Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
Starting this weekend, the Star Tribune will unveil a three-part series examining pain and pain treatment in the NFL.
It was a wake-up call like no other. Asleep at the downtown Hilton in Minneapolis on the morning of Dec. 20, 2010, Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman figured he had everything settled for that night’s clash with the Bears.
Instead, not long after sunrise, his bedside phone rang.
“Hey Suge," the voice on the other end said. "Does out mean out?”
On the line that morning was a certain energetic quarterback, a guy by the name of Brett Favre, who like a grounded teenager wanting to go out for the night, didn’t seem to want to accept his sidelined status.
Never mind that the Vikings had officially declared him out on their injury report, Favre still dealing with a badly sprained right shoulder that had led to numbness in his throwing hand.
The Vikings had a game that night. A Monday nighter. On ESPN. Against the division-rival Bears. On a snowy field, with temperatures dipping into the low 20s.Favre’s itch needed scratching.
Sugarman processed the question.
Does out mean out?
“It has,” Sugarman thought to himself, “in every other situation before this.”
Yet here was Favre doing as he so often did throughout his 20-season NFL career – challenging convention and battling through agonizing pain.
“This game is like a drug,” Sugarman said. “These guys can’t get enough of it. No matter how much they hurt, no matter how much they suffer, they can’t get enough.”
Favre’s consecutive starts streak of 297 games, an NFL record for a quarterback, had ended a week earlier when he couldn’t play against the Giants. The Vikings were already out of the playoff picture. There seemed to be little incentive to play.
Yet Favre wanted in. He needed in. And he ultimately pushed hard enough to get his way, starting that night, throwing an early touchdown pass, then leaving the game for good when he was slammed into the icy turf and banged his head.
“You’d think he probably regrets that he played in that game. Especially as we scraped him up off the turf,” Sugarman said. “But we all know he didn’t regret it. That’s just him.”
Favre is arguably the most celebrated player in NFL history in terms of his willingness to fight through pain to be ready on game day. But he is far from unique. Week after week, in every locker room across the league, players are wired in a way that pushes them to play as often as possible through as much pain as they can tolerate.
Beginning Sunday, the Star Tribune will begin a three-part series examining the lengths that NFL players go to assure their availability on game days. Specifically, the series will put the use of painkilling drugs in the NFL under a microscope.
You hear that faint hum? That’s the sound of a buzz being generated in Mankato. By the Vikings.
Yep, with only two full practices left in training camp at Minnesota State University, we have signs that our first major story is surfacing.
Star running back Adrian Peterson is back. And not just back; this afternoon he’ll participate in his first padded practice since way back on Dec. 22. That was two days before the Vikings went to Washington D.C. and left with a 33-26 victory and their star running back on crutches.
Peterson tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee on the first play of the second half that afternoon. He had surgery on the knee less than a week later. And now, 32 weeks and four days after coming off the operating table, he’s back in the mix at practice.
That should provide for some intrigue and entertainment when the Vikings get back out on the field a little more than an hour from now. For the past three weeks, the Vikings have been almost entirely off the NFL radar. Yet today? The ESPN cameras have returned to document Peterson’s return.
This isn’t quite as big as the Brett Favre circus during the preseasons of 2009 and 2010. But it’s something.
Peterson has been itching to make this return for a long time now. Yet the Vikings’ coaching staff, aware of Peterson’s eagerness and relentless drive, will continue to use caution with how they handle Peterson today.
In fact, head coach Leslie Frazier spoke with defensive players at length about Peterson’s return to practice, reminding them to treat the team’s biggest offensive star with extreme care.
“I definitely talked with them about it and now we have to adhere to it,” Frazier said after this morning’s walk-through. “But one of the things they told me was, ‘Coach, you know how he runs. I mean he runs [so hard]. What about protecting us?’ Adrian’s not going to change his running style. We all know that. But we have to be smart when he’s out there.”
