On Saturday mornings during the season, a group of Vikings convene in the athletic trainers’ room for a sugary, frosted tradition like no other in the NFL. Here’s the hole story
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — “We just like to see commitment from guys. We need to see proof that you want to be a part of this club and want to be part of something bigger than yourself.”
That quote isn’t just another cliché being spewed by an NFL player about next week’s game. It’s a passionate explanation from veteran linebacker Chad Greenway about a different kind of club that meets early on Saturday mornings and follows a rule book that’s nearly as detailed as the league’s: The Minnesota Vikings’ Donut Club.
By even acknowledging its existence, Greenway has already broken the first rule of Donut Club. “I’m now getting yelled at for talking about it,” he says. “It’s like Fight Club. You’re going to get me in trouble.”
Donut Club has its roots in the 2008 season, when starting quarterback Gus Frerotte brought a few dozen donuts into the training room one Saturday morning. They were devoured in a matter of minutes, and it became a regular thing. “I just kept bringing donuts in because it’s a great thing to see when a guy sees fresh, big-ass donuts and they want to eat them," says Frerotte, who retired after that ’08 season, his 15th in the NFL. If he returned to the Vikings’ training room now, he wouldn’t recognize the cult-like institution that grew from his humble act of generosity.
The Donut Club has a governing body, uniform, membership requirement, schedule and strict guidelines to ensure proper etiquette. “I had no idea that they turned it into a club,” Frerotte said from his home in the Pittsburgh area, unaware of his legacy. “I love that there are rules. That’s what makes the game fun. It’s really nice to have a common bond about something stupid like that.”
The Vikings’ head athletic trainer, the aptly named Eric Sugarman, serves as president of Donut Club. He’s responsible for picking up the donuts each week from YoYo Donuts in Minnetonka, about five miles from team headquarters. The club’s mission is to foster training-room camaraderie. “It’s for the guys who aren’t injured to be able to support the guys who get mandatory treatment all week,” Sugarman says.
“Sug” works closely with an executive board made up of three players. This year it’s Greenway, defensive end Everson Griffen and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Each board member has equal voting rights, a distinct role and a signature donut. Greenway (cinnamon twist) is the sheriff who enforces the rules. Griffen (glazed) is the speech-giver. Rudolph (chocolate long john) is in overall charge of planning and strategy.
“The popularity has really gone through the roof in the last three or four years,” says Greenway, the lone active player who has been a part of Donut Club since Frerotte first brought in a few boxes.
The rules of Donut Club, as established by the board, have never been written down.
1. Players always buy.
“The athletic trainer never pays for the donuts,” Sugarman says. When Frerotte first brought in donuts, it was a nod of appreciation for the trainers and equipment staff, so players rotate paying for three dozen donuts on a weekly basis in the regular season. YoYo owner Chris Moquist, a lifelong Vikings fan, remembers when the Vikings first started ordering from his shop: “A guy came in to pick up an order and we went, ‘Wow, that guy’s neck is way too big to be a normal person. That’s Chad Greenway. That’s awesome!’ ”
In 2011, Rudolph’s rookie season, he was sent out to pick up the order. “I definitely didn’t want to screw it up,” he says. “I knew how important it was. The veterans made it known. I made sure I got there on time. Nothing would be worse than not getting back in time with the donuts.”
2. Lateness will not be tolerated (with one exception).
Donut Club begins promptly at 7:50 a.m. on Saturdays, when Sugarman takes the lid off the brown boxes and unveils the spread: original glazed, chocolate long johns, cinnamon twists, glazed croissants and plenty more. There are even a few one-of-a-kind-varieties, including a Samoa Girl Scout Cookie-flavored offering. But if you snooze, you lose. Anyone who arrives late won't get a donut. “The Donut Club waits for nobody,” Sugarman says.
Only one player in Donut Club history has gotten away with habitual tardiness: former Vikings defensive end Jared Allen. “I always refused to come in that early when we didn’t have to be there until nine or 10,” he says. Allen cut a deal with the core club members at the time to have an original glazed donut set aside until he arrived. “The glazed donut is timeless,” Allen says. “I am a man of the classics. I don’t like a lot of frills. If there is something good, you don’t need to mess with it.”
So the board formed a special position for Allen. “I was Donut Club Alumni Booster. I bought the donuts more often than not,” he says. “As a major booster, I got to weigh in on the board every now and then.”
To put it bluntly, Greenway says, “We allowed him membership only because of his wallet.”
3. Do not touch the donuts before the designated time. Do not eat the donuts before the designated time.
Sug might open the boxes at 7:50 a.m., but no one is allowed to touch a donut until 8 sharp. “Everyone is just allowed to look at the donuts,” he says. “Basically a donut viewing.”
