Duluth native C.J. Ham took the long road to Vikings' backfield

Minnesota Vikings running back C.J. Ham
Minnesota Vikings running back C.J. Ham (30) tries to break a tackle by Los Angeles Rams linebacker Cameron Lynch, right, during the second half of an NFL preseason football game Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Minneapolis.
Andy Clayton-King | AP 2016

C.J. Ham is a Cinderella story in a fairy tale season for the Minnesota Vikings.

A 2011 graduate of Duluth Denfeld High School, the Vikings running back took the long road to the NFL.

Ham played college football at Division II Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D. Despite rushing for over 1,000 yards and a school record 16 touchdowns his senior year, no NFL team selected him in the 2016 NFL draft. He wasn't even signed as an undrafted free agent.

Instead, he earned a spot with the Vikings after he was invited to try out during the team's rookie minicamp, was promoted to the active roster for the final two games last season, and then this year made the 53-player roster, not as a tailback, the position he had played since high school, but as a fullback.

The irony, said his mom Tina Ham, was that C.J. declined an offer to play at his hometown Division II football powerhouse University of Minnesota-Duluth, because they wanted him to play fullback. But he wanted to carry the ball. He didn't want to block.

"It's like, it's all been written C.J.," she recalled telling him. "You're supposed to be a fullback."

Tina and Cortez Ham, parents of Minnesota Viking and Duluth native C.J. Ham
Tina and Cortez Ham, parents of Minnesota Viking -- and Duluth native -- C.J. Ham, at Essentia Health in Duluth, where they both work as patient transportation experts on Jan. 15, 2018.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

"But he was born to block," admitted his father Cortez.

Still, C.J. has proven adept at running and catching the ball as well. He scored his first NFL touchdown earlier this season against Pittsburgh.

Along with star wide receiver Minnesota State Mankato graduate Adam Thielen, Ham is starting to make a name for himself as an undrafted small-school player from Minnesota who's found success in the NFL.

Tina and Cortez Ham moved to Duluth from Chicago when C.J. was 11 months old. He started playing football in the 6th grade. He was a huge Vikings fan, they say, despite his father still rooting for the Chicago Bears.

Cortez Ham said he knew his son was destined to play in the NFL after watching him score three touchdowns in a game at Augustana. "Because they could not stop him," he said. "They were just slipping off him like butter."

Now, like the rest of Minnesota, he's enjoying the playoff ride Ham and his Vikings teammates are taking them on.

"Somebody told me, he's not just your son, he's our son," his mother said.

The Hams work as patient transport experts at Essentia Health in Duluth. Tina Ham said she gets a kick out of telling patients her son plays for the Vikings.

"That's when they tell me how much they love C.J.," she said. "He is well loved in Duluth."

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