Peterson will participate in just a handful of plays this afternoon during 7-on-7 and full-team work, a workload, Frazier said, that’s designed “for him to be able to gauge where he is and be able to give us an indication the next day of how he feels after getting a couple of snaps.”
Peterson’s goal of playing in a preseason game will likely be met next week when the Vikings host San Diego. That Sept. 9 date that Peterson has targeted, hoping to return to action for the opening day of the regular season remains within reach as well. But Peterson likely won’t be ready for a workhorse workload any time in the next few weeks, a reality Frazier continues to stress as he talks about “giving [Peterson] increments along the way and not trying to bring it all back in one or two practices.”
The Vikings will report to training camp Thursday at Minnesota State University in Mankato, the official beginning to the 2012 preseason. And just to bring you up to speed with everything that’s happened since the final snap of the 2011 season, here are 50 quotes to sum up the action since New Year’s Day.
“In departing this locker room, I just expressed my appreciation for the fight our guys showed throughout the year. With as difficult as this season has been and with the number of close losses we’ve had, [it was encouraging] for them to show the resolve they have shown.” – Head coach Leslie Frazier on Jan. 1 after a 17-13 home loss to the Bears gave the Vikings a 3-13 record for the 2011 season
“It's an exciting day. It really is. 2011-12 is over. It was miserable record-wise, so I'm glad it's over. We can start building for the future now.” – Defensive end Jared Allen on Jan. 2, as the Vikings closed the books on 2011 and headed into the offseason
“Relieved. We can finally close this book up and throw it in the trash.” – Receiver Percy Harvin, echoing Allen’s sentiments
“Our ownership, our head coach, our coaching staff, all the people involved in this decision process will get a voice to say what they think. The difference will be when we make our personnel decisions and when we go forward I will have the final authority on what that decision is going to be.” – Rick Spielman, upon being promoted from vice president of player personnel to general manager
“The general manager's role allows the franchise to look at goals in a more longer-term vision. Because they realize that the long term puts the franchise on solid footing. I think that's the major aspect of having this structure; it's for the franchise to really give long-term stability to this organization.” – Owner Zygi Wilf, explaining Spielman’s promotion
"I’m a position coach. I’m not a coordinator. I’m not a head coach. When I look at what I did with the Minnesota Vikings, my piece of the puzzle was to make the defensive line play as well as they could. We played well against the run. I think we finished No. 11 against the run. And we finished No. 1 in sacks. And the guy I coached led the league in sacks with 22 on a team that really didn’t have a lead the last eight games of the year. So I thought that was my piece of the puzzle. I can’t worry about running backs, defensive backs, receivers, linebackers. When you do it, you focus on your job, put your piece of the puzzle in and go from there." – Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, reacting after he was fired from the coaching staff in early January
“I would think what I do best is to be able to develop a young player and have him at a winning level early in his career. And when I say early, I mean in the first part of his career, the first year. … What I did in Indianapolis was I developed the young players so that when a veteran was out, a young player could hold down the fort and play winning football until that veteran, until the starter came back.” – Alan Williams, hired to be the Vikings’ new defensive coordinator after 10 years as a defensive backs coach In Indianapolis
“In 2012, as we’re putting this together, I really want to be involved in what we’re doing and how we’re playing things. I really want to make sure we’re headed in the right direction … I don’t want to say I want to take [the defense] over, now. I don’t want to do that. I don’t think it would serve me very well to immerse myself to the point where I can’t oversee some of the things I need to see.” – Frazier, immediately after Williams’ hiring, acknowledging his desire to have a hand in how things are run
“He’s a fiery guy. I like that about him. He’s going to get after our butts. He gets really excited. Some coaches might be more reserved. But he’ll get really fired up when you make a good play or even a bad play. That’ll be a different element that will hopefully be good for us.” – Defensive tackle Kevin Williams, on the hiring of Brendan Daly to be the new defensive line coach. Daly had previous been an assistant d-line coach for the Vikings from 2006-08
“The fact that we get a chance to get our hands on the players is huge. We get to talk with them, spend time with them, eat in the cafeteria with them, talk to them about their lifestyle. It will be immeasurable the time that we’ll be able to be around them and be able to evaluate these players.” – Frazier, on the Vikings’ opportunity to coach the North squad at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. There the Vikings worked closely with safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Audie Cole, players they drafted in April.
