Visanthe Shiancoe up close and personal

Vikings tight end is ready for the Saints

WHEN VISANTHE SHIANCOE STRIDES into Wildfire in Eden Prairie one early May afternoon in warm-up pants and a black hoodie, he knows exactly what he wants. He heads straight to his favorite booth, slides 6-feet-5-inches of muscle and sinew into the dark wraparound banquette, shoves the heavy table back, and stretches out his legs.

The starting tight end for the Minnesota Vikings is intensely focused on telling his family's history: His father was from Ghana and his mother came from Liberia, where his uncles fought in the country's bloody civil wars.

"We're talking about limbs blowing off," Shiancoe says, his face grave, his voice graver still.

When the waiter arrives, Shiancoe drops the serious story and listens to the day's specials. His face lights up when the server says "popcorn beer cheese soup."

"Can I have, you know, a, uh, uh—"

"Cup?" the waiter asks.

"No, just a few spoonfuls," Shiancoe says.

"Like a sample size?"

"Yeah, a sample size."

The waiter brings a tiny white ramekin filled with pale orange creaminess. A lone fluffy piece of popcorn sits atop the soup.

Shiancoe pulls the sample toward his face and inhales deeply. Without tasting it, he sets the soup back down. Then he orders a meal that even Jillian Michaels would approve: grilled chicken breast, arugula salad with no dressing, and a side of asparagus.

When the food arrives, Shiancoe removes his cap, bows his head, and prays. He extracts several thick slices of parmesan from the salad. Then he quickly shovels it in, talking while he eats.

"I'm trying to eat every two hours so I can bulk up," he says.

Shiancoe eats the chicken and salad first, then digs into the asparagus. He swiftly slices off the tops, leaving nearly half the bottom of each green spear on the plate.

"I knew someone who thought you weren't supposed to eat the tops of the asparagus," he explains, laughing.

When the waiter brings the bill, Shiancoe studies it.

"We got a 20 percent discount," he announces, clearly pleased.

The popped kernel of corn has sunk into the beer cheese soup, leaving an oily trail behind. Shiancoe pays the bill. He leaves the soup untouched.

IN MATTERS OF FOOTBALL, Shiancoe is famous for his discipline. His diet is Spartan: egg whites, oatmeal with nothing on it, steamed vegetables, plain baked potatoes. Every day he wakes up at 6:45 a.m., brushes his teeth and takes his vitamins, then follows a strict regimen at Winter Park: food, film, walk-through, practice, lifting. He's the first Viking to hit the weights and the last to leave. Every day when practice ends, Shiancoe stays and throws more footballs to his coach.

"I don't know if there's anybody at his position that works harder," says tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson. "You'd love to have a team full of Shanks."

When he signed with the Vikings in 2007, Shiancoe wasn't viewed as a top prospect. But each year, he's been getting better. Last season was his breakout performance—he tied for fourth in the NFL with 11 touchdown receptions and ranked second in touchdowns among all NFL tight ends.

Now, with the Vikings' offense shuffling as wide receivers are sidelined by health problems—Sidney Rice required hip surgery, Percy Harvin suffers from migraines—Shiancoe is likely to play an even bigger role.

"I'd like to see him build on what he did last year," says Brad Childress, head coach for the Vikings. "He had a good year last year. I think he had a good relationship with the quarterback. I think the quarterback understands what his skills and abilities are."

But football may be the only place in life where Shiancoe exerts that kind of intense focus. Most of the time, Shank plays at life. He does what he wants, when he feels like it, driven by an internal clock his family and friends call "Shiancoe time." He's full of restless energy, easily distracted. "I used to think I had ADD," he admits. "I get bored really, really quick."

Shank has sailed through his entire life with the impulsiveness and whimsy of a child. He lives by a totally different set of rules than most people in this world.

"He's like a Martian," says Ian Hale, Shank's college teammate and best friend. "He's not from this planet. He doesn't live by the normal parameters of life. He does his own thing. He thinks his own way."

Those who know him best say Shiancoe was special from the start. "I tell him, 'From the first kick you give me in my stomach, you never stopped moving till you came out,'" says his mother, Ethel. "Sometimes I tell him, 'Life is serious, so have fun. Sometimes the little child has to come out in you so you can appreciate the grown man.'"

And that, according to the Vikings' biggest star, may just be the secret of Shiancoe's success.

"Shank is one of those guys, he's really not got a care in the world," says Brett Favre, the soon-to-be-41-year-old Vikings quarterback. "That's really a good approach. And you know he's a good player. I think sky's the limit for a guy like Shank."

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