Life will just kill you, literally and figuratively. It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. Tragedy finds us with no warning, no reason and, sometimes, nothing to rail against but the random cruelty of it all.
A drunk gets behind the wheel and somebody’s spouse dies. A bullet goes astray in the street and an innocent life is lost. A violent, abusive excuse for a human being loses control and a two-year-old child is dead. Does it matter whose child? It’s sickeningly awful in every case, and I promise you that Adrian Peterson’s son – according to reports, his life taken at two from a beating that left him in critical condition – was not the first and won’t be the last.
The details, two days later, are sparse but horrific: A two-year-old boy dead in Sioux Falls in what police call an alleged child abuse case. Joseph Patterson, 27, is charged with aggravated assault and battery. A person with “knowledge of the situation” tells the Associated Press the boy is Peterson’s son. Peterson, while not officially confirming the identity of the boy, thanks players and fans for their support and says that he will play on Sunday. Of course he will play on Sunday, playing on Sunday is what Adrian Peterson does.
We look to our athletes, too often probably, to embody the strength, will and determination we wished we possessed; the toughness we ascribe to them is a motivational ploy. We need them to overcome, so that we might believe we can overcome when it’s our turn. Phil Kessel beat cancer at age 19, we remind ourselves, because it is humbling and inspiring to remember that the sleek sniper we watch raise his hands in the air on Saturday nights was once sitting in a doctor’s office, receiving the terrifying diagnosis all of us live in fear of hearing.
We need those stories from our superheroes and Adrian Peterson is used to being put on that pedestal.
When I spoke with Peterson at Vikings training camp in August, he was well aware that he had this effect on people. His recovery from a blown knee seemed miraculous to hundreds of athletes for whom such a diagnosis is nearly as tragic as more terminal afflictions. He spoke about his faith, and his will and determination, and about how much it meant to him that the story of his comeback was the one so many athletes will cling to as they're being carted off the field. But there is no story of a comeback for Peterson to cling to now. It is just him, and his family and this heartbreaking loss. And football. Peterson has walked this dark road before. Too many times. His brother killed by a drunk driver when Adrian was seven. His half-brother murdered. His father sent to jail for most of his son's formative years. And every time, there was football.
Was there ever a doubt this man would play on Sunday? "Football is something I will always fall back on," Peterson said on Friday after returning to practice with the Vikings, vowing he'd be on the field against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. "It gets me through tough times. Just being around the guys in here, that's what I need in my life."
And nobody gets to judge Peterson for that decision. His are shoes you don't want to walk a mile in, as expensive as they might be. How he chooses to accept or rail against whatever act of God or fate or chance that is brutal enough to steal away a two-year-old boy in such a way is up to only him. This isn't a blown knee or a strained quad to be overcome with rest and rehab.
Injuries can be overcome. And illness, too. But tragedy cannot be. It is something to be endured; to be dealt with however each of us knows best, until gradually it fades into that part of your soul that makes you who you are, but doesn't show on the surface, raw and roiling, every day.
There's no shortcut to that solution. It's just life-and Peterson, who has endured more tragedy than any 28-year-old, multi-millionaire or not, should ever have to face, knows this all too well. The only way to survive life is to keep living, to do whatever makes you feel alive.
So Peterson will strap on his armour, both mental and physical, on Sunday, because that is how he copes. And on one of his early carries, he will likely have the choice of going over or around a Panthers defender; and God help that poor Panthers defender. Because if you think Adrian Peterson will choose to go around that man, you haven't been paying attention to how he copes. And you should, because superstar or not, we could all stand to learn from it.