“Christian’s going to get there. It’s a process. He’s going to have some highs, he’s going to have some lows. But as a quarterback you have to learn how to handle success and lack of success. And that’s how your true grit is going to be determined. And when you have a lack of success early – even Peyton Manning had some – and people say, ‘Well, all you do is throw interceptions,’ well Peyton learned to quit throwing interceptions. That’s part of the process. Every guy comes with a different time on their maturation process. And the teams around them are different.” – Quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson on the need for quarterback Christian Ponder to take a big step forward in his second season
“The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for performance, but also for injuring opposing players. The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity. It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated." -- NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, dropping the bombshell that a league investigation turned up an organized bounty program within the Saints organization. The investigation also revealed that Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was allegedly a target during the NFC Championship game in 2010.
“This is troubling to me as a human being. Football is a violent game. Guys get hurt all the time. But you want to be out there with the comfort that other guys aren’t purposely out trying to injure you. At that point, you’re not safe.” – Punter Chris Kluwe, on the revelations of the Saints’ bounty program
"There needs to be strong punishment any time a coach or a player thinks they can take someone else's career into their own hands and purposely do something that could end it. We all play hard. But to give bonuses for carting someone off the field? Man, that's just wrong. There's no place for that in the NFL, and I think it's now safe to say you won't be hearing about bounties in the NFL ever again." – Allen, responding to Goodell’s crackdown on the Saints in response to the discovered bounty program
“The only thing bigger is being in God’s kingdom. I’ll tell you that I’m totally blown away by this and just so humbled by it.” – Former Vikings star Chris Doleman, on being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in February
“Is the left tackle that important or is it more important to have playmakers on offense? Because when your quarterback evolves, he learns the system, he gets the ball out of his hand quicker and all of a sudden that left tackle doesn’t need to be a Pro Bowl left tackle. He can be a functional left tackle … That’s the burning bush question. Is it more important to get a left tackle or is it more important to get the playmakers around [Ponder]?” – Spielman, when asked at the combine to assess his interest in Southern Cal left tackle Matt Kalil
“You’ve got to really weigh your options. Because the philosophy [in the NFL] has always been to get the game-changer. And left tackle is not necessarily the game-changer. Usually game-changers are the guys who
can score you points. Receivers. Quarterbacks. So what are we measuring that left tackle against? It’s a loaded debate.” – Frazier, also assessing the worth of Kalil as the Vikings considered their options with the No. 3 overall pick in the draft
“Watching my film and going back, there are so many blatantly dumb mistakes that are easily correctable. That’s the kind of thing that makes me excited about next year, realizing how easy it is to change certain things. It’s just going to make me a lot better and put our team in a much better position to be successful.” – Ponder, assessing his rookie year struggles
"It was a tough decision as we move forward and prepare for the upcoming season and the future of our organization. All three individuals have meant a great deal to the Vikings organization both on and off field over the years. We wish all of them the best and thank them for their service to the Minnesota Vikings." – Frazier, commenting on the release of veterans Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera and Cedric Griffin, the initial roster transactions that set the Vikings’ youth movement in motion.
