The chair that sat empty next to Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson was filled Wednesday when captain, teammate and, more importantly, friend Everson Griffen returned to TCO Performance Center for his first meetings and practice since a monthlong absence to receive treatment for mental health issues.
“Hello everybody,” Griffen said with a smile as he greeted reporters after practice. “First off, I want to take full responsibility for my actions that went on in September. I had a lot of support from my family, the Minnesota Vikings, the doctors, my teammates, the fans. I want to give my apologies to the people I impacted.
“I’m just excited to get back here with my team. It’s been hard to be away. I’m taking it one day at a time to get things back on track.”
Indications are Griffen will be active Sunday night when the Vikings and Saints meet in the rematch of the “Minneapolis Miracle” playoff game won by the Vikings nine months ago. Griffen, 30, got one of his 65 career sacks in that 29-24 victory.
How many snaps Griffen gets Sunday night — or if he gets any at all — is a decision coach Mike Zimmer said he’ll make at the end of the week. Wednesday, Griffen lined up at his usual No. 1 spot at right end in position drills during the 10 minutes of practice open to the media.
“I feel good,” Griffen said. “I was able to work out [while away from the team]. But this game requires more than just working out. I’m able to play football, but I still have to get back in the pass-rush flow and my run flow and stuff like that.”
Griffen looked understandably winded, considering he hasn’t played since Sept. 16 against Green Bay. Six days later, he was taken to a mental health facility by ambulance after being picked up in his Minnetrista neighborhood. According to police reports, he had been kept away from Vikings practices earlier that week with a team request to seek mental health treatment.
“[Seeking treatment] was the right thing for me,” Griffen said. “Completely. One hundred percent. … I learned a lot about the man outside of football. I had a lot of time to reflect on my life and where I want to go, and the decisions I made. I just want to get better with some of the decisions I’ve made.”
Griffen was not arrested nor accused of a crime last month. According to a Minneapolis police incident report Sept. 22, he did draw a police response to the Hotel Ivy in downtown Minneapolis after threatening to assault staff employees and lying on the lobby floor.
Zimmer’s news conference opened with 10 consecutive questions about Griffen. The 10th one wanted to know what kind of guidance he’s received to help him offer better support for a player dealing with mental health issues.
“I don’t want to get into too much, but I bet you there are people in this room who have had to deal with these kinds of issues as well,” Zimmer said. “Everybody in life has probably had to deal with these different types of issues that aren’t necessarily [physical injuries].
“I know people, doctors, all the experts help with these situations. I don’t think this is as unique as we’re making it out to be. This is an illness, and he’s done a good job of helping to get better, and continues to try to get better. He’s probably going to have to continue to do that just like we all have to do in life.”
Teammates were just happy to see No. 97 back in the building. Griffen said it was good to see their smiles and joked that they all said they want him back to being the “wild man” that he is on the field.
“It’s great to have him back as a friend and a teammate,” safety Harrison Smith said. “Everything we’re doing is for the best interest of him.”
Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson was asked if the focus is on more than football for Griffen.
“Of course,” he said. “But, you know, knowing Griff, his mind-set is always on football.”
So, how did he look to you, Sheldon?
“Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” he said. “Morale is up. Camaraderie off a win. We got Griff back. Everything is up right now. Can’t complain about nothing.”
Griffen, who was not on the injury report Wednesday, said he’s not yet ready to talk publicly about the details of his illness and what happened. He said he has a plan in place for when that will be, adding that he intends to use his platform as an NFL player to help others.
“I just want to be able to do it at the right time, the right place and the right opportunity,” he said. “Right now is not the place, not the time. I just got to focus on the right things, and the right things are my family, finding that balance and getting back to work.”
While Griffen said “this is bigger than football,” he took joy in returning to the team facility. And taking that seat that Patterson kept vacant right next to him in the defensive line meeting room.
“It was awesome,” he said. “And just getting back into life in general. Driving my car. Doing all the little things. You got to appreciate the little things in life. I’m not taking any day [for granted]. Every day is a blessing.”