There’s nothing that makes you feel that old F. Scott’s curse, that boats-borne-back-ceaselessly-against-the-current, west of the Mississippi, bass-ackward Minnesota Vikings pettiness, than your first trip to Lambeau Field. In some ways, even though there’s no place in the world more Midwestern than Green Bay, and it’s only five hours away by car from Minneapolis, you feel less significant and more alien here than you do on a trip to Manhattan. This is a place that should remind you of home — in Green Bay, everybody parks their cars on the lawns of little pea green ramblers for 15 bucks cash, exactly like when we park at the Minnesota State Fair — but the football is so much more real here. There are roots here, gridiron history that we just don’t have back in Minnesota. You might have a couple vintage Polaroids of your dad’s besnowmobilesuited trip to the old Met for a playoff game to see Fran Tarkenton and the Purple People Eaters back in the ’70s, but when you’re in Green Bay, snowmobilesuits and Bloomington and the ’70s all seem like fads, long gone. The Packers have been playing in Green Bay since 1919 — and in the massive Lambeau Field Pro Shop, you can buy any of a variety of bourgie-as-fuck sweatshirts adorned with that date from “The Titletown Collection” by Lands’ End. After inspecting enough of these garments, after seeing just how tasteful green and gold really is, you’re sufficiently self-conscious about the color purple. It looks stupid. Back out in the atrium, you will notice the little pockets of Vikings fans interspersed throughout and you will begin to see that we’re not even inspiring any animosity from these warm, goodhearted people. In fact, most Vikings fans you see are in singles or pairs tagging along in mixed company with other Packers fans, the idiot son or the strange nephew or the dopey boyfriend, trudging along, shoulders hunched over, sheepish, like he wore sweatpants to church and just realized everybody else looks nice.
As long as we’re being honest with ourselves, maybe for the first time in our lives, it’s not until you get to the ground zero of this so-called “Border Battle” that you realize quite what a little brother you are as a Vikings fan. We lost four Super Bowls in the 70s, but I’ve never even seen anything but four devastating NFC Championship Game losses in my lifetime. And the Vikings started out this season stronger than expected, but recently, our franchise quarterback, Christian Ponder, has regressed, and at 7-6 we’re exactly who we thought we were: on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. But it wasn’t until a visit to Lambeau’s Packers Hall of Fame that it was brought home exactly how irrelevant, how ephemeral our little franchise is. After gasping at the sight of four Lombardi trophies in solemn glass cases in the sanctum sanctorum, two of them won by Lombardi himself, you walk out of the trophy room and into a room devoted to this season’s Packer opponents. Beneath each enemy half-helmet there is a floor-to-ceiling plaque-scroll engraved with the historical results against the Packers. The Bears and the Vikings scrolls are right next to each other. We have three feet of blank space denoting the decades we awaited our first game against the Pack. The Bears have three feet of space where Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski were waging old-timey, double-time highlight-reel battles with Packer legends Johnny “Blood” McNally and Don Hutson. A tall, engraved roll call of tilts featured MDitka and Papa Bear Halas against Jim Taylor and Vince Lombardi, games that justified the epic poetry of John Facenda’s baritone Homer. On this side of the Border Battle it’s painfully obvious who the Packers consider to be their rival. All that hew and cry back home. Man, wandering around this place, it’s embarrassing to think about.
So maybe the western Wisconsin Packers fans we have to deal with in the Twin Cities care about our little 50-year divisional rivalry, but when you see people standing next to the Curly Lambeau statue at the front gate with homemade signs proclaiming “BUCKET LIST ✔: FIRST GAME AT LAMBEAU!!!” you realize that you are at a holy site, this is a pilgrimage for these people. Packers fans coalescing from all corners of a vast diaspora, cheeseheads who have spent their whole lives waiting for one chance to be enfranchised by their heritage. These people have built a Yankee Stadium right here in dairy country. And Vikings fans? We’re just another sacrificial lamb — we might as well be the Detroit Lions. Except the Lions have been the Packers’ divisional rival since 1933.