“Adversity introduces a man to himself. This was definitely an adverse situation and I learned a lot about myself. I control my destiny. My actions control who I am and what I become in the future.” – Cornerback Chris Cook in March, immediately after he was acquitted of all charges in his felony domestic assault trial
“We have thoroughly considered Chris’ situation and how he has approached this matter. We will meet with Chris in the near future and believe he deserves the opportunity to rejoin our organization.” – Statement from the Vikings on Cook’s acquittal
“This got his attention. As hard as it was that period of time, I told him if he handles it the right way, it can be a turning point in his life. Yet, we’ll see.” – Frazier, on welcoming Cook back into the mix
"I wouldn't have come back here if I didn't think the Vikings had a great thing going and a chance to be really special on the offensive side of the ball. That's something I want to be a part of.” – Tight end John Carlson, the Vikings’ biggest free agent acquisition this offseason
"Just give us time to put this roster together. We're not only putting it together for 2012. We're building this roster to be able to maintain it for over the next three to four to five years … I don't think we're a player or two away to go out and spend the money that's being spent on all those players that have gotten contracts early.” – Spielman, explaining the organization’s conservative approach in free agency
“We’re fully aware of what’s around the country in terms of stadiums around the league. We believe we have some of the best fans in the NFL. And we want them to have the kind of first-rate experience other cities have.” – Vikings owner Mark Wilf, speaking at the NFL owners meetings with pleas for the franchise to get full approval for a new stadium
“He’s just what the doctor ordered for the Viking offense. He’s an explosive guy who can really adjust and adapt to the football. And it’s really fun watching him after the catch, which is a skill he demonstrated for the whole league last year when he was with Cincinnati.” – Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, after the Vikings signed free agent receiver Jerome Simpson
“Everyone thinks you’re crazy if you don’t take the left tackle.” – Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman, to Spielman at a press conference the week before the NFL Draft
“Maybe I am, Sid. Maybe I am.” – Spielman in response
“We saw [Kalil] as a guy who could be a Pro Bowler for a long time. That was obvious from our standpoint. Along with what we’re trying to do with our quarterback. We wanted to make sure we do the things that are necessary to ensure that he has success. This gives us a chance to take that step in that direction.” – Frazier, immediately after the Vikings drafted Kalil
“Going to Notre Dame and being a captain, you’re already on a big stage. Then once you’re the captain you’re getting scrutinized win or lose. There are ups and downs along the road. So I have dealt with being a leader of a team that’s gone through things. Knowing how to deal with guys and helping younger guys interact with the coaches, I think it’s just given me a whole lot of experience you can’t really find in any other role.” Safety Harrison Smith, after being drafted in the first round by the Vikings
“Our theme was getting smart, tough football players who love to play the game. And I think all these guys we were able to draft fit that bill.” – Spielman, after completing the draft with 10 new rookies added to the team
“I love Adrian. But let’s make this clear: I’m still not going to be quoted as saying he’s going to play in the first game. That’s not fair. I don’t know that … He’ll keep throwing that [Sept. 9 date] out there. And good for him. That’s great. That’s obviously our goal, to get him playing the first game. But only if he’s functionally safe to do it. This is our franchise. We can’t be foolish about this.” – Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman, assessing Adrian Peterson’s rehab progress in May and the running back’s much-publicized goal to be back at full strength for Week 1
“With the experts, I’m sure 90 or 95 percent of the time, they’re right with their estimates. But there are some guys you can’t put the traditional timetable on. Some guys are different. I just happen to feel I’m one of those guys.” – Peterson, a day later, reiterating his vision of being back on the field and contributing in the 2012 season opener
“Attitude is critical with this. If you’re not really stable with who you are, an injury like this can be a huge blow to your ego. You’re the king of the hill, then all of a sudden – uh-oh. But Adrian? He’s been energetic since the day I met him.” – Russ Paine, Peterson’s Houston-based rehab therapist, asserting the keys to the rehab process
“It wasn’t anything like, ‘Aw, man. Here it goes.’ It was more of an ‘Alright, let’s go. Let’s get to work.’ … [I plan to work with Matt Kalil] quite a bit. You’re going to take time out. Again, it’s a new face. And along the offensive line, the whole thing is to work in synch and work together … My skill set is for playing football. I wouldn’t say that I have a skill set for guard or I have a skill set for tackle. I feel like I have a skill set to play offensive line and play football.” – Offensive lineman Charlie Johnson, expressing his willingness to move from left tackle to left guard following the Vikings’ addition of Kalil
