by Simon Jolly
After attending the Minnesota Vikings’ 34-27 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in London, two things are abundantly clear.
Two things, in fact, that may seem so clear as to not need stating in the first place. Firstly, the game is better in the flesh.
Now, anybody who holds a season ticket will surely tell you the same thing, but this isn’t an observation about the pageantry surrounding the professional game. No, as with any sport, one only really appreciates the dynamics, the ebb and flow of a game when it’s happening in front of you.
Television tends to reduce the game to a series of vignettes. The camera may pick up a quarterback sack in graphic close-up, but not the excellent coverage by the secondary that caused it.
Showing a wide angle shot of the entire field to illustrate said excellent coverage then foregoes the visible decision making process that a quarterback undertakes as the play develops.
There is something about being able to see the entire field and yet be aware of the details that provides the experience of simply watching the game live with something extra.
Truly, the third dimension matters.
Secondly, and perhaps even more obviously, Adrian Peterson’s work ethic is staggering.
This is meant in a number of different ways. The standard definition of work ethic is ‘a set of values based on the moral virtues of hard work and diligence’ and Peterson clearly has this in spades: accounts of his dedication to training are legion.
Vikings Centre John Sullivan tells the story of running wind sprints during team training. Peterson – at the time rehabbing from his catastrophic ACL tear – made clear his dissatisfaction with the levels of hard work and diligence demonstrated by his teammates: setting aside his rehabilitation exercises, he removed his knee brace and proceeded to outrun the entire team.
The effect such an effort can have on a team, particularly from a player held in such regard as Peterson, is difficult to overstate.
There is, however, a subtler kind of work ethic that Peterson also demonstrates. Out on the field, during plays, he never stops working.
And not just in the physical sense of being a relentless runner, but also in the mental sense. No play is ever lost until his knees hit the ground. Every hole that closes is merely an opportunity to find another, and given enough effort another opportunity is sure to present itself.
In this sense, Peterson’s unique work ethic makes an interesting comparison to some other all-time great running backs.
When a running back arrives at a wall of defenders, there are normally two options: stick your head down and initiate the contact or turn and run in the hope of finding more yards elsewhere. In the simple, tribal language of football, the former is normally considered the ‘tough’ option, the one chosen by those not willing to shirk a physical challenge.
It was the approach adopted by both Jim Brown and Walter Payton (despite their differences in stature), Payton living by the motto “Never Die Easy”. Brown once told teammate and tight end John Mackey “make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts”.
But while such an approach clearly requires an ocean of intestinal fortitude, it is different to the kind of desire required to keep working with the mind to find the opening when none exists. To accept that a more complex, yet beneficial option may present itself with enough mental awareness and commitment.
Another runner spoken about with similar reverence is Barry Sanders.
While pub debates will rage about who the greatest running back of all time was, there are few things as electrifying as Barry Sanders in full flow. Like watching rugby player Jason Robinson in his prime, the sharp intake of breath and matching sense of disbelief when Sanders harnessed his unique physical gifts to deliver the spectacular is something those fans who have experienced it will treasure and the late David Foster Wallace describes something similar in his homage to Roger Federer.
And yet, with Sanders, one always had the sneaking suspicion that he would give up on a play ever so slightly too soon. While his highlight reels are legion (a good example being the NFL preview of Barry Sanders’ ‘A Football Life’), it is interesting to note how far from contact he was before making one of those superhuman changes of direction and rerouting a play in the opposite direction.
In many cases this would actually work against him: Sanders, of course, is famous for holding the NFL record for most carries for negative yardage. It is a moot point whether such an approach is a result of giving up on a play too soon: perhaps it is the most effective choice when ones physical gifts are so extravagant.
Peterson, however, is different, and this difference makes him uniquely great. While many highlight reels exist of Barry Sanders’ rushes for a loss, very few are available for Peterson, and that’s a shame because in many ways they are more subtly illuminating than the big runs through gaping holes.
The next time you watch the Vikings, keep your eye on Peterson’s runs that start off down blind alleys. A hole that was supposed to appear does not, or is rapidly closed by the defence. In such circumstances, Peterson’s natural, instinctive work ethic comes to the fore.
He cuts. He dances. He jinks.
In some cases he delays, but never really waits. He is always, always working, seeking out a new opportunity when the expected one does not present itself. In some ways he is the master of brinkmanship, relentlessly pursuing a course of action until a split second before it becomes too late, at which point he moves on to the next one on the mental checklist with equal relentlessness.
The fascinating thing is that, in some ways, these two kinds of work ethic – the deliberate and the instinctive – don’t seem to be connected. One is clearly a conscious choice: the desires to run harder, lift more, train longer and flat out work harder than a competitor.
There is a conscious process involved in saying: ‘I’m not tired enough; I need to do more work for I know I will reap the rewards’ (history, of course, is littered with high achieving sportsmen with more talented siblings who did not share the same work ethic, Gary Lineker being but one example).
And yet in Peterson’s case the connection between the two is unavoidable, that he chooses to work hard hour by hour in preparation and moment by moment during a game.
It is difficult to argue against the success he has achieved as a result.