Vikings defensive backs' reward for a job well done? Hot Wheels

MINNEAPOLIS -- The postgame awards the Minnesota Vikings' defensive backs now covet, the mementos they proudly display in their lockers, came from an idea that struck Jerry Gray on a shopping trip to Target.

"I always try to give guys a little extra incentive -- something that you can go to the store and buy, but if you earn it, it's a whole lot better," said Gray, the Vikings' defensive backs coach. "I think guys appreciate little things. I think it's something you try to earn."

The keepsakes Vikings defensive backs are trying to earn from Gray this year are the ones many of them played with as kids: Hot Wheels cars.

That's right -- one of the motivating forces for the league's eighth-best pass defense is a die-cast replica that can be purchased in a five-pack for $4.99 at Target. But the timeless toys have maintained their popularity for decades, and when Gray explained the award to his players after training camp, it was with a motto: Hard work never goes out of style.

"So many things have changed over time with toys, but Hot Wheels have stayed the same," safety Harrison Smith said. "They're really one of the only things that's still real: It's metal, and the price hasn't really changed. When we have a good game, he gives us that to show us the value of how we played."

Gray awards the cars only after victories, placing them in players' lockers with a handwritten note about what they did well. Some decisions are obvious -- Terence Newman got one for his two-interception game in Oakland last month -- while some are more subtle. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, for example, earned one for helping control Julio Jones last month in Atlanta, though Rhodes had only two tackles and one pass breakup. He gave out three after the Vikings' win in Detroit on Oct. 25, when they rallied from a 17-6 deficit and contained Calvin Johnson in the second half.

"I bought about 15 or 20 of them at the time -- all different cars, different looks. I started thinking, 'OK, what would Xavier [Rhodes] want? What would Terence Newman want? What about Captain [Munnerlyn], the rest of the guys in the group? It's something they had to go out and work and earn.

"It's not what they do to start the game. It's, 'What are you doing -- can you readjust? Can you make some adjustments on the sideline?' I go through all those things. It's not, 'Well, Coach, I got two interceptions -- I deserve it.' It really doesn't work like that."

When Gray was a four-time Pro Bowler for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1980s, there were no such motivational tactics from defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur. "It was, 'Hey, look -- you're in the NFL. That should be good enough,' " he said. But as he began coaching a different generation of players, he saw he'd have to adjust his approach.

Gray has long searched for ways to get the attention of his players, adopting new methods as the calendar turns and faces change. As the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, he made a ceremony of handing out garbage bags to the players who did the most dirty work during the previous game. Earlier this year, Gray put boxing gloves on cornerback Rhodes' hands during a drill to dissuade him from grabbing receivers.

"He's a wise man," Smith said. "He played at an extremely high level, and he's also a great guy on and off the field. There's a lot to learn from, just in how to do that."

Gray estimated he has eight or 10 cars left, and is hoping he'll have enough occasions to give them all away between now and the playoffs. He has a group of players who care enough about the miniature incentives to keep pushing for more of them.

"I thought it was crazy [at first]," Munnerlyn said. "But then as you think about it, when you're smaller, you remember the Hot Wheels cars and stuff like that -- having the little ramp that goes with the Hot Wheels, and you shoot them out. You remember those things, and you're like, 'Man, those cars were valuable.' They're metal, and they don't break. When I first heard, I was like, 'Man -- I don't want a Hot Wheel! Give me something else!' I really get it [now]."