I will say that when I was able to choke back the self-loathing by a couple of degrees, when I found the strength to tamp down the ill humor of my crazy jealousy of all this that belongs to them, I was able to appreciate the magic of the Lambeau time warp. There is no major sports stadium atmosphere in the world, maybe save Barcelona’s Camp Nou, that feels so small-town, family-friendly, and rooted in noble football tradition while also somehow bizarrely cosmopolitan and open and confident in its place in the world. Granted, it’s a lot more straight-up drunk than game night in Barcelona. And I know there are pathetic police reports filed every year here (this year’s “man with purple sombrero flees assault scene”), but people could not be more butter-fed or welcoming. Even if you’re obviously rooting for the opponent, Packers fans don’t seem to really care. The “you just don’t get it, do ya, you you silly goose!” Wisconsin twinkle is patronizing, obviously, but you can’t help enjoying this. They are the cutest fan base on earth.
We found our seats 50 rows up in the south “Lambeau Leap” end zone (pro tip: Just go on Packers Fan Tours and buy your tickets there — really easy). There doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the place. It wasn’t frozen tundra; more clammy 48 degree cold underneath gray skies that held fog for hundreds of miles on the way into town. They pack them in on old-school metal bleachers and it’s cozy when you’re folded into the full-on Oshkosh phonetic assault: FIRST AND TEN DO IT AGAIN GO PACK GO! The fighter jets had barely creased the sky when Aaron Rodgers had them up seven on a jump ball on which James Jones absolutely clowned one of our cornerbacks. They tacked on three shortly thereafter. But the next couple Packers drives stalled, and in the second quarter Adrian Peterson was starting to work up a lather. All Day is pretty much the Vikings’ entire offense at this point, especially with Percy Harvin out, and, well, I guess we have big tight end Kyle Rudolph. Because Christian Ponder found Rudolph in the end zone to cap a long drive, and hey, we have a game in Lambeau. Somehow our defense got A.Rodge off the field on a third-and-short again. Then a handoff to AP on a play between the tackles. He’s into the second level untouched. A Packer loses hold of his ankles, a linebacker bounces off of him near the sideline, followed by a defensive back, and now he’s FLYING down the right sideline. And he’s faster than everybody else on the field. There’s more suspense here than there would have been with the old ruthlessly-hit-the-afterburners AP, but because of that torn ACL and his accelerated but very public recovery you’re nervous for him, and you see his stride begin to tighten ever so slightly and is that d-back going to catch him? NO! Touchdown! Now we’re up 14-10 and it feels like the ghost of Randy Moss just mooned the entire place. It’s not silent, but people are definitely nervous. It’s shortly before halftime and the Packers fans I drove into town with excuse themselves to get beer. A smirk infects the emotional vectors of my face. Adrian Peterson just spit on the collective hopes and hallowed history of Lambeau Field. He doesn’t care about these cute little hobbits and their green-and-gold cheer. Or their progressive ownership structure or the genuflection to community that is the Lambeau Leap.1 You don’t care about our civilization, well, we don’t care about yours. We are the Norse invaders. We have come to ruin your glorious vibe.
The monument to the Lambeau Leap is by far the weirdest feature in the Packer Hall of Fame. A white plaster statue of the celebration innovated by Packer safety LeRoy Butler in the south end zone of Lambeau during a game against the Raiders on December 26, 1993, recalls both Caravaggio’s The Raising of Lazurus and what was known in my middle school as an “atomic wedgie.”
That was an 82-yard touchdown run, the longest in his career. My phone is blowing up. I don’t feel alone anymore. Say whatever you want, but All Day belongs on this hallowed ground. Or at least he’s good enough to desecrate it. That’s what I’m rooting for now. Desecration. Adrian Peterson just clarified that for me.
