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.

Tony Nelson
Shiancoe runs a preseason route against the Seattle Seahawks
Tony Nelson
Shiancoe runs a preseason route against the Seattle Seahawks
Shiancoe hones his football reflexes playing video games
Tony Nelson
Shiancoe hones his football reflexes playing video games
Shiancoe in a bucolic setting behind his Eden Prairie home
Tony Nelson
Shiancoe in a bucolic setting behind his Eden Prairie home

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."

SHIANCOE LIES FLAT ON HIS BACK on a fold-out massage table in the tan-walled living room of his Eden Prairie home. His lower body is covered by a blue plaid blanket, as a woman in a green t-shirt and denim capris digs her fingers into the taut tissue of the back of his neck. Above the table, a wide HD television screen blares Family Feud.

"Name something that comes with the dry cleaner," the host says.

"Hanger!" Shiancoe yells out.

"Name something associated with cowboys."

"Rope!" Shiancoe says.

"Name a food you can spread."

"Butter!" he hollers, raising his arm in an over-the-head fist pump. "Peanut butter!"

The top answer is cheese.

"No," Shiancoe groans. "Not cheese."

The massage isn't much fun—it hurts like hell, actually—but Shiancoe does what he can to enjoy himself.

Outside of football, life is one big relaxation fest. He goes out to eat. He shops.

Most days after practice, Shiancoe feels like a nap. But he rarely takes one because he's got too much to do. Facebook. Tweeting photos of what he ate.

For instance, on May 10, Shiancoe Tweeted a photo of juicy-looking steak and some really large asparagus. "Best steak ever ... I might order another," he told his 22,682 followers.

He's also a fan of video games. He likes Call of Duty and Madden NFL 11, but his favorite is Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. He uses seven or eight different characters. "I like to be well-rounded," he says. His screen names include "The Shank You" and "The Shankopotamus."

He says gaming helps with football. "Hand-eye coordination. It's really reactions. You have to know all sorts of combinations. Timing."

In Minnesota, Shiancoe—like all Vikings players who aren't from here—is something of a permanent visitor. He's in Minnesota about eight months of the year, but his real life is back in Maryland, where he grew up. That's where his girl lives (yes, ladies, he's taken—by a nurse and former Army captain), as well as his brother, mom, and best friends.

Whenever he can, Shiancoe flies home. He's gone February and March, and for a good chunk of June and July before training camp.

Even back in the gifted and talented program at Montgomery Blair High School, an academically focused magnet school in Silver Springs, Maryland, Shiancoe had a special knack for relaxing. He talked through class. He didn't do his homework on time.

"We had to stay on top of him, coming up," says Bryan Nance, his JV coach. "He had a little laziness to him at first. But once that weight room took over, it kind of started pushing that laziness out."

By his senior year, colleges started taking notice, and Shiancoe got a partial scholarship to play at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

"He probably was the best tight end in the area, but we didn't have a winning program, so he didn't get all the accolades," says James Short, Shiancoe's high school varsity coach. "I told the coaches at Morgan, 'You getting a steal.'"

Morgan hadn't had a winning season in 24 years, and the coaches didn't even play Shiancoe every game. Then Coach Donald Hill-Eley was hired to turn the football program around.

Coach Hill sat Shiancoe down during the tight end's junior year.

"Son, if you listen to me, I'll make you all-conference," the coach said.

"You think I can make it?" Shiancoe asked.

"Son, you've got more talent than I've ever seen in this position. If you do what I say, I'm going to have you playing on Sundays."

After that conversation, something inside Shiancoe switched into overdrive. Senior year he made Sheridan Broadcast Black College All-American and All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference first-team honors from the NFL Draft Report.

In 2003, the New York Giants drafted Shiancoe in the third round, the 91st pick overall.

But the opportunity proved to be more preparation than playtime. For four years, Shiancoe was stuck in the shadow of the Giants' standout starting tight end, Jeremy Shockey. Shiancoe hardly touched the ball.

Yet the Minnesota Vikings saw his potential. In 2007, Shiancoe nabbed a five-year, $18.2 million contract with the team.

