Kidder laughs prior to formally introducing himself to the kids at the Colt Anderson skills camp at Naranche Stadium in Butte.

BUTTE — Signing autographs for young Montanans is nothing new for Caleb Kidder, so his sticking around to make some children happy following a skills camp in Butte on Tuesday morning seemed like another day at the office.

“It was awesome,” Kidder said after the camps. “Just giving back to the youth, it was a cool experience.”

The former Montana Grizzlies’ standout defensive end is about as popular as an athlete from The Treasure State gets. But there was a glaring difference as he exchanged footballs and T-shirts with the wide-eyed youngsters: It was the Minnesota Vikings logo on his own T. Kidder, a product from Helena Capital High School, now dons the Purple and Gold in the National Football League. Eight weeks into his journey of a lifetime, not even Kidder himself can believe he’s made it.

“Ten weeks ago,” he said, “I was wondering, ‘Am I even going to get a shot?'”

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That’s the question that he and every other hopeful Montanan pondered. A total of 253 names were called during this year’s NFL draft. His was not one of them. Luckily, he received a call shortly after the draft from the Vikings, eliciting a wave of youthful emotion from a 6-foot-5, 260-pound mammoth of a man.

“I still can’t believe it,” he said of the experience.

The coolest part of his arrival?

“[Meeting] guys that I’ve always looked up to,” he said. “Like Brian Robison [defensive end] and Sam Bradford [quarterback]. I’ve met some really cool people. It’s been a really cool experience.”

Kidder is now back in his home state for the first time since starting team workouts eight weeks ago, and working at a kids’ camp was an especially nostalgic event.

“I remember going to the Carroll College camps back in Helena when I was a little kid and looking up to the Carroll College players,” he said, laughing. “And they were Carroll College players, so I can’t imagine the role model position that I’m in — it’s a really humbling feeling.”

Of course, Kidder was not criticizing the historical NAIA powerhouse. He makes a valid point: He is on a short list of players to grace an NFL roster. But he announced that he has taken the first big step in his career and his trip to Montana is simply that.

“I’m invited back to fall camp,” he said with a smile. “It’s a blessing. I can’t even put it into words.”

He has the month off and he will spend a chunk of that time in his home state, making appearances at various events, like the ‘Celebrity Gala’ in Missoula. He will then head right back to Minneapolis to continue adjusting to life at the next level.

“It is fun,” Kidder said of his experience to this point. “But it’s a job. You got to show up [and] you got to do things right. Once you get doing things right, then it becomes a lot more fun.”

He must be doing a few things right in The Gopher State, as he has emerged from the hole that is summer camp. Next up is the fun part, which he can’t wait for.

“I’m super excited,” he said. “I’m super excited to get back there, get fall camp underway, do our preseason games, and just see what happens.”

As the Sharpies dried and the kids excitedly ran to their parents with their freshly marked pieces of memorabilia, Kidder had one more message for the young campers.

“I got to where I’m at by hard work,” he said. “Keep learning, keep showing up, [and] keep working hard. You guys will get somewhere, someday.”

His message is both authentic and one that every Montanan in the NFL has lived by: Grit is a staple of the people who hail from here. He begins his next step repping new colors, but it’s his roots — the Maroon and Silver — that have, and will, continue to carry him through his biggest journey.

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