Last year on Christmas Eve, the Adrian Peterson story became interesting again. Of course, that’s not how Vikings fans felt at the time — he had just signed a seven-year, $96 million contract earlier in the season and now he was writhing on the Redskins’ FedEx field. But even before this dark moment, even after five great seasons, he wasn’t being recognized as the best running back in the game anymore. Or maybe just not celebrated. When’s the last time you read a story trying to figure out Adrian Peterson? It’s not your fault. The Vikings were rebuilding, and football fans and fantasy football people had moved on to the newest shiny, pretty thing, whether that was Maurice Jones-Drew or Arian Foster or Ray Rice. And then, when AP tore his ACL on that Christmas Eve night game against the Redskins, well, it was tragic, but that’s the way it goes in the NFL. It’s as cruel and as Darwinist as it comes.
I talked to the Vikings’ head athletic trainer about that night in D.C.
“Anytime a professional athlete suffers a devastating injury like an ACL, there are so many emotions, but the first emotion is anger and denial,” Eric Sugarman says. “And Adrian had both of those.”
When Sugarman and Vikings orthopedic surgeon Dr. Joel Boyd came up to the injured player, AP said, “It’s my knee.”
“He was asking, ‘Why?’ over and over again,” Sugarman says. “Why me? Why me? Why me?” Dr. Boyd administered the Lachman test, a maneuver that assesses the ACL. “You basically grab above and below the knee and it’s like pulling a drawer out,” Sugarman says. “And usually there’s a good endpoint, and it kind of clunks into place. Well, when the ACL’s torn, that thing just keeps going and going and you can pull it to the moon.” The two men could see that AP’s ligament had gone the way of Ralph Kramden’s wife. “So you just know right away. This is the face of the franchise and he just tore his ACL. Not to mention it’s Christmas Eve.”
They carted him to the locker room and got him showered and got ice on his knee. The rest of the game went by. “We come back into the locker room,” Sugarman says. “And he’s not in denial anymore. He’s accepted it. He goes, ‘All right, let’s attack this thing. What’s the next step?'”
Adrian Peterson’s father was the only member of AP’s family in D.C. that night.
“My phone was blowing up,” Nelson Peterson remembers. “Adrian’s mother was calling me and every family member was calling me to tell me to go check on him.” Nelson remembers what it was like sitting in the locker room with his son. “His mind-set from birth is what I’ve taught him: no pain,” he says. “Just to show you that mind-set: Before that game, he had promised a kid that he would sign his jersey. So unfortunately he wasn’t able to do it himself, but he sent a Vikings worker out there to get the jersey and he signed it and sent it back to the kid.”
Maybe the NFL has evolved into such a quarterback’s league, such a finesse game, that AP’s DNA had to find another avenue to impress us. Or maybe his recovery from this injury actually has improved him. Maybe he really is, as his coach says, better than ever (he seems more patient, more willing to use his fullback’s help, for instance, while retaining his relentless whirling-dervish-ness). It’s not even a year since he tore his ligament, and with 1,600 yards, Peterson is leading the NFL in rushing by more than 300 over the next guy, Marshawn Lynch. In fact, he has a chance to join the small fraternity of 2,000-yard rushers, even a slight chance at breaking Eric Dickerson’s all-time single-season rushing record of 2105. In Peterson’s mind, this was all ordained through God. Every member of his family believed it would be exactly thus, ever since Nelson Peterson handed AP a ball, set him down in his hometown of Palestine in East Texas, and explained to him who The Tyler Rose is.
Peterson’s DNA carried his parents’ dreams with it, both fulfilled and otherwise. AP’s mother was a three-time Texas All State Sprinter at Westwood High School in Palestine before matriculating as a scholarship sprinter and long jumper at the University of Houston. Nelson was a McDonald’s All American out of high school before attending Idaho State. Nelson was granted a tryout with the Philadelphia 76ers, but back at home in Houston before training camp, his brother fumbled with a gun he was cleaning and shot Nelson in the thigh. He would never play basketball again.
“Jesus was the only person to walk this earth perfect,” AP tells me when we’re discussing fathers and injuries after practice before the first game of the season, back when there were rumors expecting Vikings backup Toby Gerhart to get the majority of the reps opening day against Jacksonville. He’s also attempting to explain the contrast between his public persona, a warm, kindhearted humility with a famously granite handshake, and his on-field persona, which seems to be fueled by a molten, seething rage that’s being manhandled into a nobler but no less violent purpose. He finishes each of his runs like he’s trying to exorcize a spirit. He’s fun to watch, but it’s hard not to wonder what fuels this fusion of positivity and ferocity.
