My new nickname, given to me yesterday by Anthony Herrera, the standout Vikings offensive lineman: Big Dog. As in, “I like you, big dog. You’re funny.” Technically, it’s probably Big Dawg.
I’d driven a little less than two hours each way from Minneapolis to Mankato to see Herrera make some easy Benjamins. Herrera had a free day before starting training camp—“Mentally, I’m checked out right now,” he told another reporter—so he agreed to get richer, being filmed promoting Prilosec OTC, a heartburn medication. I was asked if I wanted to observe; I could ask Herrera anything, said the public-relations man in New York—about Brett Favre, the upcoming season. “The only thing I would need,” he said, “is mention of his work with Prilosec OTC.”
Then I thought to ask how much time I would have with Herrera: “…10 minutes.”
In the commissary of the fieldhouse at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where the Vikings opened training camp today to prepare for their 50th season—with or without their star quarterback—there are printers and bins of file folders. They’re hovered over by young people with credentials amid the catered platters of turkey and potatoes and Fig Newtons (not all for Herrera, even if he eats, as he told me, six times a day), like the ad-hoc offices of an occupying power. Close—it’s NFL Films. In the alternate universe of professional sports, the unabashed embrace of endorsements can make the debate over product placements in movies seem downright quaint.
“Top Gun!” someone yells when I pass by, because the New York PR guy who has met me here, a sharp, pleasant fellow named Joe, looks uncannily like Tom Cruise, right down to the aviator shades. Herrera, who, at 315 pounds, can afford to be more direct, just calls him Tom.
Herrera loads up his plate. He has a diamond stud in his left ear and dark tattoos encircling his immense biceps: a panther, some tumbling dice, no barbed wire that I can see. “It’s a stereotype—the jewelry, the tattoos—that all NFL guys are money-hungry jerks,” he tells me amiably. “Dumb as rocks. Because of a few bad apples, everyone thinks we’re thugs.” He digs in. “I’m a family man.”
I ask him who’s the better actor, him or Brett Favre, famously wooden in There’s Something About Mary and the big story around here, given that, a few weeks before the first pre-season game, he still hasn’t indicated if he’s suiting up. “I’d say Brett,” he says. Smart man.
When I ask him about Favre again later, he says he won’t talk about him—today is about Prilosec, he says, with a knowing grin. And then I notice something: Because I’m not a sports reporter, because I don’t really care if he talks about Favre or not, he does talk. Even if it’s just the sports clichés: “He’s an All-Pro player, you know. You always want him on your team.”
I notice, too, that his eyes glaze over when he says these things, so I don’t ask him another sports question for a while.
Instead, we just talk. I ask about Trinidad and Tobago, where he’s from. He had nothing but sugar water for breakfast growing up, he says, and tells me to visit Port of Spain or Chaguanas and try the red fish (“Some people suck the eyes,” he says). He goes to Marla’s, the Caribbean restaurant in south Minneapolis, several times a month—the only time, he says with a smile, that he breaks his training regimen.
I ask him, of the following three products, which would he have to be paid the most to endorse: Old Country Buffet, Depends, or Viagra. “Depends? What’s that?” he asks. Adult diapers, someone says. His eyes widen. “Well, I don’t trip on Viagra,” he says. “It’s a part of life, it is what it is.” He thinks awhile. “I’ll have to say Depends.”
Suddenly Herrera is simply a 30-year-old guy with great taste in food and sensible tastes in endorsements. I say, “Do you feel reporters ask you the kinds of things you wish you got asked?” He smiles. “It is what it is,” he says, which is the same thing he said about erectile dysfunction. “I can’t say anything bad about the beat writers. I love them all.” But maybe no more than Viagra?
“No, man,” he says, “I’m the kind of person who, if I really said what’s on my mind, a lot of people wouldn’t like it.” He doesn’t elaborate. You mean the fans wouldn’t like it? I ask. “Yep, and people period. I wear my emotions on my sleeve—not everyone can handle that. You can never be someone else, if you’re someone else, you’re lost.”
I need to ask him one more sports question: When the Vikings open the season on September 9 against the New Orleans Saints, the team that won the Super Bowl after beating the Vikings for the conference championship, will he be seeking revenge? The question sounds lame even as I ask it, but it looked right on paper—and will probably look right again on the page.
The thousand-mile stare returns. “This isn’t about revenge for us,” he says between bites. “You can’t take revenge for something you did to yourself. Doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we just want to go out there and get a W. Everything will be settled between the white lines.”
We’re back in sports land now. I don’t have any follow-up questions. I like sports, I just don’t care about Sports—the industry of it. And neither, I suspect, does Herrera. It’s much more interesting between the white lines. He shakes my hand. “I like you,” he says, “you’re pretty cool, man.” Then he calls me Big Dawg even though I’m roughly half his weight; in Sports, because it’s the furthest thing from the truth, it’s exactly what seems real.