If you only knew Visanthe Shiancoe by his Twitter handle (@VShiancoe), you might be under the impression that the only thing the Minnesota Vikings tight end takes seriously is his off-season workouts. He tweets trash talk about his video game talents, having hiccups after eating well and laughing about a guy on the street in skin-tight jeans.
What isn’t in 140 characters on his Twitter handle is how his mother fled civil war in Liberia in 1980, and months later, gave birth to a baby boy named Visanthe in Birmingham, England. His mother jumped the Atlantic and settled near Washington, D.C., and years later that baby boy grew up to be a 6’4”, 240-pound standout player in America’s favorite sport.
“It’s very close to my heart,” Shiancoe says of his West African heritage. “They went through 15 to 20 years of civil war, and it destructed the whole country. They have a lot of rebuilding to do. I want to help that in any way, shape or form.”
That urge to give back to people in need extends into every aspect of the 31-year-old’s life. Last fall, Shiancoe appeared on the NBC game show Minute to Win It and raised $37,000 for then National Kidney Foundation offices in St. Paul and Washington, D.C. His inspiration for raising money came from his mother, who is a social worker, and the stories she’s shared of clients suffering through kidney dialysis. His cousin recently received a new kidney. “That really got to me,” Shiancoe says.
Shiancoe’s willingness to help, his fame and his ethnicity make him a great match for the National Kidney Foundation since minorities are disproportionately affected by kidney disease, says Jill Evenocheck, a division president. “We wish there were more folks out there like him,” she says. “But we are thankful for those that we do have. … He’s wonderful.”
The foundation is working on a slogan, Love Your Kidneys, which will center on Shiancoe’s healthy eating and active lifestyle.
Another one of Shiancoe’s charitable partner is Pros for Africa and the Starkey Hearing Foundation of Eden Prairie. He helped out with a Starkey event in Las Vegas earlier this year, but he really wants to accompany fellow NFL stars, perhaps teammate Adrian Peterson and Minnesota native Larry Fitzgerald, on mission trips to his native continent. Peterson and Fitzgerald led a mission last spring to Uganda and Rwanda to help fit hundreds of children with hearing aids. Shiancoe wants to bring a mission to Liberia – and soon.
The foundation has yet to aid Liberia, but executive director Brady Forseth wants Shiancoe to help make it happen. “Visanthe came out [to Las Vegas] to generate much-needed awareness,” Forseth says. “He spoke about wanting to lead a mission to Liberia. … We want to have him on board as we try and go into Liberia.”
Shiancoe believes sharing his family’s story of fleeing the coastal African nation more than 30 years ago could move more people to help needy Africans. “I think that knowledge always helps in the defeat of ignorance,” he says. “To bring understanding to people definitely helps a cause, and they can relate that to something they’ve gone through. They can understand that, and it creates a little bit of empathy.”
It doesn’t take much, however, to understand other elements of Shiancoe’s life. He can be just a regular guy. Sure, he splits his year between Winter Park in Eden Prairie and his hometown in Maryland, but he can also be found playing video games. “I’m all over the PS3 online,” he says. “That satisfies my competitive nature in the offseason. Call of Duty, Madden, Mortal Kombat.”
Sure, he will be paid $3 million next season, but he enjoys eating beef barley soup at Wildfire and sushi at Kona Grill in Eden Prairie. “I’m a food connoisseur almost,” he says. “It’s steaks, salmon. I do eat healthy, so I won’t do anything like loaded mash potatoes, or anything too unhealthy or too buttery or two sour creamish. Desserts: I stay away from those things.”
Keeping a fit figure has led into him posing shirtless on the cover of City Pages, in Essence Online and elsewhere. That much skin has then led Vikings teammates into giving him a hard time in the locker room. “It’s always fun though,” he says. “That’s what a locker room is. It’s the friendships and the camaraderie. That’s what it is.”