“I would say that came from a young age,” he says. “When I lost my brother.”
When a drunk driver hit Adrian’s half-brother Brian, Adrian screamed and ran to him. “I ran down there and held my hand under him,” he says. “I was calling his name but he wasn’t responding. So I ran to my aunt’s house, told her what happened. Two days later he passed from brain injuries; they decided to pull the plug.” The boys were separated by 11 months — Brian was 8 and Adrian was 7. Adrian’s mother, Bonita, says, “Everything they would do, they would do together.” And while that usually meant running, “Brian was the speedster of the family.”
“My mom cried for a year straight,” Peterson says. “So it was up to me to be there and be tough and to be strong for her. To hold my tears.”
Bonita still gets emotional when talking about it. “I was a young mom and it was a devastating time for me,” she says. “And I know it was only the grace of God that got me through. If the devil would’ve had his way, I would’ve been some Sodomite now. But God saw fit for me to overcome that and what happened to my son.” She calls Adrian her strength. “It seemed like he grew up a lot quicker than normal,” she says. “And that’s a lot on a 7-year-old kid. But it seemed like it was motivation for him.”
“I could never beat him running or anything,” AP says. “I was bigger than him, we had different dads, but athletic-wise I looked up to him. So that’s one thing that I wanted to pattern myself by, to be like my brother. I run for him.”
AP’s genetics were apparent in the immediate wake of the injury. He had his surgery moved up from the first week in January to December 30, six days after he tore his ligament on Christmas Eve. Afterwards, Dr. James Andrews, who performed the procedure in Birmingham, Alabama, pulled AP’s father aside and told him he had never seen the interior of a knee like that. “It’s like a newborn baby,” the famous orthopedic surgeon marveled.
Dr. Andrews agreed to talk to me about AP’s knee. “He runs good tread on it,” he says in that reassuring Louisiana country doctor accent that the most famous athletes in the world pay premium to have available on speed dial. “The big problem that we have in the NFL is that they wear out the patellofemoral joint, where the kneecap glides on the end of the thigh bone. We even start seeing this in college, sometimes even in high school. That articulate cartilage wears early in them. But the inside of AP’s patellofemoral joint looks like white glistening marble. When it’s worn it looks like a shaggy rug. That’s a problem, because when you go to rehab ’em, it propagates further wear and they break down because they already have bad surfaces.”
Dr. Andrews begs off credit for his role in the healing process. “I’m only with Adrian for an hour and a half during surgery,” he says. “Now, surgery is important, but really three people are responsible for his excellent recovery, or anybody’s recovery, and it’s not the surgeon. It’s the athletic trainer that works with them, that’s with them daily; it’s the physical therapist that’s rehabbing ’em daily. And it’s the patient. In AP’s case he has Eric Sugarman up in Minnesota and his physical therapist Russ Paine in Houston. Two of the greatest in the world.”
In fact, Dr. Andrews says his most important role is that of cheerleader. “Orthopedic patients that are injured have a long turnover,” he says. “They don’t get well over a couple of days — it’s months. So positive attitude is extremely important in their recovery.” He even has a ratio of positive to negative thoughts that he sees the most success with. “Five-to-1” he says. “Preferably 10-to-1.”
Adrian Peterson’s stepfather is a pastor at a Baptist church in East Texas. When AP was growing up, he attended his stepfather’s Cedar Branch Missionary Baptist Church in Grapeland, and his concept of negative and positive thinking is firmly rooted in a biblical language of good and evil. “The devil is always at work,” AP says. “He’s going to shoot those darts no matter what. I feel like a lot of people, they give up when the devil is shooting those thoughts and stuff in their mind. He alters what God has planned for ’em. They’re never able to get back on track and refocus on those things. So in that instance, the devil kind of won. So during that time immediately after surgery, when I couldn’t ride a bike or squat down, that’s when he was really at work with me. You’re not going to be back stronger than you were. You’re not going to be as fast. You’re never going to be the same.”
