Vikings try to build on making playoffs

Published 11:16 am Thursday, August 8, 2013

MANKATO — George Stewart’s deep baritone voice and rat-a-tat delivery serve as the soundtrack for Minnesota Vikings training camp, rising above click-clack of cleats on the pavement and popping of pads during the endless drills under the August sun.

It’s the kind of voice that would seem more at home introducing Motown records on the FM dial rather than barking at a rookie receiver for cutting a route short. The combination of veteran ball coach attention to detail and night-time DJ charisma over more than two decades as a coach in the NFL has helped Stewart to earn a reputation as a receiver whisperer of sorts with an uncanny knack for connecting with even the most challenging personalities at a position that traditionally has been a haven for divas and glory hounds.

“What has happened, I started off as a peer to most of the guys,” said Stewart, who was hired by famed Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll in 1989 at the age of 29. “But as I continue to get older, those ages stay the same. So I’ve gone from a peer to a big brother to a father-type figure.”

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As the Vikings try to build on a surprising push to the playoffs last season, Stewart’s job and his ability to reach a variety of personalities may be more important than ever. The team has a completely revamped receiver corps this year, with only three players in the unproven group returning from a passing offense that ranked 31st in the league last year.

The Vikings brought over veteran Greg Jennings from rival Green Bay, but he is the only player in the group who has a proven track record of producing at this level. Jerome Simpson is coming off an injury plagued season last year. Jarius Wright is in his second season and played in only seven games last year. Cordarrelle Patterson is a raw first-round draft pick with one year of major college experience and the rest of the group is a hodgepodge of rookie free agents, projects and players hungry for a chance.

With dynamic, do-it-all threat Percy Harvin gone to Seattle, it’s up to Stewart to mold this crew into a group capable of making plays for quarterback Christian Ponder and lightening the load on Adrian Peterson’s shoulders.

“First-round pick, free agent, you treat them both the same, you work them both the same,” Stewart said. “There’s no favorites. They see that and they feel that they have a chance. As long as they feel like they have an equal chance on equal footing, we have a chance to be successful.”

Stewart has also worked with the Steelers, 49ers, Falcons and Buccaneers along the way, and he learned early from Noll and others that the key to connecting with players was to shoot them straight. Whether it was Terrell Owens, Randy Moss or Adam Thielen — an undrafted rookie from Minnesota State, Mankato, trying to win a roster spot this year — Stewart has never had any trouble finding some common ground.

“He knows how to relate to us guys and just talk to us like grown men,” Simpson said.

He also knows when to have some fun. Stewart is known for orchestrating elaborately choreographed group handshakes to mark the beginning of practice, sometimes highlighted by his booming voice shouting “Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!” to mark the beginning of the work period.

Stewart prefers to listen to jazz and classics like Smokey Robinson these days, but he’ll still throw on some new hip-hop and R&B to find some common ground with the youngsters of today.

“I know exactly what they’re talking about and I can feel them,” Stewart said. “They’ve kept me young. It’s a great relationship because it is a relationship based on trust. As long as we have that type of relationship we have a chance to be successful.”

If knowing a few lyrics to the latest Jay Z hit helps him catch a player’s attention, it’s worth it for the guy they call “Coach Stew.”

“That’s the cool thing about him,” Thielen said. “He’s not only a great coach on the field but just a tremendous guy off the field. He’s almost like a father figure for us. He would do anything for us. That makes it a lot easier on our part to play.”