His rookie season did not impress, but his second year he got better, and last season was his best yet.

As his stats improved, Shiancoe's gregarious nature began to come out at work. Specifically, he likes to mock safety Madieu Williams, whom he knows from back in Maryland.

"Oh Lord have mercy," Williams says. "Like, he'll say something along the lines of, 'Hey, Mad-OOO, Mad-YOU. How you doing?'"

Williams and Shiancoe are close—but Williams has set boundaries.

"If Shank and I are going out or going somewhere, I have to meet him out, because I would never wait on him to pick me up," Williams says. "Because you never know when he's going to show up, you know? He's on Shiancoe time."

Family Feud has ended, and daytime television has moved onto Judge Judy. Shiancoe is still on the massage table, gritting his teeth as the masseuse works his muscles. His big toe curls in pain as she kneads his flesh.

Shiancoe is listening as Judge Judy berates a deadbeat ex-husband.

"I love it when she cusses people out," Shiancoe says. "You know, 'cause some people have to learn."

TWO LITTLE GIRLS PEER into the private dining room at the Pancake House in Eden Prairie, giggling. Their eyes are glued on Shiancoe as he digs into a huge meal.

"What's Shiancoe eating?" he says, his voice reverberating with over-the-top enthusiasm. He looks straight at the TV camera rolling nearby. "Right now he's eating nasty-ass oatmeal. With nothing on it."

The Vikings star hams it up and the little girls love it.

"Autograph," they whisper loudly. "Autograph!"

It's mid-June, and Shiancoe is filming a promo with KARE-11. Dave Schwartz, sports reporter, grins ear to ear as Shiancoe describes the "Shank Special": egg whites, oatmeal, fruit, pancake, orange juice with a straw.

"I'm not gonna lie—this oatmeal with nothing in it does not taste good," Shiancoe says.

Schwartz asks Shank if he's more tired of questions about Favre's will-he-won't-he retirement drama, or that pesky penis incident. In 2008, Shiancoe accidentally exposed himself in the locker room as a FOX camera rolled. He said through his agent that he was embarrassed, adding that at least he didn't "just come out the swimming pool."

"I don't mind that because I represented myself right," Shiancoe tells Schwartz on the locker room incident. "There's not really things I'm getting sick of, because I accept the business of it."

Shiancoe's love affair with the media is in full flame. In the locker room after every game, he's surrounded by a pack of cameras and microphones. Reporters love him because he's always willing to talk.

"Shank's a great guy," says Dawn Mitchell, sports reporter for Fox9. "He's never too busy for you."

Shiancoe will talk about anything, sprinkling his comments with colorful jokes. And he's no dummy. Shiancoe knows the press can help him with his future goals—which might include eventually transitioning to the other side of a microphone, like his good friend Michael Strahan.

When there aren't any reporters handy, there's always Twitter. In May and June, Shiancoe lit up the Internet with his back and forth with former teammate Darren Sharper, now a safety with the New Orleans Saints.

Sharper had been trash talking about his desire to hurt Favre, saying "X marks the spot" in reference to the quarterback's surgically repaired ankle.

Shiancoe shot back on ESPN Radio that Sharper had a target on his knee—he'd had surgery, too.

Sharper couldn't stay mum.

"So visanthe stankoe X marks the spot on me, how bout X marks the spot for how many catches and TDs you'll have come Thursday night. X = zero."

Shiancoe responded by Tweeting a photo of Osama bin Laden at a shooting range, a number "42" in red letters across his chest. A thought bubble coming from bin Laden's mouth read, "I'm Darren Sharper."

In a slow sports news cycle, the Twitter war made headlines for days.

It's not the first time Shank has fueled sports gossip. In August, several reporters heard that Favre had sent texts to 10-15 people, including Vikings players and executives, saying he was going to retire.

"What I'm hearing is that it is true, that he did decide to retire," Shiancoe said on ESPN radio. "But just like I said, until I hear it from his mouth, I'm going to leave it at that."

The story exploded all over the news. The next day, Favre denied sending the texts.

"Shank," Favre said. "That's why I love him."