Christianity is intimately woven into football culture, of course, but religion seems like an even more natural partner with recovery from orthopedic surgery. The undeniable advantage of faith-based thinking is that you don’t need proof that it’s working, and healing from a catastrophic joint injury takes such a long time and your progress isn’t readily apparent as you’re going through it. Even so, Peterson’s faith doesn’t seem to be blind: It seems like another muscle Peterson has diligently sculpted over time into a very impressive physique. It’s a trusted formula: God has always overcome the devil, adversity has always been followed by redemption. He lost his brother, but eventually his mother stopped crying and expanded the family; his father was incarcerated for laundering crack money,2 but he was released and now he comes to all of Peterson’s games whether home or away; Peterson was arrested in a Houston nightclub for disorderly conduct last summer, but this winter the grand jury dropped the charges;3 last December he tore his ACL, but this December he leads the NFL in rushing.
And though of an optimistic cast, Peterson’s sense of reality has never been clouded. I asked if he knew what his father was doing before he was arrested. “It wasn’t like he was down on a corner,” he says. “But you work in a Walmart and you have five cars and a two-story house? Then something’s going on — it wasn’t a big secret.”
Peterson says avoiding a trial is actually bittersweet. “When I heard that I’d be talking to the grand jury I pretty much knew that things would be swept under the rug,” he says. “Initially when it took place, they tarnished my name, made me out to be this person that I’m not. And then when justice is served, it’s closed. It’s not: The officer’s statements were absolutely false.”
“It dates back to when I lost my brother when I was 7,” he says. “Different things that I’ve been through, different situations that I’ve been through in my life, praying to God and asking him to give me the strength and the faith and the courage, just whatever it takes to get through the situation. I’ve learned by applying those principles that things work out for me. So I’ve just been staying true to it.”
That’s not to say that his ACL recovery wasn’t unique: Every man is tested in mysterious ways. In a patellar tendon autograft surgery, where the middle third of the patient’s own patellar tendon is harvested from his own knee, cut into the shape of a ligament, and grafted into the thigh bone and the shin bone of the leg, the zombie ligament has to come back to life. There is usually a weakening before a strengthening. This, of course, can be discouraging to world-class athletes. In order for the new ligament to qualify among the living, according to Dr. Andrews, it needs to “revascularize,”4 which means rebooting the blood flow into the joint from the thigh and shinbones. “Rehab turns on Mother Nature’s healing pump,” Andrews says. “It stimulates that healing process. So you have to have a certain amount of controlled exercises by good therapists and a good trainer to get the thing to heal properly.”
This is one of the reasons that getting “the gold standard” of ACL repairs, the patellar tendon autograft, done by Dr. Andrews, is so baller: His original clinical partner, Dr. William Clancy, now the sports medicine chair at the University of Wisconsin, was the surgeon who conducted the original research on the revascularization of patellar grafts, using Rhesus monkeys in the 1970s.
Early in the process, both Sugarman and Payne are literally hands-on, forcing the improvement in range of motion. “It’s really hard to get the last 5 degrees of extension and the last 10 or 15 degrees of flexion,” Sugarman says. “And you’d be hard pressed to do it on your own. So AP will tell you the most miserable part of rehab was when he would lay on his belly and he’d bend his knee as far as he could and I’d bend it the rest.”
And just like any other workout, as his condition improved half of the ongoing battle was psychological and half was physical, and while Peterson was as mentally determined as ever, keeping AP’s body interested isn’t always as much of a given. “Adrian was a challenge because everything you gave him he was able to attack it and then some,” Sugarman says. “I really had to think.” Sugarman brought in a Wii Fit, they did parachute and bungee cord sprinting, they worked out in sand pits, on underwater treadmills. “We’d sit in a stool and chase each other around the training room because you have to use your legs and hamstrings to move around on a stool.”
