The return of Adrian Peterson has astounded just about anyone with the comprehension level of how serious his injury was and how incredible his return to action was as he re-established himself as the elite running back of the NFL. He has set a new standard for the ability of an athlete passionate about playing the game and the sacrifice he was willing to make to return to the level he play he showed pre-injury.
While Peterson's impressive return has grabbed national headlines, another rehab success story has gone much less noticed or reported. Middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley has made a recovery from a hip injury that more often than not isn't career-threatening, it's career-ending. The fact that Brinkley is even on an NFL roster, much less being the starting "quarterback of a defense," defies the odds. As Brinkley sees it, when he was felled by injury and learned the severity of the injury – and the ominous consequences on an NFL career – he was more than a little nervous.
"It's a blessing because, with the injury I had, I could have been done," Brinkley said. "Most people don't come back from that kind of hip injury. I could have just as easily been done."
Brinkley, who was viewed as the heir apparent to veteran E.J. Henderson – general manager Rick Spielman essentially said exactly that after he was drafted – was suddenly separated from his teammates. He had months of grueling rehab in front of him while his teammates were taking part in the dismal 2011 Vikings season. Yet he didn't feel walled off from his teammates because players like E.J. and Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway would allow it.
"I didn't feel any disconnect because the guys helped me through it," Brinkley said. "In the training room, Erin, Chad, E.J. and Ticket – Kevin Williams – they all came through and made me feel part of the team. Those guys were great for me because they kept encouraging me and kept me going and pushing to get back on the field. I told them at the beginning of the year that I appreciated that. It was a long, tough road. Just to have teammates that cared enough to come in, joke around with you and help you get through that rehab, it was big. It's huge."
As with Peterson, Brinkley was quick to praise Vikings head trainer Eric Sugarman and the training staff for keeping him on track to return – at times pushing him and times pulling back on the reins to prevent a setback in his rehab. Brinkley was slowly but surely emboldened with his progress and quit doubting that he would return. When that would be was still up to debate, but there was no doubt in his mind that his day back in the glare of the NFL spotlight would return.
"I was confident that I could handle it because I spent the offseason working out with Eric Sugarman in my offseason training program," Brinkley said. "The trainers did a great job of getting me ready. Being a football player, I love a challenge. People wrote me off in the beginning, but I knew what I could do and the coaches knew what I could do. I just want to thank them for having faith in me. They could have easily brought someone else in. The kept it real with me and kept their faith in me."
The Vikings didn't bring in someone else. Instead, they had Brinkley work closely with one of his position coaches. Being a middle linebacker in the NFL and having a Hall of Famer in Mike Singletary analyzing his play – both good and bad – has been something Brinkley admits has pushed him to be better. Singletary isn't effusive with praise for players, but Brinkley understands the method to his madness – keep the foot on the gas and you will get results.
"Having a Hall of Fame coach, trust me, he's someone I really look up to and I come to work with my hard hat on and my lunch pail," Brinkley said. "Nothing is ever perfect with him. He's sees the small things that need to be improved and he definitely tells me. It's helped me out immensely to have him watching me and showing me how to improve. Both him and Coach (Fred) Pagac. When you have two coaches like that, there's no reason we shouldn't be playing at a high level."
Not only did Brinkley make it back to the field for training camp, the Vikings had so much confidence in him that they didn't re-sign E.J. Henderson – effectively turning the starting job over to Brinkley, despite not being sure how he would blend with incumbent starters Greenway and Erin Henderson.
Brinkley admitted that the blending together wasn't immediate. Linebacker is a position critical to stopping the run, the short passing game and the deep middle passing game, and having an unspoken feel for one another – knowing where the others will be without visual confirmation –is the critical difference that makes linebacker units the most effective. It was a work in progress and has melded together over time.
"It took a while," Brinkley said. "It started in training camp. That's where we started to get the gist of each other. It grew in the preseason and carried over into the regular season. I think right now we're at the point that we know what the other two are thinking and how to attack plays and the thought process the others are going through."
Brinkley confessed that the time it took to mesh as a three-man linebacker corps was mostly his own fault. He wasn't "on his game." On offense, the most instinctual position is running back. The good ones have an innate sense of when the called play isn't going to work and when to break it off and freelance. On defense, no position shares that instantaneous decision-making process as much as linebacker and Brinkley simply wasn't ready for prime time early on.
"Sitting out a whole year, that's big for a player that relies on instincts," Brinkley said. "You lose it for a while, but they ultimately come back – whether it comes back fast or slow. I think mine came back kind of slow. By midseason, I was feeling like I was back and, over the last few weeks, the game has really slowed down for me. I've been playing all year, but it was only about three weeks ago that I felt I was really all the way back."
Peterson's astonishing recovery has deservedly made headlines. Brinkley's recovery should as well, because, in its own way, is just as improbable and, as far as the Vikings defense is concerned, just as important.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Brinkley: Injury could've been career-ending
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