The weather forecast calls for a dangerous rainstorm to hit the
Indianapolis area this afternoon. But Colt center Kirk
Lowdermilk ignores the warnings to stay off the roads. It's the
first full week after Thanksgiving, the beginning of the holiday
season, and he must bring home the family Christmas tree.
As soon as practice ends, Lowdermilk hops into his pickup truck
for the six-hour drive to Kensington, Ohio. This won't be some
misadventure in which the good-hearted dad travels far and wide
only to overpay for a droopy tree with painted pine needles.
"I'll probably just pluck one off the back 40," Lowdermilk says.
That's the back 40 of his 220-acre nursery, a 90,000-tree
operation called Viking Farms, which specializes in growing
varieties of spruce, fir and pine. Lowdermilk started the
business with his friend Lanny Peterson and cousin Bob Galbreath
in 1989 in the midst of his eight-year stint with the Minnesota
Vikings--hence the name. While the pine that Lowdermilk chops
down will soon be tinsel-clad in his living room, the majority
of Viking Farms' trees are sold to landscape architects and
individual homeowners as ornaments for outside the home. "The
guy makes $2 million a year, yet he's always peddling these
trees for $75," says Colt tackle Will Wolford.
A locker room full of highly paid athletes provides rich soil
for Lowdermilk's growing venture. Before training camp this year
he sold defensive tackle Tony Siragusa a dozen trees for the
lawn of his new house in Indianapolis. Lowdermilk noticed that
the streets near guard Joe Staysniak's apartment were lined with
shiny metal lampposts and little else. In September he gave his
linemate four trees--"the ones he couldn't sell to anyone else,"
Staysniak says--which led to the sale of 30 more trees in the
neighborhood. "I admit it," Staysniak says. "Because of Kirk the
place smells and looks a lot better."
Since joining the Colts as a free agent in March 1993,
Lowdermilk, who has started 91 consecutive NFL games, has
literally been the center of a rebuilding process. Last season
the offensive line allowed 28 sacks, compared with 44 in '92,
and the 6'4", 284-pounder was voted the team's lineman of the
year by the Colts' Thundering Herd fan club. "Kirk's the guy we
all look up to the most," says Staysniak. "He has this rare
intensity that he switches on as soon as he steps on the field."
Off the field he's all business as well. After Viking Farms
opened, Lowdermilk--who majored in mechanical engineering at Ohio
State--took horticulture and plant pathology classes at the
University of Minnesota. Although Lowdermilk and his family live
in suburban Indianapolis year-round, he makes the trip to
Kensington at least once a month during the season to check on
his trees. In the off-season he usually spends four or five days
a week in Ohio tending to the business. "I guess you could say
I'm a tree hugger," says Lowdermilk. "Wait, I'm more
conservative than liberal. Make that an evergreen-tree hugger."
COLOR PHOTO: MARY ANN CARTER The Colts' center knows a lot about pines but nothing about pine time. [Kirk Lowdermilk holding Christmas tree]