HOLLAND, Mich. -- They hung on every word, attention locked on the man in the black bucket hat and blue T-shirt with a logo that matched the ones they wore.
On the final Friday night in June, Kirk Cousins sat back on the cold tile floor inside the Dow Center at Hope College, home to his annual youth football camp, and casually chatted with a group of eighth-grade boys. Soon, the two sides split up for a couple of games of dodgeball, with Cousins joining his fellow counselors to display the proper manner in which to army crawl to safety and avoid getting pegged.
The Minnesota Vikings quarterback took to the group of 13-year-olds, striking up a conversation the teens soon shifted to his football career. He answered their questions candidly, as if being asked by any one of his closest friends, who were also on-hand for the weekend.
What's the hardest you've been hit?
Cousins detailed the crushing blindside blow delivered by Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw during Michigan State's trip to the Capitol One Bowl on New Year's Day 2011.
"My back still hurts," he told them.
Were you surprised [the Vikings] got rid of Case Keenum?
"A little bit," Cousins said. "They won with him."
Kirk Cousins sits on the floor with some campers to answer their questions about his career and the NFL. Courtney Cronin/ESPN
The teens wanted to know specifics about Vikings defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison. They asked about the process of sorting through teams in free agency and life in the NFL.
But no one asked the biggest question facing Cousins this season: How will he bridge the gap between the Vikings and a championship as the final piece on a Super Bowl-or-bust team?
It's here in his hometown of Holland, Michigan, with quaint, idyllic streets and lakeside views, that Cousins became equipped with the tools to clear the hurdles he has faced. Once an undersized, overlooked recruit, Cousins was drafted as a backup by the Washington Redskins. A career-altering decision came in March, when he signed with the Vikings in free agency.
Cousins' perspective is formed by his faith and those who have kept him grounded through his first six years in the NFL. Clinging to his role as an underdog is a large part of Cousins' identity, though the perception of that narrative has been changed by his three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed contract. The expectations have changed as well.
Now that Cousins has a team that believes in him long-term and a shot to win big, there's part of him that refuses to let go of that underdog mentality. A refreshing sense of vulnerability rarely exhibited by those in his position, backed by self-actualization, keeps Cousins focused on providing Minnesota a return on its investment. The outlook he gained growing up will guide him on the next phase of his journey.
"I just know that I've never felt like I've had all the answers on the football field," Cousins told ESPN. "Many times I've felt like the position of being an NFL quarterback is, at times, over my head. At times, I feel inadequate. I think knowing that also keeps me a little humble. It makes me feel like I don't have it all figured out. That's what drives me to get there."
The real Cousins
Earlier that Friday in camp, the bass-thumping beat of "Zombie Nation" filled the air inside Smith Stadium while temperatures climbed past 90 degrees. Playing the role of emcee in front of 360 campers situated at midfield, Cousins ran from one sideline to the other, hyping up the sixth-grade Broncos and Vikings teams like they were about to clash in a heated Oklahoma Drill.
Soon, a dozen or so kids stuffed inside giant plastic inflatables collided at the 50-yard line after Cousins backpedaled out of the way. This game, which is essentially a light version of football played inside a bubble, is one of the quarterback's favorites.
"READY … SET … KNOCKERBALL!!"
There's just one rule: "Do not fumble my football!" But that's exactly what the Vikings did, leading to a Broncos scoop and score.
"Ball security will cost you!" Cousins bellowed into the mic.
For two days each of the past six summers, Cousins has hosted this camp, aiming to impact middle school-aged boys as they navigate their personal, social and spiritual climates. It's here that these boys witness the NFL quarterback in his all-encompassing element, defined by his intense, compassionate, goofy and quirky persona.
Kirk Cousins in Holland, Michigan. Courtney Cronin/ESPN
Cousins flings dodgeballs and encourages campers to make the Bible their "playbook for life." The passion Cousins exhibits was once encapsulated in a viral moment when he proclaimed to a TV camera, "You like that!" after a comeback win in Washington. It provided a narrow glimpse into the person some believed too calculated, cerebral and analytical to veer off course.
"His mentality out on the field is 'I'm a surgeon, and I'm doing an operation,'" said Don Cousins, Kirk's father. "A surgeon can't go into operation under emotion control. Out there, he's process-oriented. He's in charge. But inside, there's a fire burning.
"I've told him, I think you've swung the pendulum almost too far the other way, meaning people haven't seen that side of you, and that's who you are. To some degree, you have to let more of that out on the field than what you've done up until this point in time."
