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Football: Faith and family come first for Duluth native C.J. Ham

Now going into his sixth NFL season, Vikings fullback stays grounded knowing what got him here.

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Fullback C.J. Ham runs with the ball during practice at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

EAGAN, Minn. — Tuesday afternoon was a warm one in the Twin Cities, with the temperature in the mid-80s and the sun beating down through the Canadian-born haze.

The Minnesota Vikings had just completed their first day of practice in full pads and the players were tired as they trudged off the field at TCO Performance Center, but happy it was over.

A few select players did interviews while others stuck around to work on things or head back to the locker room.

When everybody had finally cleared out, two players remained — two — and both happened to be from Minnesota, fullback C.J. Ham of Duluth and wide receiver Adam Thielen of Detroit Lakes.

As the last of the media left, they passed by Thielen, who politely said, “Thanks for coming.”

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No, thanks for having us.

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Fullback C.J. Ham at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Now going into his sixth season in the NFL, you don’t have to remind Ham about how lucky he is. He does that himself, well grounded in his family and faith in God.

Ham, 28, has vowed that he is not going to quit doing the things that have got him here, and hopefully, help him stay around for a while longer.

“I’m always fighting, always fighting to earn a spot, because nothing is ever given to you in this league,” Ham said. “I don’t think I’d still be here if I was just going out and saying, ‘This is my spot.’ I’m going out here and working every year trying to get better at something. I’m just blessed to be out here.”

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NFL stands for Not For Long

Players like Ham, like Thielen — both of whom went from undrafted NCAA Division II prospects to the Pro Bowl, while playing in their home state — are not going to be around forever. These guys are certainly the exceptions, not the rule.

Former NFL coach Jerry Glanville famously said NFL stands for “Not For Long,” after all, so fans of the purple and gold should appreciate players like Ham now.

Ham said he was talking at lunch Tuesday with some of the Vikings’ new players and they asked where he was from. He told them Duluth, Minnesota, just two hours away. They couldn’t believe it.

“They said, ‘That’s fantastic, you get to play in your home state,’” Ham said. “We’ve got a locker room with guys from all over the country (and predominantly, D-I products). It’s awesome, humbling and surreal to be where I’m at today.”

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Fullback C.J. Ham (left) talks with teammate Jake Bargas at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Ham, a 2011 Duluth Denfeld graduate, followed an unlikely journey to the NFL that saw him star at Augustana University, a D-II program in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that is part of the same league that includes Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State-Mankato, where Thielen played.

In 2016 Ham got a rookie tryout with the Vikings and hung around and hung around and hung around, going from training camp that year to the practice squad and then finally, the active roster that December. From there, he continued to solidify his place on the roster and in the lineup, making the Pro Bowl in 2019.

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Ham said he still pauses sometimes, thinking about how far he’s come, how crazy that is.

“You have to,” he said. “Yes, this is my job, and it’s something I take seriously, but it’s also my dream. This was my dream, and to be going into year six, I still have to pinch myself and remind myself that, ‘Hey man, I’m still living out my childhood dream playing in the NFL.’ You can’t take that for granted.”

During his time with the Vikings, Ham has dealt with endless turnover at offensive coordinator. Not every team in the league even uses a fullback — five years ago there were only 17 full-time fullbacks in the league — and the trend wasn’t looking good. But every year, the Vikings have found a place for Ham, whether on special teams or in the backfield as a blocker, occasional pass catcher and runner.

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Fullback C.J. Ham runs through drills during practice at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

In March 2020 the Vikings awarded Mr. Versatility with a four-year contract worth a reported $12.25 million that goes through 2023, when Ham will be 30. Ham, meanwhile, still acts like he’s making $12.25 an hour.

“I’m still out here, I’m still very much in tune with the system,” Ham said. “There could be a game where I play 50 snaps, there could be a game where I play 10. It all depends on the game and the success we’re having. But my (No. 1) job is to block, and I take pride in that.”

Ham had a nice run over the left side in training camp Tuesday, with the 5-foot-11, 235-pounder rumbling into the open field and looking to hit somebody. He laughed when being asked if we’ll see more of that, him running with the football this fall, saying “I don’t know about that.”

