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 MANKATO, Minn. (AP) -Every summer since Thomas Tapeh left the University of Minnesota for the NFL, he would return home to St. Paul to throw a Fourth of July barbecue for his family and friends.
It was a way for the deeply religious fullback to thank God for his good fortune, and to say goodbye to those he grew up around before he left for training camp and another long season with the Philadelphia Eagles.
``We have a big gala,'' the new Vikings fullback said. ``Everybody comes. We eat, we dance, let some fireworks off, and then I go back and train.''
There was no Independence Day gathering this year, partly because there were no goodbyes to be said.
``I say, 'Hello,''' Tapeh said with a wide smile.
Minnesota signed Tapeh to a five-year, $6 million contract in the offseason to replace trusted veteran Tony Richardson, bringing him home to the state where he was a high school sensation and fulfilling his dream of playing for the Vikings.
``Every kid has a favorite team. Not every kid actually is able to play for their favorite team,'' Tapeh said. ``And though you might like another team because they won a lot, wherever home is, that's where the heart is.''
Tapeh emigrated from Liberia to the United States with his mother and two sisters when he was 9 years old and they settled on the hard-scrabble east side of St. Paul.
He didn't play football until his sophomore year at Johnson High School. But he hit the field running and never slowed down. With high-end speed and a powerful physique, Tapeh became a legend in the St. Paul City Conference.
He rushed for more than 3,600 yards and 51 touchdowns in two seasons for the Governors and scored a conference record 158 points during his senior year.
An easy choice as the state's player of the year, Tapeh was one of the most hotly recruited football players to come out of Minnesota in years. He chose the Golden Gophers over powerhouse Michigan and several other suitors mainly because he wanted to stay close to home.
Foot problems in college forced him to switch from tailback to fullback, where he helped pave the way for Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney to rush for 1,000 yards each in 2003.
The Eagles drafted him in the fifth round in 2004, pulling Tapeh away from his close-knit family for the first time.
He dislocated his hip late in his rookie season and missed all of 2005 recovering, but when he was on the field, he made life easier for Pro Bowl running back Brian Westbrook.
With a healthy Tapeh leading the way, Westbrook rushed for a career-high 1,333 yards last season. And now the fullback has another dynamic runner behind him in the backfield in Adrian Peterson.
``A guy like that behind me, he's going to make me look good,'' Tapeh said. ``I'm not going to make him look good. All I've got to do is get in the way and he'll do the rest.''
Vikings coach Brad Childress was the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia during Tapeh's first two years in the league, so he's familiar with more than just the geography in Minnesota.
``He's a details (coach) and he's very particular about what he wants and I like that,'' Tapeh said. ``Me knowing exactly what he wants, I can go out there and give it my all and if he doesn't like it, we can work together. That's what I like about him.''
It's taking a little time for the fact that he's now wearing purple to sink in.
``I'm loving it,'' Tapeh said. ``They're taking their time. They know that I'm new coming in. They know I understand it. You just have got to tweak a few things.''
The team has already warmed to the affable Tapeh, who is replacing one of the pillars in the locker room in Richardson, a Pro Bowler last season.
``Another leader in our backfield for Adrian, who is still young,'' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson said. ``He's been in the offense before. He's played for coach Childress before so he knows what to expect from coach and from the offense.''
And instead of waiting for the bye week to see his friends and family in St. Paul or having to speak to them by phone, Tapeh is back in the neighborhood for good.
``If they need me, I'm right down the street,'' he said. ``But I'm here to work. We've got something going on here. I'm back home for a reason. I have to be a professional. I'm here to work.''

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