The real Cousins, beyond public perception, is deeply tied to his western Michigan roots.
Don and Maryann Cousins sought change for their family in 2001, choosing to raise their middle and high school-aged children in a place that aligned with the value system they built around their faith. Don, who is now a pastor in Orlando, was presented with a job opportunity at a church in Holland. After moving from the Chicago suburbs to this small town with Dutch Reformed Christian roots, Kirk became a three-sport athlete at Holland Christian High School, amassed a 4.0 GPA and was an active member of Living Hope Singers, a by-audition traveling performance group.
Crooning the lyrics of "Pretty Woman" and "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin'" as a soloist, Cousins tapped into his passion for musical theater and singing. Over the years, he has seen "Evita," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat," "The Lion King" and "Motown: The Musical." The Hamilton soundtrack is one of his favorites, but he has yet to see the Broadway hit.
"It's relaxing for me," Cousins said. "I like seeing other people having to perform, for once, instead of me doing it."
Golf has also become a release for him in recent years, a humbling game that teaches valuable life lessons and requires an immense amount of concentration -- things he equates with his job as a quarterback.
"I play football the way Donald Ross designs golf courses," Cousins said while miked up during OTAs this spring.
Calling him a voracious reader might be an understatement. He devours books, soaking up the information and passing it on to others. Cousins often starts email threads with his family, which includes older brother Kyle and younger sister Karalyne, about books he found particularly enjoyable and inspiring. The impromptu summaries he sends are meticulous in detail.
"I don't know how many people at almost 30 years old that are writing book reports when they don't have to," Don Cousins said with a laugh.
The 'pied piper'
At the end of the Vikings' spring offseason program, Cousins admitted that he felt behind and vowed to spend time going over playbook concepts he hadn't fully grasped. Embracing his down time and cutting back also held high importance.
Enjoying time with his wife, Julie, and 10-month-old son, Cooper, who recently moved into a new home on the shores of Lake Michigan, and hanging out with high school friends help Cousins stay centered.
"There's people in your life who, even with your high school friends, they're just not that impressed by you," he said. "When you keep them close by, they're big enough to call you out. They're big enough to make sure you do stay genuine. Frankly, I don't want to be any other way."
His mega contract has undoubtedly changed the world around him -- except here. Cousins' name is on his youth camp, but he's able to blend into the background in Holland in ways many people in his position can't. An Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady camp would undoubtedly feature a marketing and security presence. Not here.
This is the place where those closest to Cousins keep him honest. They debate who won heated games of ping-pong in Don and Maryann's basement and reminisce about Kirk's ability to match Creed lead singer Scott Stapp's intonation on his rendition of the late-1990s hit "Higher."
While his NFL world is often laced with ultimatums, the people here keep it light.
"I mean, I've always told him that he's been my second-favorite player in the NFL," quipped longtime friend Micah Kool. "[Former Texans linebacker] Brian Cushing's always been the big one for me. I told [Cousins] once he gets that Brian Cushing crazy streak, maybe he'll be in the conversation."
Maryann Cousins labeled her son a "pied piper" when he was a teenager because he is capable of connecting with and leading people from diverse backgrounds.
"He didn't have just one group of friends," said Eric Huizenga, who became friends with Cousins during seventh-grade basketball. "He could hang out and relate to anyone, whether it was the choir group, the athletes, the 4.0 students. I think that's translated to today as well. That's why he's so self-aware. He can put himself in most situations and make everyone feel like they mean something."
Bill Bird's choir room at Holland Christian was arranged by voice part. The sopranos were on one side of the room, followed by the tenors, basses, baritones and, on the other side, the altos.
Cousins' voice dipped from tenor to baritone over the years, but Chris Doornbos was a soprano. Born with cognitive and physical impairments, Doornbos didn't grow like the rest of his classmates and resembled a fifth grader more than a freshman. His development issues meant his voice didn't change as he aged. Bird put Doornbos next to Cousins on the edge of the soprano section, closest to the tenors.
"I put Kirk next to Chris because I knew that Kirk would understand and would be kind to him and be gentle," Bird said. "Kirk was a strong singer, and if the song was low enough for Chris, he could drop down and match pitches with Kirk. But if it wasn't a part he could do easily, he could just swing right to the soprano section, and nobody was ever any the wiser."
A modest Kirk Cousins shrine at the school celebrates Holland Christian High School's famous alumnus. Courtney Cronin/ESPN
Molded by faith
The friendships Cousins has maintained for more than a decade derive from the principals he was taught at a young age. Don Cousins instilled in his children a belief about investing in people.
