From Viking to Viking
Augustana Viking standout CJ Ham ‘16
signs with the Minnesota Vikings.
Growing up, CJ Ham was targeted by bullies simply because he stuttered.
Seeking refuge from tormenters, the youngster looked to his faith for inner strength and to sports to showcase his athleticism. The decision ultimately shut down the bullies, and brought to fruition Ham’s long standing dream of playing professional football.
In May, a few days before graduating from Augustana University, the 6-foot-1, 238-pound running back signed a free agent contract with the Minnesota Vikings.
“I couldn’t have asked for more,” Ham said. “Just to be given the opportunity to try out with the Vikings was great. Then I was offered a contract and it was like, I’m going to be a part of a NFL (National Football League) team, and the team is in my home state. All the hard work and time I put in paid off. It was a dream come true for me.”
In the end, bullies did not beat down Ham but instilled in him the desire to succeed both as a student and athlete.
“I started playing sports because I didn’t have to speak and that way no one would know I stuttered. When I was on the field I wasn’t being judged on my disability but rather on my ability. I started standing up for myself a little more to show people I didn’t like being bullied and I wouldn’t be pushed around. It definitely stops the bullying for the most part.”
When he entered middle school, friends and teammates began calling Ham “The Bus.” The tag referenced Jerome Bettis, the 5-11, 260-pound Pittsburgh Steelers running back and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee. It was a sign of respect … no one messes with a bus.
“I went to the Boys and Girls Club every single day,” Ham said. “I wanted to be around people who had a positive influence on others. Being bullied as a kid gave me the inspiration to help others who were being bullied.”
Ham played football at Denfield High School in Duluth, Minnesota. He lettered three years, was a two-year starter, and twice was an all-conference choice at linebacker. As for college, it came down to the University of Minnesota-Duluth and Augustana.
He opted for Augustana since the Vikings wanted him to run the ball. And in the spring he could compete in field events with the track team. It’s a decision he would repeat without hesitation.
“No regrets at all,” said Ham. “I was able to compete in two sports and the Augustana education is top-notch. You say you went to Augie and you go to the top of the list.”
Jerry Olszewski, Augustana head football coach, found Ham to be inspirational.
“CJ was the heart of our team and a perfect selection as captain for the 2015 Vikings,” Olszewski said. “His work ethic, leadership and passion were some of the most important components of this team and led us to a division championship.
With over 1,500 all-purpose yards and 19 touchdowns, his play was almost as impressive as his leadership. As great of a player as CJ is, he is even a better person and that’s what makes him so special. I will miss seeing him every day as he made me want to be a better coach and leader.”
Ham caught the attention of NFL scouts with a monster senior season. He ran for 1,097 yards and 16 touchdowns, while catching 39 passes for 431 yards, and three touchdowns. He possessed the tools needed for the pros – size, speed, soft hands and strength (he holds school records for the indoor weight throw and outdoor hammer throw).
“I believe that CJ has a very unique set of skills for a man his size and athleticism,” said Olszewski. “In my opinion, his skill sets match up very well for the NFL game. His size, speed, agility, power, and ball skills make him a tremendous asset on any roster as a fullback or third-down back. He will also be an impact in the special teams game which is how many players keep their jobs at that level. I am very excited to see what God has next in CJ’s journey and pray that his prayers are answered as he uses the gifts given him to the greatest amount. CJ is a great example of Augustana, and our student-athletes, as he stays humble and is thankful for all that he has been given.”
He was an Academic All-Northern Sun Intercollegiate choice in 2014 and 2015, and was named to the All-NSIC second team in 2015.
In 2015, Ham was named winner of the Glen Galligan Award by the NSIC football coaches. The recipient is a “student-athlete who participates at his institution for four years and is academically superior while making a positive contribution to his institution.”
Ham served as an educator and mentor in the Sioux Falls School District beginning his freshman year. He was a weekly volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club in Sioux Falls and worked with Habitat for Humanity. He also volunteered as a speaker in advocacy groups for children with disabilities.
His message: “Embrace your differences and make the best of it. Don’t let your disability or difference affect your ability to reach your potential.”
A video titled “CJ’s Story” was produced and shown at all Embrace Church campuses in Sioux Falls. In it, Ham tells of his struggle with stuttering and how his faith was strengthened by putting matters in God’s hands. He shares a story of how he felt a television interview didn’t go well because of his stuttering. He told Coach Olszewski how bad he felt and the coach responded, “God made you that way and I love it.”
Ham credits God for “leading him to this point in his life for a reason,” and “I hope and pray I get my shot.”
Chris Haugan, campus pastor for Summit Avenue Embrace Church, said: “For someone who has already accomplished a lot in his life, CJ’s humble heart about it all is his most endearing characteristic. He is one of my favorite people.”
Ham’s biggest game as an Augustana Viking was the clash with the University of Sioux Falls in 2015. His big day included 29 carries for 154 yards and two touchdowns. His second scoring run was a classic 31-yard dash with 22 seconds remaining in the game rallying the Vikings to a 35-28 win.
“It was by far the biggest game of my career,” he said. “Coming back from fumbling on the three-yard line and then to score the winning touchdown was certainly one of my favorite runs.”
Hurting emotionally as he walked off the field following the fumble, Ham came face-to-face with Coach Olszewski.
“He told me to forget about it,” Ham said. “He said you’re going to make a big play for us. It helped a lot. I had possibly lost the game, but Coach and my teammates did a great job of building me up.”
It was a gesture Ham plans to pay forward throughout his lifetime.
“I would love working in the non-profit field like the Boys and Girls Club. I want to give back to troubled youth.”