Just four years ago, Duluth native C.J. Ham was fighting to make the Minnesota Vikings roster as an undrafted free agent out of Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The Vikings already had a pretty good fullback in Zach Line, and some teams don’t keep one fullback, much less two. But Ham impressed in the preseason, leading the Vikings in rushing yards with 140 yards on 44 carries and two touchdowns, and hung around via the practice squad.
The next year, Ham transitioned to fullback full-time and made the 53-man active roster, where he has since blossomed into one of the best fullbacks in the league, making the Pro Bowl last season.
Through it all, Ham’s attitude has never changed, and perhaps that’s why he keeps getting better.
“It’s the same,” Ham said, comparing his first training camp to this one. “I go out there and put my best foot forward. I have the same attitude, no matter what, because the second that I let up on my work ethic, or I let up on my approach is when something bad can happen, so I’m always going to keep the same mindset. This whole offense, this whole team, is all about going out there and working hard.”
The Vikings had their first full practice on Friday, and Ham addressed members of the media on Sunday.
At training camps across the country, this is the time of year where fans can get a little more up close and personal with their favorite team, at relatively little cost, but that’s not happening this year in the COVID-19 era.
Ham, 27, said camp has been going great but admitted it feels a little different with no fans in attendance.
“But at the end of the day, it’s football,” he said.
The Vikings are on their fifth offensive coordinator in five seasons. That’s a lot of turnover, but there is plenty of familiarity this time around as new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak had a large imprint on the offense last year as offensive adviser.
“It’s super nice to have that familiarity from last year, so that everybody can come in and play fast and really get back rolling, especially with how everything has shaken out,” Ham said. “It’s nice to be able to come back and get on the field and just start running around and playing right away.”
Every time the Vikings changed offensive coordinators, there were questions about Ham’s job security, or at the very least, how much emphasis the Vikings would place on fullbacks. The Vikings came out pass-happy in 2018, with another Minnesota native, receiver Adam Thielen, putting up video game-like numbers. However, the lack of balance apparently wasn’t to head coach Mike Zimmer’s liking and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was fired midseason and replaced by Kevin Stefanski, who received tutelage last season from the veteran Kubiak.
With Kubiak, there’s no doubt where he stands when it comes to a fullback like Ham. He loves his versatility. When Kubiak has a fullback of that caliber, a complete player who doesn’t just block, but can catch it and run with it, he’s going to utilize him.
Kubiak also addressed the media Sunday and was asked how important it was having a guy like that in his offense.
“It’s extremely important,” Kubiak said. “You guys know, I love my fullbacks. I like guys who can play in a one-back and a two-back scheme. I like guys who are athletic like C.J. ... C.J. also goes back there and works as a tailback for us. He practiced some at tailback on Friday. Very versatile player, a leader on the team, great kid, loves to play, you can’t have enough of those guys.”
Zimmer called the running back group one of the deepest units on the team.
Minnesota’s renewed emphasis on the ground game was quite apparent last season when running back Dalvin Cook rushed 250 times for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns in just 14 games.
Rookie Alexander Mattison added 100 carries for 462 yards as the Vikings ranked sixth in the 32-team NFL with 2,133 rushing yards, just one year after ranking 30th with 1,493 yards.
Cook, who also made the Pro Bowl and is in line to get a big contract, is quick to credit the 5-foot-11, 235-pound Ham for paving the way. Cook said their familiarity and bond with each other has only grown since Cook was drafted in the second round out of Florida State in 2017.
“Me and him are at a point right now where we feel things on the field, and we don’t even have to talk about it,” Cook said. “We’re going into our fourth year being around each other, and our relationship is like that of one of your best friends. I lean on him. I can call him any time and he’s going to pick up. He’s like a brother, and that just carries over to the on-the-field play. The fullback and running back relationship should be the best on the field, and our relationship is definitely up there.”
Ham, meanwhile, has proven to be Mr. Dependability. While he only rushed seven times for 17 yards, many of those were for key first downs. He also caught 17 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown and was a standout on special teams, where he previously has been named the Vikings’ special teams player of the year.
C.J. laughed when asked if people now recognize him since he’s a Pro Bowler. He said, “I don’t think so.” Only the diehards. He is, after all, a lunch bucket fullback, one of the less glamorous positions in a league where quarterbacks, receivers and halfbacks get the bulk of the limelight.
“I’m 5-11. I’m a big guy, but when I’m walking around, it’s not like they see an NFL player out there,” Ham said. “It’s nice to know we have some true fans out there who do recognize me, and I appreciate that.”
People certainly recognize Ham around Duluth.
In March, the Vikings rewarded the Duluth Denfeld graduate with a four-year, $12 million contract extension, but don’t expect money and success to change him. He said it actually helps drive him.
“It is definitely exciting,” Ham said. “Obviously it is a dream come true to play for the Vikings, and now to get a contract extension, it’s definitely a blessing. It means a lot to our family to be able to stay home, and we’re just looking forward to getting back to work.
“I’m definitely comfortable in the sense that I’ve been in the league going on five years now, but I still have the same attitude. You go out there and work hard. Now that I have that contract, it’s about going out and proving that I was worth it, so it’s all about work.”