The experience didn't sour Shank's enthusiasm for expressing his thoughts on football publicly. As the media madly chased Favre's August 17 return to Winter Park, Shiancoe thought of a famous helicopter chase involving another NFL player.

"Helicopters acting like they are following O.J.. Where is the bronco?" he tweeted.

The KARE-11 promo shoot is wrapping up, and Schwartz decides it's time to give Shiancoe a media tip. He tells his guest that his gray sweatpants and white t-shirt are too casual for TV. How about a nice button-down—like the blue-and-white checked Oxford that Schwartz has on?

"You look like Q-bert," Shiancoe retorts.

As Schwartz's face falls, Shiancoe tries to cushion the blow.

"Your shirt is fine, man," Shiancoe says. "I think you should throw on a wife beater. I don't like the white collar underneath."

The waitress brings the bill and hands it to Shiancoe.

"$45.99?" Shiancoe exclaims.

The waitress grins.

"Last week he asked me about coupons," she says.

Shiancoe shakes hands and jumps in his Range Rover. He heads toward Winter Park, where a glossy stack of photographs await his swooping signature. Everyone else autographed their glory shots two weeks ago, but somehow Shiancoe never got around to it.

As he drives, Shiancoe shares his philosophy on the press.

"It's all about how responsive you are with the media," he says. "Usually I'm around to talk. Sometimes I talk too much. Sometimes I explain too much.

"I say, 'Hey, edit it.'"

SHIANCOE STEERS INTO the parking lot of Best Buy in Eden Prairie. He pulls into a space two slots away from the front entrance, sliding the nose of his black Range Rover right up to the sign that says "Family Parking."

He heads straight for the video game aisle and picks up a copy of Backbreaker. A muscular linebacker with a shrouded face looms large on the cover.

"That's what people think of football players," Shiancoe says. "We're all meatheads."

Shiancoe selects an $80 set of heavy-duty headphones from the shelf and chats with the Best Buy clerk about the advantages of the product. He's been meaning to get some, he says. He's only got a tiny pair now, nothing fancy.

Most NFL players—about 78 percent—go broke or are under financial stress within two years of retirement, according to a Sports Illustrated investigation last year. Shiancoe doesn't plan to be one of them.

It's not that he doesn't spend money—he's bought four cars during his eight years in the NFL, though he traded his third one in to get the latest. He also owns two houses: one in Minnesota and another back home in Maryland.

But Shiancoe follows the advice of his financial planner like scripture. And he delights in getting discounts.

Shiancoe's brother Jon tells this story: Visanthe went to Target with some friends and came out with a bag of CDs, beaming.

"He was happy because the person forgot to ring up one of the CDs in the bag—so it was free," Jon says. "It was a $15 CD."

Their single mom worked long hours and counted her pennies. Her boys absorbed her financial lessons.

The Vikings star doesn't keep all his money to himself, though. He donated an entire weight room to his alma mater, Morgan State. When he went back to campus after he was in the NFL, he gave a cafeteria lady who used to serve him a $500 tip.

Shiancoe says he wants to start a charity that benefits Liberia, where his mother is from.

"I want to open an orphanage in Liberia," Shiancoe says. "I want to create, like, a brand—a Shiancoe brand—that's so respected."

SHIANCOE IS AT REDSTONE, across the street from Best Buy. He just finished lunch with Vikings safety Tyrell Johnson and a Redskins transfer who won't survive preseason. They are sitting quietly, watching the television screen above the bar, iPod headphones in their ears.

The waiter brings out three warm cookies, each topped with two scoops of ice cream. Shiancoe veers from his Spartan diet and heartily digs into the dessert.

He takes several bites, then sets his spoon down.

"This isn't like the way it usually is," Shiancoe says. "Don't eat that!" he warns his guests. "Don't eat that."

The bartender clears the plates. A manager comes out to apologize. Would Shiancoe like another?

"The plate wasn't as hot, it wasn't really warm," Shiancoe explains. "I like to have the ice cream melt—so it gets all soupy."

When the bartender brings the tab, Shiancoe doesn't even look before the question is out of his mouth.

"You took that off the bill, right?"

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