When Kelci Stringer was asked recently how long she had a strained relationship with the Vikings, she said, “Until now.”
Stringer was the wife of Vikings tackle Korey Stringer, who died on Aug. 1, 2001, of complications from heatstroke after collapsing during a training camp practice in Mankato, when the heat index was in excess of 100 degrees. She ended up suing the Vikings in 2002, a case that was dismissed in 2003.
She also sued the NFL, a case settled in 2009 with the only public disclosure being that the Korey Stringer Institute would be established. The institute, which works to help prevent heat-related deaths in football and other sports, opened on the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs, Conn., in 2010.
Kelci Stringer had mostly distanced herself from the Vikings after the lawsuits were filed, although she did attend an event in 2016 in the Twin Cities to commemorate the opening of U.S. Bank Stadium. It wasn’t until last Sunday that she attended her first Vikings game since the 2001 season, when her late husband had his jersey No. 77 retired and was inducted into the Ring of Honor.
Stringer, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., was left two tickets by the Vikings, and she went with a friend to their 34-28 overtime win over the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
Stringer 47, has been invited by the Vikings to attend next Sunday’s game against Dallas at U.S. Bank Stadium along with her son, Kodie, 23, who lives in Los Angeles, and her daughter, True, 10, who also lives in Charlotte. Also attending will be Stringer’s longtime agent Jimmy Gould, now chairman of the Korey Stringer Institute.
“It’s a big deal for the 20th (anniversary) for them to acknowledge us coming out,” said Stringer, the institute’s founder and spokesperson. “I’m excited going to the game in Minnesota. I can’t wait. My son is excited, too.”
The disagreements Stringer and Gould had with the Vikings came when Red McCombs owned the team. Gould told the Pioneer Press last summer that the lawsuits wouldn’t have been filed had McCombs paid Stringer’s family the $8 million remaining on his contract. Stringer, 27 when he died, played for the Vikings for six years.
The Wilfs bought the team from McCombs in 2005, and Gould said they have been fully supportive of the Korey Stringer Institute. Before the 20th anniversary of Stringer’s death, Vikings chief operating officer Andrew Miller reached out to Gould and then to Kelci Stringer to discuss ways in which the team could honor his legacy. During a July 31 night practice, the team showed a video of the late tackle on the scoreboard, had a moment of silence and painted “77” on a practice field.
The team also joined with the NFL Foundation and Korey Stringer Institute to create the Korey and Kelci Stringer Athletic Training Scholarship with an initial $50,000 endowment that will help students in a partnership with the National Athletic Trainers’ Association.
“It was genuine,’’ Kelci Stringer said of her initial phone call with Miller. “He was saying at the end of the day, it’s still a nucleus, it’s a family. … And so he represented that, ‘With the Vikings, it’s still family, and it’s been 20 years, and we just want to reach out and meet you.’ That was pretty cool.”
Gould said he and Stringer have been impressed with Miller, who joined the team in 2019.
“Andrew reached out to me and introduced himself to me and it was just an immediate friendship,’’ Gould said. “He said all of the right things. He said, ‘We want to recognize the contributions that Korey Stringer has made, and how can we honor him on the 20th anniversary?’ He has been amazing.
“For me, it was an awakening on the part of the Vikings led by Andrew Miller and the Wilf family to say, ‘We want Kelci to be a part of the family. We want to hold Korey up for what he contributed to the Vikings and we want to honor him and we want to honor the family and what they lost and what they went through and how the game has changed for the better (due to work by the Korey Stringer Institute).’ ’’
Gould, who lives in Cincinnati, will attend his first Vikings game since the 2001 season. He called it important to be there with the Stringer family.
“For Kelci, it’s time for her to close a certain chapter and open up a new chapter,’’ Gould said. “When old doors close, new doors open. … Things have kind of gone full circle with everything that has happened over the past 20 years.”
Stringer and Gould both anticipate there will be some sort of acknowledgment of Korey Stringer at the game but they’re not sure what it will be. Miller said the Vikings are “still working through” what will be done during the game, which will be televised nationally by NBC on Sunday Night Football.
“We’re looking forward to hosting them,’’ Miller said. “It’s something we started talking about in the summertime as we were commemorating the 20th anniversary of Korey’s passing.”
Miller said he hopes the team will now develop a long-term relationship with the Stringer family and Gould.
“We’ve had a lot of positive conversations with both (Stringer and Gould) in recognizing what Korey Stringer has meant to the organization and his playing career and as a member of the Ring of Honor as well as his legacy,’’ Miller said. “We really felt strongly as an organization, from ownership on down, that we really want to make strides to get her involved and make sure that we were doing the right things to commemorate Korey’s legacy.”
Kelci Stringer said she’s “totally” looking to become more involved with the Vikings, and perhaps continuing some things her late husband once did in the community. When Korey Stringer played for the Vikings, the family lived in Eden Prairie, and the tackle was very active in charitable events.
“It’s 20 years now,’’ she said. “It’s more growth. … Going forward, I see the maturity, I see the benefit. … And so I’m more excited, especially going to the game in Minnesota, to probably do a little bit more work through the NFL or as it works with the Vikings in general because I think I have a lot of perspective that I’m sure a lot of people could use or just even appreciate.”
When Kelci Stringer attended the Vikings’ game against Carolina, it brought back some emotions. She sat in a section that included wives and girlfriends of Minnesota players.
“To come (there) was bittersweet,’’ she said. “I’m sitting next to some of the young wives and it was so bittersweet. They’re all like cheering for their husbands.”
After not going to a Vikings game for 20 years, she is now hoping that returning to one in the Twin Cities can become an annual occurrence.
“Wouldn’t that be nice,’’ she said.