AP’s progress was more than steady. He went in for surgery a week early because of a remarkable lack of swelling; because he didn’t lose much muscle mass, he was jogging at six weeks on the Vikings’ underwater treadmill, sprinting at eight weeks, and running on dry land at 10 weeks. Sugarman started agility rehab at about 15 weeks. But it was five months in when he started having breakthroughs.
“We were in the indoor facility and we were rehabbing on the side. He was doing some running. And the team was doing our first offseason program, and they were doing some half-gassers, where they run across the field and back. And he looked at me and said, ‘Hey, let me go get two of these with these guys.’ And I said, ‘Adrian, no, no way.’ Because I knew with competition he was going to run harder and faster. And he said, ‘Listen, I’m not going to hurt myself. Just let me go get two of these with these guys.’ And I said, ‘Go ahead, but I’m watching.’ And he went over and he blew them away. And everyone looked at each other like, You’ve gotta be kidding me. How is this possible? And he looked over at me and said, ‘Maybe that will give them a little motivation.'”
The running joke in the locker room is for a beat reporter to ask Peterson, “Knee 100 percent yet?” By Week 13, when his right leg still isn’t the same size as his left, this is obviously annoying to him, but he’s been taking the question since Week 1, when he was answering it earnestly but didn’t have much data, and it hasn’t dawned on him until now that there’s not enough room between the “95 percent” answer he was giving at the end of the preseason and what it’s actually feeling like now for a percentage to be in any way helpful to anybody. And while he wants to be honest, he doesn’t want his self-diagnosis to sound like an excuse, or maybe even a brag. Even Dr. Andrews is smart enough and humble enough, and maybe even religious enough, to tell me, “I’ve never said that we could fix something as good as the Good Lord made it.”
Peterson will tell you that he started to feel “normal” after Game 3 versus San Francisco. His body took such a beating that his right leg felt more integrated with the rest of him — his entire body finally feeling like it was recovering together. “Looser and stronger,” he says about his leg at that point. “And that only comes with wear and tear.”
But as Dr. Andrews reminds us, you never quit worrying, especially during this first year back. “Especially at that level,” he says, “when it’s that accelerated.”
“I’m the senior consultant for the Redskins, and when we played the Vikings, I watched him the whole game holding my breath from the other sideline. I would see them tackle him and see what he was doing running through the line and I’d hold my breath. Get up, man. You worry about it. I’m just like his mother watching him play. You OK?”
We’re back at Lambeau, and after stress-eating my way through a bratwurst that requires larger, more Favre-size hands than my own, it’s the start of the second half. Man, the Packers cheerleaders are rocking some dowdy outfits. No leg at all. But of course the Packers cheerleaders are plain. They’re authentic and rooted in history. Like everything else here. Probably being internally obnoxious right now. I asked the season-ticket holder guy in front of me who the most obnoxious visiting fans are. “Used to be you guys about eight years ago, when you were good,” he says. “Now it’s back to Bears fans. They’re the worst.”
The Vikings have received the kickoff, and after a nice return they hand it to All Day (his father Nelson gave him that nickname, by the way, when he was a hyperactive toddler). On the first play from scrimmage, AP bounces it out left, breaks a tackle, and is streaking down the left sideline. But two Packers have an angle on him this time, and he’s pushed out around the 12. Ponder hands it to him again and he gets a couple. Then on second down, Ponder goes back to throw, is flushed from the pocket, and scrambles across the entire field toward the right sideline. Nobody is open, but he seems locked on one of our big, slow wideouts, in this case Michael Jenkins. Ponder tosses it up Montana-to-Clark style, but the ball is horribly underthrown and it’s an easy interception in the end zone for Morgan Burnett, the Packer defensive back that AP punked on the 82-yard touchdown run in the first half. After the game, Burnett is quoted in the recaps saying, “I’d seen it was a pretty spiral, and I made sure I got my paws on it.” Such a perfectly smug, Packers d-back thing to say.