People, his father said, matter to God. Therefore, people should matter to us.
There's a Bible verse Cousins often turns to upon reaching crossroads, such as the one he experienced well before this offseason. Proverbs 3:5-6 states, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Don't lean on your understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will direct your steps."
When Cousins chose not to sign an extension with the Redskins after being franchise-tagged for a second straight season in 2017, he relied on his faith to guide him through the uncertainty.
"He just didn't have a peace in his heart about signing a long-term, multiyear contract [with the Redskins]," Don Cousins said. "We believe that one of the ways in which God directs our steps is when we make decisions. If God's in it, there's a peace that comes. When that peace is lacking, then maybe that's God's way of saying that's not the right decision."
All the choices Kirk has made, from signing with the Vikings to seeking specialized brain training and the advice of people in the business world on how to manage his money, have been carefully calculated. The crux of those decisions reveals Cousins' core. He wants the best results.
"To see somebody who's been given the platform that God's given him, which is just a gift because he can throw a football and he's smart, to now say you can take all of that and continue to use it for good," said Tim Schoonveld, Cousins' camp director and the athletic director at Hope College.
Several of Kirk Cousins' friends made annual trips to Washington to watch him play with the Redskins. From left ro right: Kyle Cousins, Kirk Cousins, Ross VerWys and Eric Huizenga. Courtesy Eric Huizenga
"I know he tries to be, I don't know if the right word is careful, but he doesn't want to seem disingenuous or -- 'OK, I'm throwing around Bible verses to look like I've got it all together' -- but I think there's an intentionality with how he lives his life."
'Same old tune' with Vikings
It wasn't long ago that Cousins debated whether he could get this far.
In the spring of 2013, he had just completed a new venture, joining the broadcast booth as an analyst for Michigan State's green and white game. Coming off a rookie season in which he started one game in place of an injured Robert Griffin III and saw limited action in two others, Cousins battled through a lingering knee injury. He questioned how much longer he wanted to be an NFL quarterback.
"His quote to me was, ‘I don't know. Maybe I'll go into broadcasting,'" trainer Joe Tofferi said. "He said, ‘You know what? Maybe I'll just hang it up.' And that was just five years ago. It's pretty cool to see that he's overcome those adversities and bounced back and just kept being the underdog."
Cousins might not part with his underdog persona until he hits the pinnacle he plans to reach. In his next chapter, those high points are expected to trump three straight seasons with 4,000 yards passing and at least 25 touchdowns. The new mountain has a Lombardi Trophy waiting at the top.
He has heard the knocks, critiques and skepticism as to whether this next hurdle is one he'll clear. An NFL executive expressed concerns over whether Cousins is the type of player who can put a team on his back. The vote of confidence he received in Washington was lacking at times.
"When you're 7-9, you know, it's hard to say, 'Wow, this guy really was outstanding,'" Redskins coach Jay Gruden said at the end of last season. "Kirk had his flashes where he was really good. From a consistent standpoint, over the course of 16 games, you know, we're 7-9."
Kirk Cousins poses for a photo with the kids at his camp in Holland, Michigan. Courtney Cronin/ESPN
Cousins knew the weight on his shoulders when he turned down the New York Jets and Denver Broncos in free agency. The magnitude of this challenge is one he willingly accepted. It's one he and the Vikings believe he's capable of meeting.
"I've never seen him happier in a spot than he is with the Vikings," Huizenga said. "He says it still feels like a dream. He says he comes home, and he doesn't know if people are playing around with him because it's everything he's wanted and people are so nice."
An $84 million quarterback is expected to lead, but Cousins says it goes beyond his paycheck.
“It certainly gives an indication, but the amount of money you make doesn’t give people a desire to suddenly follow you," Cousins said. "I played on a team where I made league minimum and was the starting quarterback, too. You’d better believe that I’ve got to command and have a presence about me that guys want to follow, regardless of what my contract says. If you’re fake, your contract is not going to help you. You’ve got to be the real deal no matter what."
Cousins knows the honeymoon phase will end quickly if he can't help the Vikings take the next step after a 13-3 season and appearance in the NFC title game. Instead of a group of teenage boys pondering his career, it will be stadiums of 60,000-plus on Sundays.
"There's also people saying I won't be able to do it, that I wasn't worth the investment and I shouldn't be there," Cousins said. "There's no doubt those people are out there, so it's really the same old tune as far as put a chip on your shoulder, go out, prove yourself each day. I think it's served me well to have that perspective."