“I don't think there's any question that if this doesn't get done this year, the league's standpoint is it starts back at Square 1 next year, And what's going to change? And if nothing is going to change, you are going to have political dynamics changing. You're going to have lots of different people nominating different sites ... These things cost millions and millions of dollars just to get it to this point. What would be the justification for doing it again on the part of the Vikings?" – Eric Grubman, NFL executive vice president of business operations, expressing frustration and fears of what might happen if the Vikings push for a new stadium didn’t gain approval during the legislative session
“I think it’s time for the Vikings to win a Super Bowl. And we need a new stadium so we can do that here in Minneapolis.” – Ponder, speaking at the state capitol, as the Vikings’ stadium saga reached its critical stage
“If the thought is I'm going to support an inadequate bonding bill or a terrible tax policy approach in order to get a stadium, then we're going to have to sit down and rethink [things] -- by we, I mean the entire House." – State representative Terry Morrow, a leading Vikings stadium supporter, commenting on the political complications involved in the organization’s push for a new stadium.
"This is the time to get things done. I've been here several times on the stadium front over the years. In 2006, they moved forward with a stadium for the Twins and the Gophers. We were asked to move to the next year. And it's now 2012." – Goodell, on a visit to the Twin Cities in April to express his concerns for the obstacles the Vikings were facing in a push to get a new stadium
“We’re here to stay, guys. … We knew from Day One that we were going to fight in making sure that this day would come. Our commitment to having Minnesota Vikings football here for generations was always the overriding factor to making sure that got done. And I’m happy that everyone stepped forward to getting that done.” – Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, after the bill to get a new stadium in downtown Minneapolis was finalized and approved
“Uhhhh, I’m not familiar with names yet … When you go 3-13, it happens. This is a business and hopefully change will be good. We have a lot of young guys hungry to compete.” – Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, during the Vikings’ first week of organized team activities, assessing all the new faces around him in the secondary
“Anybody that witnessed that play today, you’ve got to get jacked up. That was an incredible play and one of the reasons we get excited about him. We’re hoping to see that on Sunday afternoons, plays like that.” – Frazier, during the second week of OTAs, reacting to a much-talked-about circus catch that Simpson made over Cook on a deep route up the right sideline
“I'll put it this way, it's a lot of different things that have to be sorted out. Just haven't been too happy lately. So we've got a couple things to work on." – Receiver Percy Harvin, delivering a surprise revelation at mini-camp that he was unhappy. Soon after, Harvin and his agent requested a trade
“You definitely don’t want to lose this guy … I’m sure the organization will do whatever it has to do to keep this guy around. If it was me, I would make sure we kept him around but we’ll see.” -- Peterson, reacting to Harvin’s discontent that he said was more bothersome than distracting
“The Minnesota Vikings have no interest at all in trading Percy Harvin. We drafted Percy Harvin here. He’s a key part of our organization, he’s a key part of our football team and any issues that are out there or reported, we always handle those internally and we’ll continue to handle those internally.” – Spielman, addressing Harvin’s unhappiness and his trade request
“The Vikings are aware of the situation and working to gather more detail. We will have no further comment at this time.” – Statement from the Vikings after it was learned in early July that Peterson had been arrested at a nightclub in Houston. The Vikings also had a near-identical version of that statement dusted off five weeks earlier when running back Jerome Felton was arrested and charged with driving while impaired. Five weeks before that running back Caleb King was arrested after allegedly fracturing another man’s skull in an assault outside of a party
“The officer told Peterson that he was under arrest, but Peterson began yelling, struggling as the officer attempted to put on handcuffs and ignoring commands to stop resisting, [according to Houston police spokesperson Kese Smith]. Peterson pulled away from the officer ‘and assumed a violent stance,’ Smith said. A second officer working security at the club began to assist, but it took a third police officer also working security to detain the 6-foot-1, 217-pound Peterson.” – excerpt from Star Tribune report documenting Peterson’s arrest with details from the Houston police
“’A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.’ WC” – Tweet from Peterson, quoting Winston Churchill, the day after his arrest.