Lambeau Field immediately roared to life, and honestly, I know hindsight is 20/20, but that was the game right there. Because we’re not that good, certainly not good enough to throw terrible red zone picks in our division rival’s storied home stadium. The Packers get a field goal on their next drive. On a following drive, AP pumps his yardage up to 210, the second most yardage accumulated here in Lambeau history — behind the 218 Ahman Green had in a game against Denver in 2003 — but Ponder throws another pretty spiral to Burnett in the red zone at the end of the third quarter. After that pick, Aaron Rodgers leads the home team on an 18-play, 73-yard, 11-minute field goal scoring drive. It was the kind of ball-control drive that used to be the specialty of teams that run the ball, but A.Rodge’s West Coast version is even higher-percentage, even more clinically actuarial. It completely taps us out. The Vikings get the ball back with four minutes left down by 9. Without Percy, and maybe even with Percy, Ponder doesn’t have a chance. AP never touches the ball again. We don’t score a point in the second half. The Packers’ dowdy cheerleaders are enrosened by the colder air and the entire crowd sings along to “Roll Out the Barrel” and “Jump Around” while I sit there suffering from my millionth case of of course this was going to happen, infinite Vikings-fan resignation.
I zip my parka over my purple shirt and snake my way down a ramp into the green-and-gold bowels of the stadium. The reality-TV show that is a losing NFL locker room is the only part of the game that doesn’t really work on a flat-screen. These guys are ground up, and they are exhausted, and they are depressed, and they don’t want to fumble for clichés in front of cameras and microphones. When they let us in, AP is next to Ponder at Ponder’s locker, whispering something that seemed to be urgent at him. AP pumps his fist at his quarterback and retreats back into the training room. I float around and overhear half a dozen variations on the same theme: reporter trying to get somebody to say something emotional and raw about Ponder’s two picks, and the player signaling that he had his quarterback’s back by responding with inane blandishments. In 35 minutes, the locker room starts to clear out, the call goes out that Coach Frazier would be at the podium, and every media member clusters around AP’s locker, waiting for him to come out of the showers.
It’s a strange moment, when the star player emerges from the shower, refuses to acknowledge the craven horde surrounding his stall of private space, and pulls on his underwear and his pants and his shirt with everybody staring, lying in wait. It feels ancient and modern all at the same time. Everybody is watching this guy carefully cover the most impressive physique outside of Jack Kirby, and nobody does anything but act like this is completely fine. I know, he’s a dude, not Secretariat. It’s weird. He’s impressive. Everybody’s discreetly impressed, right?
Finally dressed, AP turns around and answers the same questions everybody else got, except this time with a, you know, “How does it feel to rush for 210 and lose?” angle. He handles everything perfectly. Better than perfectly. So perfectly that his answers seem progressively absurd when you think about it. Yeah, I probably should’ve made that one nice little gain into a 94-yard touchdown run. He’s not putting lipstick on a pig, he’s trying to remove lipstick from the most beautiful woman in the world.
“Rushing yards means nothing when you get an L,” he says. “Hard pill to swallow but there are two ways to look at it: negative or positive. I always choose to look at it positive.
“I think back on the turnover,” he says. “When we went three-and-out. The first play was a 32 lead, and if I’m just a second more patient I’ll take that to the crib. That’s a 94-yard run. I look back on that and that could’ve changed the game.”
I think about that old Catholic Vince Lombardi and his infallible pursuit of the perfectly executed power sweep. Even though we’re in the visitors, I think Coach Lombardi would’ve appreciated this, the star running back at his locker after a game in which he ran for 210 yards on a zombie knee, still obsessing over yards left on the field, taking personal responsibility for the team’s failure to get a win. Maybe that’s the essence behind AP’s reluctance to label his right knee “100 percent”: In a world full of sin, nothing is ever 100 percent.
“I think about the 48-yarder,” he says. “I could’ve taken that to the left side. There’s a lot of different ways you can look at it. Sometimes when it happens at the end, you throw an interception, the finger gets pointed at you. It hurts.”
Steve Marsh is a Twin Cities–based writer. He previously wrote about the Minnesota stadium circus for Grantland.