The Complicated Case of 'Good Guy' Adrian Peterson
I always had a soft spot for Adrian Peterson.
Like a lot of people who have followed his career, I knew of his challenging childhood and, as a reporter, I was especially taken with Peterson the first time I interviewed him. At the time, he was a freshman at Oklahoma, just a few months out of high school in 2004.
In my story for the Chicago Tribune, I described him as being as heavy-hearted as he was fleet-footed, for he carried with him the burden of having a father in prison (sentenced to 10 years in 1999 for laundering drug money). Worse, as a 7-year-old growing up in a tightly bonded family of three with his mother, Bonita, and older brother, Brian, Peterson suffered the unthinkable when he witnessed Brian, 11, struck and killed by a drunken driver while riding his bike.
Bonita recalled that years later, when Adrian was 16 and on a trip to Miami with his high school track team. "He called me three times in a row," she said. "You know your children, and I knew something was wrong. I said, 'Baby, is everything all right?' He finally broke down and told me he was reliving everything. I'm trying to maintain control and I'm crying. Finally, I got myself together and said, 'It's OK, it's good to let it go.' It was good for him. As the years go by, God gives us that peace that allows us to cope."
Bonita Jackson had been married for six years at that point to Rev. Frankie Jackson, and it was the voice of a loving mother that told me, "We've always raised Adrian that every gift you have comes from the Lord and just as quickly as He gives it to you, He can take it away from you."
At that time, Adrian kept in touch with his father in prison, and he told me that he appreciated the advice his father gave him. For all the tragedy Peterson had experienced, I never thought he was a kid with misguided morals or automatically headed for trouble himself. And as a man, in the few times I interviewed him and observed him in the years following, I thought he was a "good guy."
This is a mistake many of us in the media make, and I certainly have made that mistake as well -- we are as quick to anoint as we are to condemn. When Peterson was arrested in 2009 for driving 109 mph in a 55 mph zone, he was quickly given the benefit of the doubt because of his record as a good citizen, and I certainly did not disagree.
When Peterson spent a night in jail for resisting arrest in 2012 after reportedly fighting with police when he and his friends refused to leave a club after closing, again, well, it seemed to pale in comparison to other athletes' transgressions. And it was easy to dismiss for a player who did so much for his community.
When Peterson's 2-year-old son was murdered by the child's mother's boyfriend last year, we ached for Peterson. And there was virtually no outrage when he played in a game soon after, or when it was revealed later that Peterson had never met the child and only learned of his existence a few weeks prior to his death.
Peterson was a "good guy," and to some he will again come across sympathetically in the wake of his comments explaining the recent charges that his "disciplining" of his 4-year-old son crossed the line to child abuse. On Monday, Peterson said in a statement: "I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen. I know that many people disagree with the way I disciplined my child. I also understand after meeting with a psychologist that there are other alternative ways of disciplining a child that may be more appropriate."
The repeated use of the word "discipline" ... the reference to his upbringing ... the wording of "may be more appropriate" -- those words feel as if they were probably carefully crafted under the watchful eye of his lawyer.
The statement went on to say that he had "learned a lot," and that he has re-evaluated how he will discipline his son going forward. "But deep in my heart," he said, "I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives."
The "but" here is critical. Peterson is saying that beating his child was justified. Or more than likely, he is using past mistakes by loving but misguided adults as an excuse for his own lack of judgment and alleged act of cruelty.
ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Cris Carter made an impassioned plea to his former team on "Sunday NFL Countdown" that they continue to keep Peterson off the field.
No one has said it better.
"My mom did the best job she could do raising seven kids by herself, but there are thousands of things that I have learned since then that my mom was wrong," Carter said. "It's the 21st century -- my mom was wrong. She did the best she could, but she was wrong about some of that stuff she taught me, and I promised my kids I won't teach that mess to them. You can't beat a kid to make them do what they want to do."
Deep in his heart, Peterson has to know this, too.