Adrian Peterson lurks on a shelf behind Steven Engstran as the Minnesota Vikings season-ticket holder fusses over his sports memorabilia at a Twin Cities collector’s show in early April. The picture of the disgruntled running back once retailed for $29.99. It was marked down to $9.99 prior to the 2014 season. That was before Peterson’s career was derailed when he was charged with beating his 4-year old son with a switch in Texas, before he was suspended indefinitely by the NFL. Before he missed 15 games last season and was finally reinstated by the league on Friday.
Once beloved in Minnesota, Peterson is now trying to orchestrate his way out of the Twin Cities by forcing a trade. Many loyal Vikings fans stuck by Peterson after the child abuse charges and made it clear they wanted him back. Now, how much would Engstran take for the picture of Peterson he once loved?
“Five bucks,” he said, sounding more resigned than hopeful.
L’Affaire Peterson is in its waning days after seven months of numbing headlines, plot twists and posturing. Fatigue is bone deep among forsaken fans wondering how the Vikings became the villains in a crisis ignited when Peterson decided to use a tree branch to whip his young son.
“It would be nice to hear him come out and say, ‘I’m sorry for what I did,’ ” said Engstran, 44, who bought his original Metrodome seats in 1996. “That’s all he needs to do. He didn’t kill anybody. What he did was horrible. I don’t condone it. But in Texas, 98 percent of the people said … so what?”
In a progressive-minded, politically-engaged state like Minnesota, which holds its sports heroes to a high moral standard and values stoicism and self-awareness, some will never forgive Peterson or escape the chilling photos of his son’s bloodied legs, scrotum and buttocks. “He lost the respect of people my age,” said Peyton Brill, 17, a junior at a suburban St. Paul high school. “A lot of my friends play football and look up to him and want to be that kind of player. Then they see what he does off the field and they lose respect for him.”
Still, Peterson paid his debt for his crime and his rehabilitation is ongoing. In November, he pleaded to misdemeanor reckless assault, agreeing to two years’ probation to avoid a possible jail sentence. Three months later, he bull rushed Roger Goodell in court like a flat-footed linebacker when a federal judge vacated the NFL commissioner’s suspension.
The scandal’s original shock had subsided. Detente was palpable. Then Peterson started talking.
In a series of national interviews, he said he was “still uneasy” about returning to Minnesota and called it an “ambush” when the team decided to put him on the commissioner’s exempt list after initially activating him following a one-game banishment. He spewed venom at Vikings newly promoted chief operating officer Kevin Warren, whom Peterson accused of siding with the league, and the team’s queasy marketing folks who wanted their toxic asset to vanish against football operations that desperately wanted their money maker on the field.
That will happen when one of the team’s corporate partners, Radisson hotels, pulls its sponsorship, frightened when it saw its logo shining behind general manager Rick Spielman during his disastrous news conference last September justifying Peterson’s return to the roster just three days after his indictment.
Minnesota governor Mark Dayton, a devout Vikings fan, called Peterson’s actions “an embarrassment to the Vikings organization and the state of Minnesota.”
Stung by the rebuke and local reports about how he fathered six children out of wedlock, Peterson talked about wanting “a fresh start.” He stopped just short of outright demanding a trade, instead letting his agent, Ben Dogra, play the heavy by declaring Peterson would be better off resuming his career elsewhere.
“Why in the world is he blaming the team and turning his back on the Vikings?” pondered Kevin McMahon, a 50-year-old home inspector and lifelong fan from Stevens Point, Wis. “That just doesn’t compute. He was responsible for this mess. The Vikings treated him well. They paid him well as the best running back in the league.”
Fatalism runs deep in Minnesota among the loyal fans of a franchise that lost its only four Super Bowl appearances in the 1970s. Another generation has been scarred by a run of NFC championship defeats, including overtime meltdowns in 1999 and 2010 that mocked Greek tragedies.
Since his arrival in 2007, Peterson endeared himself as an uncomplicated superstar, a uniquely talented, game-changing ball carrier with a battering-ram physique who has rushed for 10,190 yards in eight seasons. Fans anticipating his return in 2015 were ready to bet the house on Peterson, whose punishing running style earned him the nickname “All Day.” The 2012 MVP steamrolled doubters less than a year after reconstructive knee surgery, slashing and burning his way to 2,097 yards—nine shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record. The six-time Pro Bowler who feeds on skepticism has more to prove after missing all but one game last year and resuming his pursuit of Emmitt Smith’s all-time rushing record of 18,355 yards.
Instead fans are debating Peterson’s trade value entering the draft. Will Dallas or Arizona scratch together enough ransom and make the Vikings an offer (low-first or high-second round pick?) they can’t refuse?
McMahon, who has nearly 7,000 followers under the Twitter handle @Kevin_VFB, is a voice of reason above the lunatic fringe who lauded the virtues of corporal punishment to cloak their blind loyalty to Peterson, wins and fantasy points. “My followers are split. Half want to see him go out of town on the next bus," said McMahon. "They’ve had it with his whining and believe we can do just fine without Adrian Peterson and the circus that goes with him if we do indeed keep him.
“The other half is like me. They just want Adrian back and remember what he can do, how spectacular he is, how he can make [quarterback] Teddy [Bridgewater] better and don’t care about any of the other stuff.”
As expected, Peterson was reinstated to the Vikings roster Friday after meeting with Goodell and satisfying behavioral benchmarks the commissioner established in exiling him. The elephant in the room is Peterson’s negligible control over this prolonged saga. Peterson's contract calls for him to earn $12.75 million in 2015 and $40 million through 2017.
The Vikings have spent the offseason tossing bouquets at Peterson and feathering the nest for his return. Minnesota owner Zygi Wilf, president Mark Wilf, Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer have met with Peterson and vowed not to trade him. The team released a terse statement this week, saying, “We look forward to Adrian re-joining the Vikings.”
Eight words essentially challenging Peterson to report to mandatory minicamp in June—or not play anywhere, pay fines and publicly explain why he should not come back to work and earn a salary no other team is likely to pay.
“If Adrian Peterson comes out that first game, runs for 100 yards and scores two touchdowns, we’re still going to cheer for him,” said Engstran. “No one’s going to forget what he did but it’s going to be like, ‘Move on, prove yourself on the field and prove yourself off the field by being a standup guy.’ ”
If Peterson does return to the Vikings, he needs to demonstrate humility to the teammates he shirked and fans he’s alienated. No more clipped mea culpas from far-flung courthouses or wallowing in self pity to the national media. The buck stops with Peterson.
We’ll be waiting.
Brian Murphy is a sports enterprise reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
More from Brian Murphy
• For Twins' Ervin Santana, jewelry woes add to troubles
• Vikings Brandon Bostick wiser after playoff gaffe
• Adrian Peterson probation: drug testing, counseling, 15 other conditions