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Updated: October 28th, 2011 4:20pm
Zulgad: Sky is the limit for Christian Ponder on and off the field

Zulgad: Sky is the limit for Christian Ponder on and off the field

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The NFL lockout was in its final days when Christian Ponder arrived in the Twin Cities to begin taking part in workouts organized by Larry Fitzgerald Jr. on the University of Minnesota campus.

Having some time on his hands in the evening hours, Ponder decided he should check out a Twins game at Target Field.

Ponder let it be known he would be in attendance and, not surprisingly, the Vikings' first-round draft pick found himself being shown on the scoreboard between innings.

To say the reaction to Ponder's appearance on the jumbotron was minimal would be an understatement of epic proportions. Even Ponder admits now there were probably less than 50 people who realized they were looking at the Vikings quarterback of the future.

A few days after the Twins game, Ponder was told he should enjoy the anonymity because that wouldn't be the norm for long. Ponder laughed and agreed that was probably the case.

What Ponder didn't appear to be was bent out of shape or offended in the least.

This is a guy who played quarterback at Florida State and was a first-round pick in the NFL draft. There are many guys with these credentials who wouldn't have thought an apparent snub by the public was funny.

It was that brief glimpse into Ponder's character - seeing how he dealt with not being recognized - that leads one to believe he could become the next athlete to not just be recognized but to own the Twin Cities.

There have been plenty of pro sports stars to come through Minnesota, but there's a difference between being a star and ending up on a pedestal in this state.

Kevin Garnett was a superstar; Kirby Puckett ended up on a pedestal.

It appeared Joe Mauer was headed in that direction as he collected three American League batting titles and the 2009 MVP. Mauer lacks any charisma but he has the looks and ability, plus he is from St. Paul. Three out of four isn't bad.

However, the potential love affair ended abruptly this summer as Mauer missed nearly half the season because of a variety of injuries, including the mysterious bilateral leg weakness, and proved to be extremely evasive when pressed on the issue of what was wrong.

Minnesota sports fans are more forgiving than some but prove to be overly introverted or off-putting and they will quickly grow tired of your act. And when they are tired of your act, that means you're a whole lot less marketable and commercial opportunities go away.

In Mauer's case, it didn't help matters that he was rewarded with an eight-year, $184 million extension and in the first year of that deal appeared in only 52 games at his primary position of catcher.

This is where the door has opened for Ponder.

To be clear, we're not saying Ponder is going to be able to succeed in becoming the "it" athlete in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He has started only one game for the Vikings and no matter how positive the reviews were he still only completed 13 of 32 passes.

But we are saying the ingredients are there.

Ponder's a quarterback -- there is no better position at which to make a name for yourself in sports -- he has the looks that could cause the female fan base to dump their No. 7 Mauer jerseys for No. 7 Ponder jerseys and he's a likeable guy.

And for lack of a better term, Ponder gets it.

There is no questioning his intelligence. Ponder earned his degree in two-and-a-half years at Florida State, then got a Master's in finance and is now working on his graduate degree in sports management.

But more important than his book smarts is the fact that Ponder seems to be blessed with common sense and the ability to know how to play to the crowd.

This is meant in a positive way.

Ponder didn't just go to a Twins game, he bought a Twins hat that he's worn ever since. Brett Favre tried the same trick but if memory serves that was during a playoff run. Ponder bought himself a cap during a 99-loss season for the team!

Favre could be charming in group settings, but by the time he got to Minnesota he had little time for anything that qualified as personal interaction. Ponder is personable in one-on-one situations and group settings.

He displayed this on Wednesday during his weekly news conference at Winter Park. Relaxed and engaging, Ponder did not come off as defensive or annoyed to be talking to the media, but rather as a guy who figured he might as well have some fun with this part of the job.

He even worked in a "Happy Gilmore" reference as he described that his six-shooter touchdown celebration last Sunday was borrowed from the character "Shooter McGavin," in that movie. This is called playing up to the male fan base.

If you don't think any of this is a big deal, remember these are the same clips played on your evening news or that turn up in your newspaper and on the Internet. How a guy treats the media is a reflection of how he treats the fans and if he seems to be enjoying himself everyone will see it.

Ponder is only 23 years old and easily could be caught up in the fact he's been thrust into the starting role for a 1-6 team that is rebuilding. He could still be upset that Vikings fans attending the team's draft party in April were less than pleased when he was the pick at No. 12 and voiced their displeasure.

Ponder could have pouted when the Vikings traded for Donovan McNabb after the lockout ended and told everyone he knew he should have been the starter when McNabb was benched.

But that's not Ponder's style. He's smarter than that.

And because of that the Christian Ponder bandwagon might fill up very quickly in Minnesota. 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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