When it comes to name recognition, Minnesota Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe(notes) has yet to reach his potential. Though the 29-year-old is coming off a breakout season in which he caught a team-leading 11 touchdown passes from a living legend, Schiancoe is still incognito to many NFL fans.
It's not a stretch to say he's better known for the surprise episode of Northern Exposure filmed in the Vikes' locker room after a victory over the Detroit Lions late in the '08 season than for the fact that he has caught more TD passes over the past two seasons (18) than every NFL player except Larry Fitzgerald(notes) (25) and Randy Moss(notes) (24).
Yet when it comes to recognizing the names of teammates – well, Shiancoe has some issues in that department, too. Consider this story from the Vikings' training camp in Mankato, Minn., last summer: Coach Brad Childress had brought in a media consultant, as he does every year, to speak to the players about projecting the best possible public image. During a full-squad meeting, the consultant asked the eminently quotable Shiancoe to demonstrate some of the interview techniques she'd described – specifically, how to box a player into a corner through strategic questioning – by summoning a teammate of his choice to the front of the auditorium.
Shiancoe figured he'd go for the juiciest possible scenario by putting the team's presumptive starting quarterback on the spot. There was just one problem.
"Come on up, Sage Rosen …" Shiancoe said, his voice trailing off into a half-hearted mumble.
"FELS!" the audience yelled, completing the name Shiancoe had clearly forgotten.
"Everybody was laughing, especially Sage [Rosenfels, for those of you scoring at home]," Shiancoe recalled Thursday. "When he got up there his face was bright red. I grilled him, too – I asked, 'If Brett Favre(notes) comes in here and takes your job, how will it make you feel?' "
A few weeks later Rosenfels had to confront the uncomfortable development Shiancoe had foreshadowed, and soon everyone knew the name of the Vikings' starting quarterback. Now, with yet another offseason of uncertainty surrounding the future Hall of Famer's plans – "Favre-a-palooza," as Shiancoe calls it – the tight end and his teammates are all being asked the same question in every context imaginable.
"I don't care if I go to 7-Eleven or any other place you can name – before people ask me how I am, they ask me if Brett's coming back," Shiancoe says. "That question is my life. I don't have the answer, but I hope he does come back, so we can finish up our unfinished business."
That, of course, is a reference to last January's 31-28 overtime defeat to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game. Though the Vikings are loaded with talent – Shiancoe calls them a "dream team" – neither Rosenfels nor former starter Tarvaris Jackson(notes) has proven that he is anything close to approaching a Super Bowl-worthy passer.
That means the whole state of Minnesota will wait on Favre, who turns 41 in October, and pray that he's got another fantastic season left in him.
Meanwhile, Shiancoe is trying to make sure he's as physically prepared for the grind as possible.
A few days after the NFC championship game defeat, Shiancoe began preparing for 2010, mostly with intense stretching exercises designed to keep his muscles toned. The 6-foot-4 Shiancoe, whose playing weight ranged from 235 to 242 pounds in '09, plans to beef up to 245 this season, yet he claims he'll be quicker and more explosive.
"I'll have more lean mass than before, which will make me faster," he says. "I've increased my food intake and increased my workouts. That's the way I am – in the offseason, I can't even take a week off. It sounds like I'm trying to be a he-man, but if you stop working that's when you start to lose it. I used to watch Michael Strahan(notes) when I played for the Giants, and that's something I picked up from him: You've always got to critique your craft."
If Shiancoe sounds a bit obsessive about his body – well, let's just say he's not alone. Thanks to the inadvertent network slip that showed a full frontal view of the briefly naked Shiancoe as team owner Zygi Wilf gave a postgame speech following that Dec. 2008 game at Detroit's Ford Field, Shiancoe has been catapulted into search-engine immortality.
He found out about his impending fame when fellow tight end Jeff Dugan(notes) showed him a screen shot of the FOX broadcast on his cell phone as the two were walking to the team bus. "Then things got crazy," Shiancoe recalls. "Chicks were calling – you name it, I've heard it – and before I knew it, it was on 'The View.'
"Even now, girls will Google me or look me up on Yahoo! [search], and they'll come back like, 'Oooh, I've seen this, I've seen that.' Or I can tell they looked it up, but they won't say anything till much later. All I can do is shake my head and [be thankful] I didn't just come out of the cold tub. Because it'll live forever. I already know that."
Apparently, Shiancoe's cameo was impressive enough to provoke the interest of at least one adult-film producer.
"I don't entertain those type of propositions," Shiancoe says, laughing. "That's all I'll say about that."
Shiancoe's popularity extends to the world of fantasy football; the Pro Bowl alternate had 56 receptions for 566 yards to go along with the career-high TD mark. Those numbers are especially impressive considering that he caught a combined 35 balls in his first four NFL seasons with the Giants.
