on things or return to the locker room.

When everyone finally pulled out, there were two players left – two – and both were from Minnesota, fullback CJ Ham from Duluth and wide receiver Adam Thielen from Detroit Lakes.

As the last media left, they passed Thielen, who politely said, “Thanks for coming.

No, thank you for having us.

Now that he’s entering his sixth season in the NFL, you don’t have to remind Ham how lucky he is. He does it himself, firmly anchored in his family and his faith in God.

Ham, 28, has vowed he won’t stop doing the things that brought him here and hopefully help him stay a little longer.

“I always fight, I always fight for a place because nothing is ever given to you in this league,” Ham said. “I don’t think I would still be here if I went out and said, ‘This is my place.’ I go out here and work every year to try and improve myself at something. I’m just blessed to be here.

Fullback CJ Ham at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, August 3, 2021 during the <a class=Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune ” width=”1140″ height=””/>

Fullback CJ Ham at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, August 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Players like Ham, like Thielen – who both went from undrafted NCAA Division II prospects to the Pro Bowl, while playing in their home countries – won’t be here forever. These guys are definitely the exceptions, not the rule.

Former NFL coach Jerry Glanville said NFL means “not for long,” after all, so fans of the purple and gold should appreciate players like Ham by now.

Ham said he was speaking at lunch on Tuesday with some of the new Vikings players and they asked where he was from. He told them Duluth, Minnesota, just two hours away. They couldn’t believe it.

“They said, ‘It’s fantastic, you can play in your home country,’” Ham said. “We have a locker room with guys from all over the country (and mostly DI products). It’s awesome, humiliating and surreal to be where I am today.

Full-back CJ Ham (left) chats with teammate Jake Bargas at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, August 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota.  Clint Austin / Duluth <a class=News Tribune ” width=”1140″ height=””/>

Full-back CJ Ham (left) chats with teammate Jake Bargas at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, August 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Ham, who graduated from Duluth Denfeld in 2011, followed an unlikely trip to the NFL that saw him play at Augustana University, a D-II program in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is part of the same league which includes Minnesota Duluth and the State of Minnesota. Mankato, where Thielen played.

In 2016, Ham had a rookie try with the Vikings and dragged, dragged and dragged, moving from training camp that year to the training squad and then finally to the active roster in December. From there, he continued to solidify his place on the roster and in roster, making the Pro Bowl in 2019.

Ham said he still pauses sometimes, thinking about how far it has come, how crazy it was.

“You have to,” he said. “Yes, it’s my job, and it’s something I take seriously, but it’s also my dream. It was my dream, and to get into sixth grade I still have to pinch myself and remind myself that, “Hey man, I’m still living my childhood dream playing in the NFL.” You cannot take this for granted.

During his time with the Vikings, Ham had to deal with endless turnover at the offensive coordinator. Not all teams in the league even use a full-back – five years ago there were only 17 full-time full-backs in the league – and the trend was not good. But every year the Vikings have found a place for Ham, whether on special teams or in the backfield as a blocker, occasional wide receiver and runner.

Fullback CJ Ham performs training exercises at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, August 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota.  Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Fullback CJ Ham performs training exercises at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, August 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

In March 2020, the Vikings awarded Mr. Versatility a four-year contract worth $ 12.25 million until 2023, when Ham turns 30. Ham, meanwhile, still acts like he’s making $ 12.25 an hour.

“I’m still here, I’m still very much in tune with the system,” Ham said. “There could be a game where I play 50 snaps, there could be a game where I play 10. It all depends on the game and how successful we are. But my job (# 1) is to block, and I’m proud of it.

Ham had a nice run down the left side at training camp on Tuesday, with the 5-foot-11, 235-pound rumble in the open field and looking to hit someone. He laughed when asked if we’d see him more running with football this fall, saying “I don’t know about that.”

Klint Kubiak is the Vikings’ fifth offensive coordinator in the past five seasons, but this transition could be the smoothest yet as Kubiak, only 34, replaces his father, Gary Kubiak. The Kubiaks are considered very similar in style and the focus should be on the running game, where star Dalvin Cook rushed for 1,557 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, second in the league behind the Derrick Henry of the Titans in both categories.

“There have been a lot of changes throughout my career,” Ham admitted. “What’s good about these last couples (coordinators) is the same type of systems, the same type of verbiage. It was nice to come in and have that familiarity. Just choose a game and launch it. There’s not a lot of learning going on, just repetition, repetition, making things second nature.

Kubiak spoke to the media ahead of Tuesday’s practice and was clear about Ham’s importance to the Vikings’ dinner table.

“The full back is an extension of the offensive line,” Kubiak said. “Position is very important in our attack, and CJ Ham has been the standard for any full-back I’ve been around. You can’t say enough good things about it.

Fullback CJ Ham performs training exercises at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, August 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota.  Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Fullback CJ Ham performs training exercises at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, August 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“Leader” would certainly be another word that comes to mind when talking about Ham. In a league too often littered with negative headlines, including the Vikings releasing first-round cornerback Jeff Gladney on Tuesday after being charged with a criminal assault charge, the league, the world, really needs more good guys.

Ham and his wife Stephanie welcomed their third child, Cortez Ham III, about six months ago and recently purchased a home in Lakeville, about 20 minutes from the TCO Performance Center.

“Not bad at all,” Ham said of the ride.

CJ’s father, Cortez Sr., himself a workaholic who at 60 deserves a few days off, has been a frequent visitor to the Twin Cities and has become very fond of the last Ham.

“I’ve never seen him interact with a baby as much as he does with him,” CJ Ham said.

While the Thielen and Cook jerseys were popular with fans on Tuesday, Ham said he’s starting to see a handful of Ham jerseys, although the back is about as stylish as the black socks in gym class. It’s a little-known work, but seeing fans recognize it, even admire it, makes it feel good. People who understand football, know football, who realize it takes blocks to make a guy jump for a touchdown, appreciate a good fullback.

One who wears a CJ Ham jersey on Tuesday may not be the one you’d expect. It belonged to Nick Zander, a 17-year-old from Hudson, Wisconsin. Zander is a Green Bay Packers fan at heart, but respects some players for the way they play and behave as a person.

“We play Madden a lot and always joke about CJ, just for fun because full-backs aren’t usually that popular,” Zander said. “He’s the one player I really like to follow more than the rest just because he’s a good all-around guy. He’s fun to watch, and he’s a Christian, and that really marked me.

Fullback CJ Ham performs training exercises at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, August 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota.  Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Fullback CJ Ham performs training exercises at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, August 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Ham was flattered by the platitudes.

“It’s awesome,” Ham said. “Him being a Packers fan and always supporting me, that means a lot. It means even more to me that he recognizes me as a man and my faith and more than football. This is something I would like to be known for more than anything. I am not a footballer. I am above all a man of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Ham said it was his Christian faith and his family that had helped him through difficult times in recent years. Her mother, Tina Ham, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2019 and passed away in May 2020. She was 57 years old.

Shortly after his mother died, Ham posted a background photo on his Twitter page of him and his siblings wading through the water in Panama City Beach, holding their mother’s hand. It was the first time they had been to the ocean, and a ray of sunlight was shining on them, a kind of metaphor for how Ham approaches life.

“My faith helps me every day,” Ham said. “I can’t do it without God’s help. He drives me every day. I’m trying to let Him rule my life. The last few years have been a roller coaster ride for me. Even now, always, every day is a battle, but I know that because of my faith, because of who I let my life lead, I’m going to get through this.

Jon nowacki covers sport for the News Tribune. He can be contacted at [email protected] or (218) 380-7027.


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