When running back Adrian Peterson ripped ligaments in his left knee in December 2011, fear was prevalent that he would never be as dynamic. But the next season, Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards, only 9 yards shy of the NFL's single-season rushing record, and in February 2013 was named the league's Most Valuable Player. Eight months later, Peterson's 2-year-old son was murdered by a man who was dating the boy's mother. Eleven months after that, Peterson was charged with child abuse after whipping his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch and was exiled from the Minnesota Vikings remaining 15 games.
Think about that. Consider the titanic emotional upheaval, the mental flips required to stay humble when so high, to rise from ashes when piercingly crushed.
A Federal judge ruled in favor of Peterson on Thursday, overturning his suspension. He turns 30 on March 21.
Does he want a return to the Vikings? Does he want a fresh start elsewhere?
Peterson says he is "uneasy" about a Vikings return due to his view of a lack of full support by the franchise during his child abuse case. His father, Nelson, says the possibility of a Vikings restoration exists, but that Peterson's camp blames Vikings chief operating officer Kevin Warren for fighting against his son's return to the field last season.
Owners and executives across several NFL tracks that I spoke with this week are scratching their heads over Peterson's approach.
This is where they start: Peterson caused the problem. Own it. All of it. The Vikings initially tried to immediately reinstate him but were thumped by the league office, the Vikings fan base and business associates. Why isn't his camp critical of his sponsors, like Nike, for dumping him, one owner asked? Why isn't he talking about the fact that he works for the Vikings and the Wilf family, just like Warren does, and that everything involving him and all Vikings matters is a top-down decision?
This is where they end: Vikings ownership, management, coaching and all major staffing have clearly stated that they want Peterson back. So if he wants to return, the door is open. If he does not, well, then his uneasiness and his camp's views on Warren help create an exit plan.
An NFL owner told me, emphatically: "Kevin Warren is not the problem in this situation. Clearly, to me, Adrian Peterson needs to understand that if he wants to continue his career with the Vikings, Kevin Warren can be and has to be a great part of the solution."
Warren declined to comment on the Peterson situation. He said his statement on the subject when he was named COO on Feb. 12 stands. Then he said:
"I think our organization and individuals in our organization ... all have made it very clear that they all would welcome Adrian back once he gets all of the open items resolved with the league, and I feel exactly the same way. My feeling about Adrian is I have great respect for him as a football player and as a person. He's part of our Vikings family. I would welcome him back with open arms."
Just who is Kevin Warren?
Like Peterson, Warren has exhibited a bounce-back, warrior work ethic that makes both men among the most important figures in Vikings and league history.
Warren is the first and only African-American chief operating officer of an NFL franchise in league history. His Vikings duties encompass overseeing marketing, finance, legal, sales, stadium development, public affairs, human resources and several other Vikings ventures.
"We first met Kevin as part of our purchasing the team and he has been a key part of our executive team since," said Vikings owner/president Mark Wilf, who along with his brother, owner/chairman Zygi Wilf, bought the team in 2005.
"We have the highest respect for his integrity and leadership. He sets a great example on the ground for us in Minnesota. He is our feet on the ground. He has constantly helped people and players in our organization. He has let it be known that he is in support of Adrian returning. People talk about coaches having a coaching tree in this league. Kevin has a vast executive tree in this league of people he has mentored who are now doing great work for NFL teams. We are building a first-class on- and off-the-field experience with the Vikings. We have the best possible leadership in the league in Kevin to help us do that. I know I can say this -- every day he looks out for the good of the Minnesota Vikings."
Warrren's chief introduction to the NFL came in 1997 with the St. Louis Rams in a front office legal role. But former Rams head coach Dick Vermeil said that Warren's contribution was much larger.
"What we did there in three years and in winning a Super Bowl is hard to do," Vermeil said. "One of the reasons why was Kevin did a tremendous job of getting me, the rest of the coaching staff and getting our players in the right frame of mind to coach and be coached. He spent a lot of time helping players mature. Kevin is gifted, very intelligent with a great asset of emotional intelligence. And in a crisis, when shit hits the fan, he knows what to do. He can be empathetic, but he can be tough. Sometimes in the NFL, you have to be that when you really have to be that."
Warren, 51, the youngest of seven children, said he learned those traits growing up in Phoenix from his father, Morrison, Sr.; his mother, Margaret; and his oldest brother, Morrison, Jr.
His father was a business and civic leader who was the first African American to become a director of a college football bowl game (1982 Fiesta Bowl). His mother was a librarian/teacher who also kept strict order at home, from cooking their meals to even ironing their sheets. His brother was one of the first African-American scholarship football players in the 1960s at Stanford and has been a longtime distinguished Phoenix banker.
He said his father taught him social grace, that his mother inspired him with her toughness and intelligence and that his brother motivated him to move beyond Phoenix, to spread his wings.
When he was age 12, he was nearly killed.
"I was riding my bike to our local school to play basketball," Warren said. "A lady ran up on the sidewalk driving nearly 40 miles an hour, hit me and I flew 30-feet into the air. Luckily, I landed on grass. I close my eyes and I still see it. I'm blessed. There were no internal injuries. There was a compound fracture to my right femur. I was in the hospital for six weeks. I had to be in a body cast for six months. The doctors said I would probably never play basketball again. But by the grace of God, I made it back."
He did, moving on to the University of Pennsylvania as a basketball player, then transferring to Grand Canyon University to become a 20-point-per-game scorer and academic All-American. On to law school at Notre Dame and then to Arizona State for his MBA. On to opening his own sports law firm before spending time as a front office legal executive with the Rams and the Detroit Lions. On to an international law firm before joining the Vikings.
"I've learned in football, I learned in St. Louis with the Rams that you have to have people working in concert, through differences, to have a chance to be champions," he said. "We had such great coaches and great players and wonderful symmetry there -- and still won the championship by only 1 yard [in Super Bowl XXXIV]. Everyone has a price to pay. Everyone gets the same ring.
"I am humbly part of a team here and our job is to deliver a championship to the Wilf family and to the great fans here in Minnesota. This beautiful stadium that we are building that opens next year deserves a Lombardi Trophy in the lobby. Every day that is my focus, to help get us one step closer. All differences are overcome when you get that. It binds you together for eternity."
Peterson, Warren and the Vikings share enough in common.
Now all involved should understand the difference between a problem and a solution.