Klint Kubiak is the Vikings’ fifth offensive coordinator in the past five seasons but this transition could be the smoothest one yet as Kubiak, just 34, replaces his father, Gary Kubiak. The Kubiaks are considered very similar in style and there should be plenty of emphasis on the running game, where star Dalvin Cook rushed for 1,557 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, second-best in the league to the Titans’ Derrick Henry in both categories.

“There’s been a lot of shifting around throughout my career,” Ham admitted. “The great thing about these last couple (coordinators), it’s been the same type of systems, the same type of verbiage. It’s been nice to come in and have that familiarity. Just pick a play and run it. There’s not a whole lot of learning going on, just repetition, repetition, making things become second nature.”

Kubiak addressed the media before Tuesday’s practice and was clear about the importance of Ham on the Vikings’ dinner table.

“The fullback is an extension of the offensive line,” Kubiak said. “The position is very important in our offense, and C.J. Ham has been the standard of any fullback I’ve been around. You can’t say enough good things about him.”

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Fullback C.J. Ham runs through drills during practice at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Unsung hero

“Leader” would certainly be another word that comes to mind when discussing Ham. In a league too often littered with negative headlines, including the Vikings releasing first-round cornerback Jeff Gladney Tuesday after he was indicted on a felony assault charge, the league, the world, really, needs more good guys.

Ham and his wife Stephanie, welcomed their third child, Cortez Ham III, about six months ago and recently purchased a home in Lakeville, about 20 minutes from TCO Performance Center.

“Not bad at all,” Ham said of the drive.

C.J.’s dad, Cortez Sr., himself a workaholic who at age 60 deserves to take some days off, has been a frequent visitor to the Twin Cities and has formed quite an attachment to the latest Ham.

“I’ve never seen him interact with a baby as much as he does with him,” C.J. Ham said.

While Thielen and Cook jerseys were popular with fans Tuesday, Ham said he’s starting to see a handful of Ham jerseys, even though fullback is about as stylish as black socks in gym class. It’s an unsung job, but to see fans recognizing him, even admiring him, makes him feel good. People who understand football, know football, who realize it takes blocks to spring a guy for a touchdown, appreciate a good fullback.

One of those wearing a C.J. Ham jersey Tuesday might not be one whom you would expect. It belonged to Nick Zander, a 17-year-old from Hudson, Wisconsin. Zander is a Green Bay Packers fan at heart but respects certain players for the way they play the game and carry themselves as a person.

“We play a lot of Madden and we always joke about C.J., just for fun because fullbacks usually aren’t as popular,” Zander said. “He’s the one player I really like to follow more than others just because he’s such a good all-around guy. He’s fun to watch, and he’s a Christian, and that really stood out to me.”

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Fullback C.J. Ham runs through drills during practice at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Keeping the faith through tough times

Ham was flattered by the platitudes.

“That’s awesome,” Ham said. “Him being a Packers fan and still supporting me, that means a lot. It means even more to me that he acknowledges me as a man and my faith and more than just football. That’s something I’d like to be known for more than anything. I’m not a football player. I’m a man of God, first, and a follower of Jesus Christ.”

Ham said it was his Christian faith and family that helped him get through some tough times in recent years. His mother, Tina Ham, was diagnosed in March 2019 with pancreatic cancer and passed away in May 2020. She was 57.

Shortly after his mother passed, Ham put a background photo up on his Twitter page of him and siblings wading into the water at Panama City Beach, holding hands with their mother. It was the first time they had ever been to the ocean, and a beam of sunlight shines down on them, a kind of metaphor for the way Ham approaches life.

“My faith helps me every single day,” Ham said. “I can’t do it without God’s help. He leads me every day. I try to let Him lead my life. These last couple years have been a roller coaster for me. Even now, still, every single day is a battle, but I know because of my faith, because of who I let lead my life, I’m going to make it through it.”

Jon Nowacki covers sports for the News Tribune. He can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027.

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Fullback C.J. Ham at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 during the Minnesota Vikings training camp in Eagan, Minnesota. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Related Topics: FOOTBALLMINNESOTA VIKINGS
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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