“Adrian Peterson did not resist arrest this past Saturday morning and any suggestion that he pushed, struck or shoved a Houston Police Officer is a total fabrication. He, in fact, was struck at least twice in the face for absolutely no legitimate reason, and when all the evidence is impartially reviewed, it will clearly show Adrian was the victim, not the aggressor.” – Rusty Hardin, Peterson’s high-powered attorney, issuing his first statement on his client’s arrest
“For me, you take excitement in the process. You look at the small steps and how things continue to build. And you have to acknowledge progress and show guys not only where they are but where they’re headed and where they’ve come from … You may not see all this from the outside. But internally you can see all this starting to come together. And that’s exciting. With the understanding that it takes time.” – Spielman, addressing his eagerness for training camp to begin in Mankato
Brett Favre still has a way with words.
Nearly two years since Favre was persuaded into playing a second season with the Vikings – his return to Winter Park tracked by helicopters and blanketed with ultra-sensationalized coverage -- Favre took time recently to reflect on that 2010 chaos and the 6-10 season that followed.
Just a warning: some of what the legendary quarterback had to say probably isn’t going to sit well with Vikings’ fans.
Yes, Favre’s first season in Minnesota was magical. Remember that last-second 32-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Lewis in Week 3? Remember those 12 regular-season victories and the playoff thrashing of Dallas? Remember how close the Vikings were to reaching Super Bowl XLIV before a handful of unfortunate twists resulted in a 31-28 NFC title game loss to the Saints?
Well, as magical as the Vikings’ 2009 run was, 2010 provided a boatload of frustrations. Those 10 losses. The 19 interceptions Favre threw. His 69.9 quarterback rating. The failed return of Randy Moss. The firing of coach Brad Childress. The roof collapse at Mall of America Field. And the nasty hit Favre took on the icy turf at TCF Bank Stadium that effectively ended his career.
In some ways, Favre confesses, he saw such struggles coming. In a one-on-one sitdown down with Deion Sanders that aired this week on the NFL Network, Favre offered a candid if somewhat bothersome explanation on why he felt compelled to play for the Vikings in 2010.
“First of all,” Favre said, “the money was too good. The money was too good. And I hate to say it’s about money. I felt the money was a lot. But the guys, I kind of felt like even though I knew it was going to be next to impossible [to duplicate the 2009 success] – I wouldn’t tell them [that]. Sidney [Rice], Jared [Allen], [Steve] Hutchinson and Adrian [Peterson], they were like, ‘Unfinished business.’ I just knew that it probably was finished.”
Favre recalled the visit he received at his Mississippi home in the middle of the preseason when Allen, Hutchinson and kicker Ryan Longwell showed up in Hattiesburg, to persuade him to make another run.
One of the first thoughts to run through Favre’s mind?
“I knew this wasn’t going to end well,” he told Sanders.
“No one ever talked about this is going to be hard to duplicate,” Favre said. “But I think we all [were thinking it].”
And so before anyone knew it, a 2010 season that was supposed to provide an energized encore to 2009’s thrill ride, sent the Vikings on a stumble from which they have still yet to right themselves.
Asked by Sanders if he has now found closure on his 20-year career, Favre nodded.
“Yeah,” he said. “I probably knew when I got off the plane [in 2010]. I didn’t have to play a down. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t give my all. It just wasn’t to be, and I think I knew that. I really know it now.”
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