Sunday slant: Are Peterson fans dwindling?

As things continue to drag out between Adrian Peterson, the NFL and the Vikings, it appears he is losing fans in Minnesota, even as his options to play elsewhere seem to be shrinking, too.

Things change quickly in the NFL, which is why the league has earned the playful acronym “Not For Long.”

In Adrian Peterson’s case, the last nine months have brought a whirlwind of change in his life … and his outlook.

Between the time that he administered corporal punishment on his 4-year-old son last May and the time that became public with an indictment in Texas, he gave me an extensive interview as the Minnesota Vikings wrapped up their offseason program last June and he was headed back to Houston to pick out a ring for his then-fiancée now-wife.

Since that interview, it has become clear that Peterson knew he was under investigation, but it was also clear that he wasn’t expecting the backlash that disciplining of his son brought. It was a way of life he grew up with and, while he admitted he took it too far after seeing the injuries inflicted on his son, he was taken issue with the way the NFL and the Vikings have handled his discipline since.

For the previous eight years, Peterson had been the face of the Vikings franchise, the rare running back to carry that title. It’s a mantle he accepted willingly and ably, and it’s part of the territory for a player with aspirations that even transcend the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Representing the franchise is pretty easy for me because I don’t really get into a lot of trouble or anything like. It’s been pretty smooth for me,” he said last June. “I’ve always, even since high school – my junior year in high school I was rated the No. 1 player in the nation – from that moment on, I had always had a lot of attention. It wasn’t to this extent, of course, but it gradually increased from high school to the college level and then the NFL. I think I warmed up to it, as far as the attention. I’m sure some guys on the team can go out and nobody knows who are they are. Me, it’s not that. That’s the difference. I just embrace it and enjoy it.”

But when the attention turned negative, so did the vibe between Peterson and Vikings fans. When picture emerged of the wounds on his son, some of his fans that backed him previously backed away. But as things became contentious from Peterson’s point of view with the franchise, the more he has tried to convey his point of view, it seems the more fans he is losing.

We may never fully find out the true extent of what happened between him and the organization to make him feel “uneasy” about a return to the Vikings, as he told ESPN earlier this year. If it was simply that they allowed him to be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list that effectively ended his season, he has to realize the Vikings took some bullets from his actions, too. They endured plenty of backlash, both from a public relations standpoint and financially. But fans sound like they are becoming increasingly tired of hearing about Peterson feeling like he was treated unfairly by those in Minnesota.

Once one of Minnesota’s most beloved athletes, the relationship between him and the fans has been strained the longer he has been forced to stay away. We also might never find out the extent of what his family had to endure as some people voiced their reaction to his legal case, but those teammates that know him well have been nothing but supportive.

Eventually, maybe, time will heal wounds between Peterson and the public.

For now, his options are dwindling. The Vikings allowed him to be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list, but once that happened his status was up to the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell said he expects to meet with Peterson sometime near the middle of April and try to determine if he will be reinstated before a court ruling can be handed down.

The Vikings’ offseason program starts on April 20. That’s 10 days before the draft, and if he is going to be traded – we still don’t know for sure if he has requested that, although his agent sure seems to be pushing for it – it will likely come close to draft time. Teams have already filled needs through the first three weeks of free agency and his value to other teams will likely decline further following a draft stacked with running back prospects.

At this point, it doesn’t appear the Vikings would be able to get anything worth his real value in a trade. After all, what is the price for one off the best running backs to ever plow his way through the fields of the NFL? And does that price decline because of his off-field issue, or because of his age (he just turned 30 last week)?

When a semi-skeptical reporter proceeded in June to ask a question about the inevitable decline in an athlete’s body at that age, Peterson was quick to question the validity of that reasoning after shooting a disbelieving look.

“I don’t think so. But I’m listening, go ahead,” he said with a smile after stopping the question midstream.

“I feel like my body would still be able to endure that. I know it sounds crazy, but when it happens, you’ll be like, ‘Wow, he wasn’t just BS’ing and sitting there talking. He was serious. He’s actually out here playing and he’s 37 years old and he’s still being productive.’”

“People will be like, ‘Wow, we’ve never seen anything like this before.’”

Maybe. But will that be happening in Minnesota? And will the same amount of fans Peterson had one year ago still care about what he does on the football field?

With a $12.75 million salary this year, a $14.75 million salary next year and $17.75 million salary in 2016, the final year of his contract, will any other team be willing to pay it?

Even last summer, before the corporal punishment incident went public, he heard the trade rumors and tried to block them out as best he can.

“I don’t let it bother me. I’m not concerned. You know why? Because every time I step on that field, I’m giving it everything I’ve got. So if I’m here, I’m happy. If I’m not, I’m still happy because I don’t have any regrets,” he said.

Becoming one of the rare running backs in the 10,000-yard club to play an entire career with one team intrigued him last summer. He called that possibility “special.” It doesn’t look like he really wants that option anymore, and it appears a growing number of fans are ready to say good riddance, too.

Among the top 20 rushing yardage leaders, only three of them – Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Jim Brown – have played for only one team. But Peterson made it clear, even last summer, what is motivating him these days.

“The number one drive for me is winning a ring. That’s my number one drive,” he said. “And then after that, it trickles down. Being the best running back. Being the best player to play. With that, being able to break those records, too. Those types of things give you the landmarks to reach and conquer this and conquer that. That’s what keeps guys going, especially the ones that want it. There are a lot of guys that are satisfied with just coming in, playing five or six years, eight years, and getting paid. I want to be remembered.

“As the best to ever play the game.”

Somewhere.


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