|By JON KRAWCZYNSKI|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 21 December 2007 19:05|
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) -In a far corner of the Minnesota Vikings locker room, an open stall sits sealed off. The black name plate simply reads: 77.
The locker is situated between veterans Matt Birk and Jim Kleinsasser, the last two Vikings left from that horrific training camp day in 2001 when right tackle Korey Stringer collapsed and died of heat stroke.
If anyone knows what the Washington Redskins are going through these days, it's Kleinsasser and Birk.
``It's rough, especially when you've got a guy that the whole team kind of comes around,'' Kleinsasser said. ``That's the way it was with Big K. Everybody loved him. It's tough to lose a leader like that.''
That's also the way it was with Redskins safety Sean Taylor, who was shot by burglars in his Florida home and died on Nov. 27.
Watching the Redskins grieve, and play, on national television brought back some painful memories for Birk.
``I've been through it. It's so hard. I know it's just harder than hell,'' Birk said. ``But I've been impressed with how they've kind of pulled it together and won the last two games. It's a credit to their character and their leadership on their team.''
Amazingly, with No. 21 on their helmets and in their hearts, the Redskins (7-7) have won two of three since Taylor's death. They trail the Vikings (8-6) by one game in the race for the final wild-card spot in the NFC.
``Yeah, it was a pretty traumatic time for us a couple of weeks ago,'' said Washington quarterback Todd Collins, who will make his second straight start after spending the previous 10 years on the bench. ``I think we're a little bit more removed from that now.
``I know right after we had played Buffalo, I think there were some guys having a hard time suiting up for Sunday because it was so emotional. But I think we've kind of taken it as trying to make what we can of it and trying to play with the type of passion that he played with on the field every Sunday.''
After a last-second loss to the Bills just days after Taylor's death, the Redskins bounced back to beat Chicago and the New York Giants.
They have also had to overcome injuries to key players Jason Campbell, Jon Jansen, Carlos Rogers, Randy Thomas and Rocky McIntosh, showing a perseverance that has certainly earned them the respect of their next opponent.
``That is a team that has fought through more than their share of adversity off the field as well as on the field,'' Vikings coach Brad Childress said. ``I just see a very resilient bunch. I don't know how any of us, or our teams, would deal with what they have dealt with.''
Kleinsasser does. Stringer's death in 2001 sent a team that had reached the NFC championship game a year earlier into a tailspin. They finished 5-11 and coach Dennis Green was fired before the season finale at Baltimore.
``You just go out there and you have to do your job, never forgetting about him,'' Kleinsasser said. ``It's tough and it's a struggle. Coming out of training camp the way we did with that, it looms with you the whole season.
``I'm sure they've still got some heavy hearts over there. But they're playing hard, they're playing tough and they're a great team.''
While nowhere near as tragic, the Vikings have had to deal with their fair share of adversity this season as well, making Sunday night a matchup of two unlikely playoff contenders.
Minnesota started the season 2-5 and fell to 3-6 following an embarrassing 34-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
They lost star running back Adrian Peterson for two games to a knee injury; defensive end Erasmus James for the season to a knee injury; defensive end Ray Edwards for four games for violating the league's steroid policy; and most recently had to deal with the distraction of safety Dwight Smith's citation for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
Yet somehow, some way, the Vikings have stayed together. They enter the game as the hottest team in the NFC, having won five straight to put them in position to earn their first postseason berth in three seasons.
``The tough teams in this league can get through some tough times and make that push in the second half of the season to get to the playoffs,'' Kleinsasser said. ``We haven't had much playoff stuff going on around here as of late, so anything to spark you and get you going, knowing that you have a shot at it, kind of puts an extra plug in you.''
A Vikings win on Sunday night would eliminate Washington from postseason contention.
Playoffs or no playoffs, 2007 will end in sorrow for the Redskins. And Birk knows the pain won't be going away anytime soon.
``Six years later, I still think about it,'' Birk said. ``Often, there's little things that trigger it. Or sometimes you think about, not even the incident, but something else happened and he was there. Or he said this.
``I just think about it a lot.''