Says Rudolph with a sigh, “It seems like the longest 10 minutes ever. As I get older and a little smarter, I stroll in there around 7:57, 7:58. I make sure I’m there on time, but then I don’t have to sit there and wait all 10 minutes.”
During that excruciating waiting period, players stake out their preferences. “We’ll give a rundown of the donuts, look at them all and extend them through a combine, like the NFL combine,” safety Harrison Smith says. Donuts are judged on factors such as crispiness, size and frosting distribution.
Sometimes a player can’t resist temptation and grabs a donut before the viewing period has ended. “Huuuuuge penalty,” Greenway says. He threw such a flag at the first club meeting this season. New Viking Jeremiah Sirles smelled something good and ambled into the training room, “Big offensive lineman—talk about a guy who looks like he’s had a donut before,” Sug says with a laugh. Not knowing what he was walking into, Sirles reached for a donut. Bam! Suspended from the club before he even knew what it was.
“Three weeks of no donuts,” Sugarman says. “You can sit on the side and perhaps buy the donuts, but you aren’t allowed to eat the donuts.”
It’s every man for himself at Donut Club, and new attendees must watch and learn the routine. “You let them make mistakes and then yell at them,” Greenway says. “We like to watch them squirm. It’s a whole process that we enjoy.”
At the conclusion of the viewing period, players grab a donut. But it’s still not time to eat. With donuts in hand, the group assembles for a club photo; many players stand in the same spot each week. The picture is followed by a passionate, often R-rated speech from Everson about the next day’s game. “Everson normally throws out a couple good lines,” Smith says. “Always count on him to break it down and get the game started right even though it’s Saturday. It’s a warmup to the game.”
Even then, it’s not quite time to consume. Before taking a bite, players must celebrate with a toast, touching donuts together like champagne glasses. “What I’ll do is I always try to toast with somebody who has a big chocolate one so I can get some chocolate onto my cinnamon twist,” Greenway says. “Or you always see someone with a nice powder, or a cream filling and you can kind of dip into that. It’s a strategic thing.”
Then, finally, the Homer Simpson moment has arrived.
4. Finish the donut.
Respect the donut. If you don’t finish, rules-enforcer Greenway says it’s a “giant penalty” that won’t be forgotten. He tells the story of an athletic trainer (not Sugarman) who once failed to finish a red velvet donut and threw it away because he wasn’t a fan of the cream cheese frosting. “Just an embarrassment," Greenway calls the move, while closing ranks and not naming the offender. "Super weak."
5. Attendance counts.
Any Vikings player is welcome at Donut Club. But in order to be considered a card-carrying member, he must attend three consecutive weeks. “You have to come early on a Saturday to be in this,” Sugarman says, noting that the Vikings don’t require players to arrive that early on a Saturday. “So they have be dedicated to get here and want to be part of it.”
Sugarman is thinking of starting a Donut Club Hall of Fame that would feature the likes of Brett Favre and longtime tight end Jim Kleinsasser. “Brett wasn’t very picky,” Sugarman recalls. “He was a break-one-in-half-and-then-come-back-and-eat the-other-half-later kind of guy."
6. Wear your colors with pride.
This year, Sugarman surprised the card-carrying members (there are about 20) with a special T-shirt, which is now the club’s uniform. Because Sugarman tweets out the group photo each week, Vikings fans have seen the shirts and want to know how they can join the club. “I can’t begin to count the amount of requests from fans that I have had to purchase these shirts,” Sugarman says. And it’s not just the fans, it’s Donut Club alums as well. “I am a little jealous of the T-shirts,” says Allen. “I’m going to get one.”
7. Once a member of Donut Club, always a member of Donut Club.
Moving on from Donut Club can be tough, especially for alums such as Allen, whose Vikings career began the same season as Donut Club. Earlier this season, when Allen was playing for Chicago, he found a bunch of donuts in the Bears training room. So he texted a picture of himself and Chicago assistant athletic trainer Dave Jantzi holding a donut in each hand to Sugarman with the words, “This is our Donut Club.”
“I was just letting him know that I haven’t forgotten about Donut Club, and I’m trying to keep the tradition alive,” Allen says. A Week 4 trade sent Allen to the Panthers, where he thinks the training room atmosphere is similar to the Vikings’ and could foster a thriving Donut Club: “It takes a special group of guys to truly embrace coming in early on a Saturday just to sit around and eat donuts.”
To that, Sugarman says, “Donut Club can often be imitated, but never duplicated.”
And Allen just might have to agree. “It goes back to the glazed donut,” he says. “Some things are just better in their original form.”