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Gridiron memories still strong for several Wild players

Hendricks, Stalock among handful who had successful careers on the football field before focusing on hockey

by Dan Myers @MNWildScribe / Wild.com

When Matt Hendricks loads up his 6-year-old twins and heads back to Blaine to visit Grandma and Grandpa, it's not uncommon for the Wild's 37-year-old forward to bring his kids by the Blaine High School football stadium.

The Hendricks name still echoes loudly in this part of the metro, especially in hockey circles. He helped lead the Bengals to a 2000 state championship on the ice.

But Hendricks was also a star quarterback on the football field, where he helped Blaine to the state championship game as a senior, losing to Cretin-Derham Hall -- and some kid named Joe Mauer -- at the Metrodome. 

"I loved it," Hendricks said. "I was fortunate to play for a very good school, and we had very good teams, led by a very good coach in Dave Nelson. I loved practices, but there was nothing better than Friday nights under the lights."

While hockey was the sport Hendricks craved to play at the next level, he not only chose to stay at Blaine; he decided to play football all the way through his senior year.

While playing a position like quarterback might have put his immediate future at risk, Hendricks loved the sport so much -- and felt so indebted to his teammates -- that the temptation to become a one-sport athlete never got to him.

Video: Throwback: Hendricks high school football highlights

In fact, Hendricks was a three-sport athlete to the very end; he also was a catcher on the school's baseball team. 

"What I loved about playing at Blaine was that I was playing with my best friends that I grew up with," Hendricks said. "Those memories ... they are ones you can't take away."

But Hendricks is far from the only player in the Wild dressing room with ties to the football field.

Marcus Foligno was a tight end growing up. Even coach Bruce Boudreau played halfback until he hurt his knee on a kickoff return. At that point, his dad made him give up the game and focus on hockey.

Goaltender Alex Stalock played cornerback at South St. Paul High School in the early 2000s, being named Honorable Mention All-Conference as a junior. During the Packers' homecoming game against Simley in 2003, Stalock returned an interception for a touchdown, a sporting memory that Stalock ranks among his favorites to this day.

"Took it 82 [yards] to the house," Stalock said. "They were supposed to have a pretty good quarterback that year, but they came into our barn for homecoming and we took it to them pretty good."

In addition to his time in the secondary, Stalock was also the team's long snapper, a skill he picked up by horsing around with his buddies. 

"I think we were just screwing around and the coach said, 'Wow, you're pretty decent at it, you can be our long snapper,'" Stalock said. "I was probably 155 pounds soaking wet, long snapping. I had fun with it though. My sophomore year, my buddy's older brother was our punter. Oh man, we had some good times. I gave him some bad snaps and it made for a circus some nights, but it was fun."

While the pressures of backstopping an NHL team provides plenty of nerves, Stalock said there were more than a few snaps on extra points and punts that made him think. 

"When we started winning ball games, and it was fun, you had to have a decent snap," Stalock said. 

Stalock and his teammates endured an 0-9 season when he was a sophomore. The rebuilding Packers were young, and Stalock was among a host of skill position players seeing regular time on the field that season. 

But that experience paid off.

By his junior season, the Packers were better, posting a 5-4 record and losing to St. Thomas Academy in the section playoffs. 

Stalock left South St. Paul before his senior season to play junior hockey in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but the guys he grew up playing football with went 9-2 and made it to the state tournament that fall.

"It paid off down the road, but that first year was pretty dang tough," Stalock said. 

As a goaltender, Stalock said the physicality of football translated well to the ice. Playing in the blue paint, he learned how to take a bump.

Video: Throwback: Stalock pick six

"Learning to hit, and learning how to get hit," Stalock said. "That gives kids confidence and the ability to learn and how to use their body."

Nate Prosser gave up football as a sophomore in high school, but grew up playing linebacker in the Elk River youth system.

He stopped playing football early in high school to focus on hockey, but skills he learned attacking running backs on the field have helped him immensely in his career with the Wild as a physical, grinding defensive-defenseman, he says.

"It raised my competitiveness, for sure," Prosser said. "Any time I stepped on a football field or a hockey rink, I wanted to win, I wanted to hit guys and I wanted to be physical. Football brought that out for me."

J.T. Brown quit playing football around the same time Prosser did, but came from a household in which football is in his blood. His dad, Ted, played eight seasons at running back for the Minnesota Vikings.

In his early days on the field, it was a position J.T. also played. When your dad is a former NFL running back, the coach almost leaves you no choice.

For Brown, it wasn't that he didn't like football, he just loved hockey more. Had the sport been played in the spring time instead of the fall, Brown said he probably would have continued his career on the gridiron. 

"But I wasn't planning on getting hurt [before hockey season]," Brown said. 

Brown says the connection he sees between the field and the ice actually comes away from the stadium and during the week when it comes to practice and preparation.

It was while playing football late in his career that Brown first began to see the benefits of putting in extra work during the week, doing things like watching film.

"A lot of it is just how you work and preparation and memorizing playbooks," Brown said, "and do everything you can beforehand to make sure that when you're in the game, you have the best chance for success."

In addition to preparation, Hendricks said playing high school football also helped him with the kinds of pressures he would later put on himself as he rose through the highest levels of the hockey world. 

Learning to deal with successes and failures on the gridiron made him a better player on the ice, he said.

"That's what it helped me most with," Hendricks said. "Through all those lessons, I learned a lot about myself, about who I was as a person."

Hendricks said his time as a multi-sport athlete was actually one of the reasons he was able to make a career of playing professional hockey.

"For sure, it did. You learn so much about yourself doing other things and doing other things that you might not be the best at," Hendricks said. "I look back at my experience, and it's the only one I can draw on, but I grew up playing in the youth programs in Blaine in all sports, I played with my best friends and I won with my best friends. For me, that was all I needed."


Wild.com's Brandon McCauley contributed to this story.


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