Photo credit: Hannah Foslien/Getty

Two weeks ago, when the Minnesota Vikings signed free agent back Latavius Murray, general manager and honorary third Bayless brother Rick Spielman said publicly that the signing meant that Adrian Peterson will not be back with the team next season. Since then, Peterson has languished in free agency, purporting to be choosy about his landing spot (Tampa? Green Bay? The Giants?), and openly refuting reports that his asking price was far too high. If Peterson were a more sympathetic figure (and by now, you know all the reasons why he isn’t), he would make a perfect example of how the current collective bargaining agreement is screwing players over, with rookies hogtied to below-market deals and quality veterans offered nothing but de facto one-year contracts. But this is Adrian Peterson, and so it’s more complicated than that.

Adrian Peterson is the greatest running back in my team’s history. NO ONE DENIES THIS. In fact, he is probably the best (excuse the cliché) pure runner I’ve ever seen. Maybe your tastes lean toward Barry Sanders, or Walter Payton, or Jim Brown, or Bo Jackson, and I’m not here to start a bar argument. If you have a different GOAT, that’s fine. Peterson couldn’t block, or catch, or work out of the shotgun, or hold onto the ball, or restrain himself from whipping a child in the gonads. But goddamn, could he run.

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And, despite his age and injury history, perhaps he still can. Peterson is not like ordinary running backs who flame out after a few seasons and then get consigned to the curb. He has rushed for over 970 yards and 10 TDs in eight of his 10 seasons. He rushed for over 2,000 yards and won the MVP after tearing his knee up. He’s a fucking freak. It is entirely possible he will regain his old form, if only for another season or two.

While the Vikings have no championship to show for his accomplishments, I am lucky in the sense that I have spent the past two decades rooting for a team that, save for a two-year interruption, employed the biggest home run threat in football. Randy Moss came to Minnesota in 1998, and provided me with seven years of OH FUCK HE’S GOING DEEP before getting shipped out of town. Peterson arrived in 2007 and instantly proved himself to be the Randy Moss of running backs. Once he got to the second level, the OH SHIT gland would kick in, and he would be gone. It was majestic. Watch him ruin the Chargers:

Look how much faster he is than everyone else. It’s like watching film of a high school game. I remember writing for Kissing Suzy Kolber at the time and dubbing him Purple Jesus (very creative, I know), and basically doing unnatural things to my keyboard anytime Peterson got the rock. My friend Matt Ufford even wrote a basketblog about him (a good one!). It was always a nice feeling to go into a game knowing your team had Adrian Peterson and the other team did not.

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It is possible, if not likely, that my team will never have playmakers like Peterson or Moss ever again. I know this because I just spent a whole year watching Sam Bradford play soft toss for the 28th-ranked offense in football. Without Peterson, they ranked DFL in rushing. There’s no law that says your team always gets to have a historic freak on the roster, and so I should have mourned when Peterson left. Like Moss, he left under bitter circumstances, which undercut all the fond memories that came before (Moss, of course, would come back to the Vikings and AGAIN leave under bitter circumstances). I should have felt the need to pay tribute to Peterson once he got the boot.

I didn’t, for obvious reasons. Like most of my bloggin’ kinfolk, I always roll my eyes whenever character issues are brought up in sports, but Adrian Peterson’s history of child abuse, and his steadfast refusal to be introspective, can’t help but make me confront the fact that yes, character matters. It was fun to root for Peterson when he was the seemingly polite guy who shook hands firmly and made a name for himself despite growing up with his old man in prison. It was not so easy to root for him once he was smacking toddlers and riding a fucking camel into his own birthday party.

But maybe that’s hypocritical on my own end. Maybe this is a case of me not celebrating what Peterson did during his time in Minnesota—and really, it was a breathtaking stretch of football—because I don’t want to be SEEN celebrating it. I don’t wanna be the dude who’s seen as prizing sports more than THE CHILDREN. I have a Peterson jersey, but I kept it stashed real good after he got charged. If those pictures of Peterson’s kids never came out, who knows whether I’d feel or act differently about all this. And that says more about me than it does Peterson, because I’ve cheered for some real shitbags in my day. Asking any more of your sports heroes than “Go play the sports good” is always a rotten idea.

That touch of optical panic is almost certainly one of the reasons that Peterson, along with Colin Kaepernick, has found this period of free agency to be fallow. Despite its brute, authoritarian nature, the NFL is strangely obsessed with image and manners. In fact, it’s the one league that seems hellbent on keeping many of its most famous players—who are the reason for its existence—from taking the field. No GM wants to be the guy who signs the dissident, or the malcontent, or the kiddie-whipper, even if he hasn’t gotten in trouble for whipping kids lately.

And that means that Adrian Peterson—Adrian Peterson, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who has proven to be faster and stronger and more explosive than any other running back of his generation—has seen his value even further depressed. It’s hard to imagine that no one could use him, and it’s hard to imagine that he will have to accept little more than league minimum just so some team can squeeze another couple of 1,000-yard seasons out of him. But that’s the reality facing Peterson right now, and despite his transgressions, as a football player, he probably deserves better.