Allen Park — This week is more than a homecoming matchup for Detroit Lions rookie guard Frank Ragnow, it's an opportunity to perform in front of the tight-knit community that helped carry his family through some of their darkest times.
Ragnow was born and raised in Chanhassen, Minn., a suburb approximately a half-hour southwest of Minneapolis. He was a four-star recruit for the town's high school and accepted a scholarship to play at Arkansas. Since leaving for college, he hasn't played a down of football in the state.
This weekend, when the Lions travel to Minnesota to battle the Vikings, Ragnow's cheering section will be in full force. While he didn't have an exact total, he said he'll have well north of 50 people in the stands at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"I’m trying to treat it like another game, but my whole freakin’ community is going," Ragnow said with a smile. "It’s crazy to me, the support I’ve had, for really every game, but this week I’ve got old high school teachers, old middle school teachers, old elementary school teachers, their kids. It’s everybody. And they’re all so excited to see me play. They haven’t seen me play since high school, in person, so it will be cool to play in front of them, my hometown crowd.
Ragnow's family has been through a lot in recent years. Three years ago his mother, Marty, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She beat it, but less than a year later, Ragnow's father Jon died suddenly due to a heart attack. He was 56.
Through those tribulations, the community lifted up the Ragnow family.
"After my dad passed, 12 of his good friends — they call themselves my mom’s new husbands — they stepped up, took care of us, the neighbors, everything there, it’s incredible," Ragnow said. "The amount of support, I can’t even put into words the people who have been there for us."
Given the geography, it's not surprising to learn Ragnow was a massive Vikings fan growing up. He idolized the team's star players from that generation, from Randy Moss to Adrian Peterson to quarterback Daunte Culpepper.
Ragnow and his family didn't make to many games, but he happened to be in the stands for one of the most memorable games of franchise history.
Last January, after finishing up his run at Arkansas and prior to the NFL draft, Ragnow was treated to some midfield seats, courtesy of agent Joe Panos, to the Vikings playoff game against the Saints.
Down a point with 10 seconds remaining, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum threw a long pass to Stefon Diggs near the right sideline. The Saints defender missed a tackle that would have run out the clock and the receiver took advantage of the mistake, turned up field and ran untouched 61 yards, crossing the goal line for the winning score as the last second ticked off the clock.
"I’ve never seen a stadium full of grown men crying to pure happiness," Ragnow said. "It was crazy the level of emotion that changed like that."
Three months later, Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia called Ragnow, surrounded by his mother and members of his community, to tell him he was being drafted by the Detroit Lions.
Like that, whatever loyalty he had to the Vikings evaporated.
"It’s not that hard," Ragnow said. "The 20th pick in the NFL draft, anybody picking me, I’m instantly their biggest fan. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you."
Ragnow has been a solid addition to Detroit's offensive line, navigating through some typical first-year struggles while contributing to the unit's overall improved performance, both in the ground game and protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford.
It could be easily argued that he'll face his biggest challenge this week, against a Vikings defense that loves to stress opponent A gaps, the spaces between the center and guards, the defense's shortest path to the football.
"It’s one of those games you really have to hound in on your fundamentals, trust your eyes and trust the plan," Ragnow said. "(Vikings coach Mike Zimmer) throws a lot of different fronts at you and a big part of it is preparing for that all week, so you can feel confident. It’s definitely a mental game this week because it’s more fronts that usual."
Win or lose, whether he gives up a sack or opens the lane a game-winning touchdown for one of the team's running backs, Ragnow knows his community will be behind him.
"When I go back, you know everybody and everybody is family," Ragnow said. "We all take care of each other."
Lions vs. Vikings
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
TV/radio: Fox/WJR 760
Records: Lions 3-4, Vikings 4-3-1
Line: Vikings by 5