BRADENTON — There were important things to accomplish, such as sharing a new Vikings playbook and learning a new offense, but as former FSU quarterback Christian Ponder spent three days with seven future teammates at the IMG Madden Football Academy this week, the best moments might have been far from the football fields they practiced on.
In a break from working out, the first-round draft pick of Minnesota in April grabbed a tennis ball — tennis balls are everywhere at IMG, which has branched out to include much more than its tennis roots — and started posting up against second-year quarterback Joe Webb. No basket, no basketball. Just athletes getting to know each other.
The next day, as the Vikings and other locked-out football players did conditioning work in IMG's pool, Ponder showed off his underwater separation moves in a pickup football game, then got beaten on a corner route, with Webb leaping to catch a tennis ball lobbed into the shallow end.
Ponder organized this informal minicamp, hoping to get a head start on building the chemistry crucial for a winning locker room. As he begins the task of potentially succeeding Brett Favre as the Vikings' quarterback and leader, it was a promising first step.
"It speaks a lot about him as a young guy trying to help gather the guys," said Vikings receiver Greg Camarillo, who drove up from his home in Miami for the workouts.
"He's not shy, and he can't be shy as a leader. This is a veteran team we have, with a lot of veteran guys. For him to come in with the mentality that he's ready to play, that will earn him some respect."
With the lockout leaving coaches unable to talk with their players, Ponder saw a chance to reach out to his new teammates.
"You see all these other teams doing workouts, and we were one of the few teams that wasn't doing anything. Somebody had to get the ball rolling," Ponder said. "I thought as a quarterback it was up to me to do it."
Ponder has been busy over the past two weeks at IMG, working with former FSU and NFL quarterback Chris Weinke on learning the offense to be implemented by first-year Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.
"I'm trying to mirror exactly what they would be getting in a minicamp," Weinke said, "to get them comfortable to know and understand what's going to take place once they're (in camp).
"Any time you're at the quarterback position at that level, there's a lot of pressure. The one thing I can say about Christian, knowing him over the years, he's an even-keel guy. That's one of the key things I look for in successful quarterbacks. He's asking all the right questions. He wants to learn, and I think he's going to handle it fine."
And though Ponder had hoped for better attendance at IMG — five veterans who committed to attend never made it, citing varying reasons — he found the interaction to be of great benefit, even if it was in social things such as watching the Heat and Mavericks in the NBA Finals.
In practices, the focus wasn't on learning intricate playbook nomenclature such as "deuce right strong 52 comet mesa" as much as simply learning teammates' names. Ponder had already met Minnesota's second-round pick, Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph. He got to know two other draft picks, including USF defensive back Mistral Raymond.
IMG brings in all kinds of NFL talent, and Ponder spent time with another rookie quarterback facing the same learning curve — Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton from Auburn, now a Carolina Panther — and found that the jargon he was learning seemed easier than what Newton was trying to master.
In the end, Ponder considered the three days at IMG, occasional rough weather aside, a success.
"It's huge to start getting that bond going, and as a quarterback, you've got to be comfortable with all the guys around you," he said.
"To lead and to influence, you have to get to know them personally. I'm excited about getting to know everybody. These are my teammates, and this is my family for as many years as I'm here."