Drafted in the third round out of Morgan State in 2003, Shiancoe found himself stuck behind Pro Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey(notes) before signing a free-agent deal with the Vikings in '07. He admits he became impatient at times, "but I was behind one of the best tight ends in the NFL – no, the best tight end – and I got to watch him, see how it was done and save my body for later in my career. A lot of what I'm doing right now was taught to me by Shockey."
Favre, too, deserves a big assist. The man who helped make tight ends Mark Chmura and Bubba Franks(notes) into highly productive pass-catchers in Green Bay continued that trend with Shiancoe, which is one of the many reasons, with all due respect to 'Sage Rosen … ,' he'll wait patiently for the legend to make up his mind about 2010.
"Of course, we would like to know what Brett's going to do," Shiancoe says. "Forget training camp – if a veteran tells you he likes training camp, that dude is lying, period. Brett's  years old and he's in the system he's been in for years upon years upon years upon years. … Does a guy like that really need training camp?
"Given how important he was to our team last year, we're more than willing to wait."
LIES, LIES, LIES
3. Upon hearing Texans linebacker Brian Cushing's(notes) dramatic revelation that he believed he was playing with life-threatening tumors last season, Time Magazine called for a revote of its most esteemed honor, stripping Ben Bernanke of his 2009 Person of the Year title and awarding it to Cushing.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
If I rented out an obstacle-filled dirt track at a county fairgrounds, spent several hours partying in the infield with a 49ers rookie linebacker, a recently dismissed Stanford basketball player and a very funny man, gave each of them a golf cart and told them to race, would you pay 10 bucks to see it? You would, wouldn't you? Don't lie.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Los Suns owner Robert Sarver (whose GM was my high school writing partner, before he went on to win five NBA championships and make 45.4 percent of his career 3-point attempts), for having the compassion and the cojones to protest Arizona's new immigration law by having his players wear Latino-tribute jerseys on Cinco de Mayo. My bleeding heart is aflutter.
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
After his Golden Bears were dethroned as national champions last May by BYU in a taut title match, ending a five-year run atop the collegiate rugby world, Cal coach Jack Clark was a bit bothered by the outcome. He spent the next 12 months imparting a sense of urgency upon his players, and the result was a tremendous, full-squad effort that ranked among the most impressive of this modern-day dynasty, a.k.a. The House That Jack Built. Demonstrating a lockdown defensive effort that kept the top-ranked Cougars from scoring until the final six minutes, Clark's second-ranked Bears charged to a 19-7 victory over BYU on May 1 that gave Cal its 25th national championship and completed a 26-0 season, the team's first undefeated campaign since 2002. The Bears will lose some studs next year, including co-captains Eric Fry (the finals MVP), Colin Hawley and Keegan Englebrecht, but as long as Clark sticks around I like their chances of repeating.
I also like this time of year, a lot, because there's so much going on in the Cal athletic universe – and that's a major reason I'll be spending my Friday on the campus of God's University (before I resume watching my kids play soccer, baseball and basketball and compete in track and field for the rest of my waking, non-working hours). The Bears' 12th-ranked softball team, fresh off Thursday's 9-1, mercy-rule victory over Oregon State at Levine-Fricke Field, hosts the Beavers on Friday and Saturday before being officially notified of its 25th consecutive NCAA tournament berth on Sunday. Cal junior Val Arioto, who's fabulous in the circle and at the plate, is one of 10 finalists for USA Softball's National Collegiate Player of the Year award. (Cal's 19th-ranked baseball team has the weekend off.)
Meanwhile, Cal's 12th-ranked women's tennis team hosts an NCAA regional Friday and Saturday, while the Bears' 17th-ranked men's team travels to L.A. to begin NCAA tournament play against UC Irvine on Saturday. Cal's top-ranked women's crew and second-ranked men's crew look to defend their Pac-10 titles this weekend, and the Bears' men's and women's track and field teams will host conference championships at Edwards Stadium on Saturday and Sunday. And it's a huge water polo month, with Cal's fourth-seeded women facing fifth-seeded Michigan in the NCAA tournament Friday night at San Diego State and Berkeley's Spieker Pool playing host to the prestigious Fisher Cup (featuring 12 elite men's water polo clubs and too many Olympians and national-teamers to count) from May 21-23.
Oh, and it's good to know that San Francisco will be Bear Territory come 2011 – as if it already wasn't.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Reading wrapped up the ninth-most successful season of its 139-year history, securing ninth place in the Championship with a 4-1 victory over Preston at Madejski Stadium on May 2. Given where the Royals were at the start of the new year – staring at relegation to League One, owners of just a single league victory at home and reeling from the sacking of first-year manager Brendan Rodgers – it's kind of incredible how randy their supporters are about the club's prospects for 2010-11. Energized immediately by new manager Brian McDermott at the start of 2010, Reading has its sights set on another push for Premier League promotion. The Royals spent the first part of the offseason trying to ensure the return of its key players and making one splashy signing: A three-year deal with former Scunthorpe United left back Marcus Williams, an experienced 24-year-old who should give them an attacking presence from the flank. And that, my friends, should be the last you have to read about my adopted English soccer side for awhile.