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Araguz got a Christmas present

He was selling insurance in south Texas when the call came

By Andres Ybarra

Associated Press Writer

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It was a regular Sunday night in south Texas for insurance salesman Leo Araguz, who was putting lights on his Christmas tree while his wife wrapped presents.

Then the phone rang. It was Minnesota Vikings special teams coach Rusty Tillman.

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"They told me to get my butt up here as fast as I could," Araguz recalled. Less than 48 hours later, Araguz was the Vikings' new punter.

Talk about an early Christmas present. But it may not last much longer -- at least not with the Vikings.

Minnesota signed Araguz less than two weeks ago to replace struggling rookie Eddie Johnson, who had mishandled snaps in three straight games and was hanging onto balls too long.

The team brought in Araguz, but coach Mike Tice thought highly enough of Johnson to keep him on the roster. So Araguz's time in Minnesota may not last past the next couple of weeks, pending the Vikings' playoff push.

That's OK with him, as long as he gets the chance to showcase his ability in the hopes that someone else might want him.

"We've got to make the best of it," Araguz said. "You've got to prove to the NFL that you can still kick and punt in this league. Hopefully, somebody will give you the chance to come back and do it again next year."

Before last Saturday's win over Kansas City, Araguz had last punted for Detroit in 2001. He spent four seasons with Oakland from 1996-99.

Against the Chiefs, Araguz averaged 38.3 yards on four punts and faced one of the league's most dangerous return men, Dante Hall.

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"I would give myself a a grade of a 70, but you can grow from there," he said.

But if not, he's got a backup plan in the insurance industry. Araguz said his insurance employer in Harlingen, Texas, is holding his job there for him.

"Don't leave any stones unturned," he said.

INJURIES: Tice said running back Michael Bennett continues to make good progress in his recovery from a sprained ankle.

Bennett, who saw limited action against the Chiefs, was wearing a boot on his foot earlier this week, but he worked with the second team in Friday's practice. He's listed as probable on the injury report.

Overall, Tice said all three running backs -- Bennett, Moe Williams and Onterrio Smith -- are healthier than they've been in several weeks. Williams had been bothered by a knee injury and Smith had a strained hamstring.

"It's great that we have all three healthy," Tice said.

In other injury news, defensive end Kenny Mixon practiced with a pad on his right hand to protect a broken thumb he sustained in last Saturday's win over Kansas City. Tice said Mixon experienced no pain and should be "good to go" against the Cardinals.

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Backup quarterback Gus Frerotte was held out of Friday's practice after coming down with the flu earlier this week.

"I just wanted him out of the building because I don't want him getting anyone sick," Tice said, adding that the team was giving players flu shots as a precaution.

Weak-side linebacker Chris Claiborne (ankle) practiced some on Friday but is still listed as questionable.

OLD RIVALRIES: College football rivalries always make for some playful banter in NFL locker rooms, where many former college foes often find themselves on the same team.

This year's Sun Bowl rematch between the Minnesota Gophers and Oregon Ducks brings back memories for three Vikings players: Backup safety Jack Brewer (Minnesota), offensive tackle Adam Haayer (Minnesota) and receiver Keenan Howry (Oregon) all played in the 1999 Sun Bowl game between the Gophers and the Ducks. And running back Onterrio Smith transferred to Oregon from Tennessee the next year.

This year's game will be played on New Year's Eve in El Paso, Texas.

"Ever since I got here and realized a couple Gophers were on the team, it kind of raised it a level," Howry said of the friendly rivalry. Howry caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the 1999 game, won by Oregon 24-20.

"I'll be glued to the TV to see what happens," he said.

Said Smith: "We're going to win."

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