RICHFIELD, Minn. -- The snow fell quietly outside, covering the cars scattered through the parking lot in a soft, white blanket.
Inside, the festivities were just getting underway shortly after 5 p.m. at the Dick’s Sporting Goods store located seven miles from the Minnesota Vikings' practice facility. Two Fridays before Christmas, a group of 26 children and their families from Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota gathered in the back corner of the store and were treated to dinner, a $200 shopping spree and a chance to meet some of their favorite Vikings players.
Blank wish lists were laid out on rectangular tables covered in purple tablecloths, with miniature Vikings helmets placed in front of each seat. A young girl named Ashley meticulously pored over her list, making sure to put the gift she wanted most at the top.
For the Vikings to win the Super Bowl
The Mike Zimmer Foundation hosted the night of fun and surprises and provided transportation to and from the event. Many of those in attendance already were Vikings fans and gushed at the opportunity to shop the store with the likes of Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman and Brian Robison.
Those who weren’t fans before almost certainly will be now after the memories they created.
For some of these children, this was the closest thing they’d have to a merry Christmas. All 26 are battling some form of pediatric cancer. This night might be one of a very few they’ll get to spend outside of a hospital.
Maddy Barkow could hardly contain her excitement, giving friends an inside look at her special night via a quick FaceTime call, before she teamed up with linebackers Eric Wilson and Ben Gedeon to scour the store and score some new stuff.
When asked what grade she was in, it took the 15-year-old a second to come up with an answer.
“Sophomore,” Barkow said. “But I haven’t been to school for 10 months.”
Barkow was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) earlier this year. She has been in and out of the hospital frequently as her chemotherapy treatments have become more aggressive.
“When you start treatment, you don’t really hang out with your friends anymore, you don’t go to school," she said. "Your life is about chemo and that’s it.”
But on this night, Barkow wasn’t worried about her white blood cell counts or whether she would spend hours hooked up to machines in the hospital. She was on a mission to find the best, most unique thing she could buy with her $200 Dick’s gift card.
Barkow decided on a giant purple paddleboard roughly twice her height. It was for an activity she wanted to try before she was diagnosed with ALL. Once the summer rolls around, there’s no doubt in her mind she’ll spend hours on one of the area’s many lakes learning how to master a new hobby.
Zimmer’s foundation provided these children and their families with a brief oasis amid the harsh realities they face every day. Corri Zimmer White, the executive director of her father’s foundation, organized every last detail of the event to make the night one that the children and their families wouldn’t soon forget.
“A lot of the moms said tonight thank you so much for doing this, because they’re hoping for anything that will put a smile on their [child’s] face,” White said. “One kid just got diagnosed with cancer, and his mom said he just hates everything right now. She said he smiled all night tonight, so that was really cool to hear.”
Seeing the children react to the players was one of the things that struck Mike Zimmer hardest.
“It was amazing how they flocked to them,” Zimmer said. “And these guys, they take such good care of these kids. They walked them all over this store looking for things to buy. A lot of these kids, they say, ‘Well, I want to get something for my dad,' or, 'I want to get something for my mom’; they don’t think about their own selves.”
The Mike Zimmer Foundation -- established in May 2016 in memory of Zimmer’s late wife, Vikki --
provides educational opportunities through its "MVP Scholarship," along with a handful of youth programs. Giving children an opportunity to get out and be active isn’t limited to the football camp Zimmer puts on in the offseason.
The coach saw up close how much it meant for one child to be able to do the things so many take for granted.
“One of the kids that was here hadn’t been outside since November,” Zimmer said. “This was the first night he’s been able to get out. Just having the kids be able to come out and enjoy themselves and hopefully have a merry Christmas and a nice evening when they come out here, I think that’s pretty cool.”
At the tail end of a season that stretches through the holidays, Zimmer noted how important it is to step away from football at this time of year, even if just for a few hours, to gain a different perspective from these children and their families.
For Barkow, the night was more than just walking away with an item she'd had her eye on for a while.
“It’s really fun to come to something and feel normal again,” she said.
That was the greatest gift of all.