Football returns amidst emotional weekend in Canton


CANTON, Ohio -- The muscular man in the purple jersey reached out his hand to greet me, and before my brain cells could fire out of their three-point stance, the damage was done. Making the most foolish mistake in sports journalism -- shaking the hand of one Adrian Lewis Peterson, whose grip is as ferocious as his running style -- I stood in the west end zone of Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium on Sunday night and understood, quite acutely, that football is finally back.

Speaking for the majority of gridiron fans, this is a highly positive development. In a word: Hallelujah. After an offseason dominated by a deflated-ball scandal that has embroiled the reigning Super Bowl champions, a future Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (among others) in a metaphorical mud-wrestling match, it's time to wash off the slime and start anew.

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And while we still don't know what will become of Tom Brady and his four-game suspension, which is being challenged in federal court, we did get a sneak peak at the New England Patriots' Kickoff Classic opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who christened the NFL preseason against the Minnesota Vikings 32 days in advance of that blessed event.

We also got to enjoy the sight of Peterson in full uniform for the first time since Sept. 7, when the star running back played his first and only game of his 2014 campaign. After that, felony child-abuse charges triggered what amounted to a 15-game paid suspension (he later pleaded no contest to a single count of reckless assault) and a temporary estrangement from the Vikings, though he and his bosses would later hug it out and renew their financial vows.

One thing that has never changed: During the preseason, Peterson perpetually practices his sideline stare, and nothing more -- though the sight of him in pads and a helmet Sunday evening certainly was deceptive.

"Hey, I figured, 'Why not suit up?'" Peterson said. "I might lobby the coaches to put me in."


"Nah," Peterson said, smiling. "I'm not playing."

He wasn't alone: The Steelers' three biggest stars, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown, all took the night off, causing prospective fantasy owners everywhere to exhale in unison. How devoid of star appeal was this game? Put it this way: Early in the second quarter, the still-scoreless clash had devolved into a duel between gunslingers Mike Kafka (listed as Minnesota's fourth-string QB) and Landry Jones (Pittsburgh's nominal third-stringer).

To borrow from a polarizing wide receiver who'll be eligible for first-time Hall of Fame consideration this fall: Getcha popcorn ready.

And you know what? To the 22,364 fans in attendance, and millions of others tuning in on NBC, it didn't matter. Football had returned, at long last, capping an emotionally charged weekend that resonated from New York to San Diego and virtually everywhere in between.

Strolling the sidelines before Sunday's game, it was hard to go five steps without getting into another heartfelt conversation about the late, great Junior Seau, one of Saturday's eight inductees. The highlight of the ceremony, for many who witnessed it in person and on television, was the poised, passionate and poignant tribute delivered by Seau's daughter, Sydney, in an onstage interview with NFL Network's Steve Wyche.

The young lady did her father proud. So many of us have vivid Seau memories, and that includes a pair of former Steelers stars now on Mike Tomlin's coaching staff.

"I love Junior," said Joey Porter, Pittsburgh's outside linebackers coach. "He's the reason I wore 55, and part of the reason I played the way I did. He's the first linebacker who really brought that energy to the position -- not just flying to the ball, but pumping his fist and running around like a madman and never slowing down. He was relentless, and that's how I wanted to be. So many of us looked up to him, and we owe him so much."

Said defensive backs coach Carnell Lake: "I really didn't know Junior that well -- we spent some time together at a couple of Pro Bowls, but we really didn't call each other up or hang out. One time my parents drove down to San Diego and went to his restaurant, and he came out from the back, approached them and said, 'Are you Carnell's parents?' How he recognized them, I have no idea. But he sat down and made them feel special. That's just the way he was."

On Sunday, the football world mourned the loss of another Hall of Famer: Frank Gifford, the former Giants star who went on to become an iconic broadcaster.

"Frank Gifford's impact on the sport was tremendous," Hall of Fame President David Baker said an hour before kickoff as he stood behind the west goal post. "A year-and-a-half ago, two days before (Super Bowl XLVIII), we honored him at the Merlin Olsen luncheon at top of the Time-Warner Building in Manhattan, and he gave a really memorable speech. He said -- and I paraphrase -- 'I'm glad I lived long enough to see this.' He talked about how, when he left USC to play for the Giants, 'Nobody in California knew why I was going to New York, and when I'd get back (in the offseason), nobody had any idea what I'd been doing.' To see the way the sport grew and grew and eventually exploded, in his lifetime ... you could tell it really touched him."

The weekend wasn't totally drenched in sadness, of course: For the enshrinees and those close to them, the Hall of Fame festivities served as a crowning moment for indelible careers, and the pride and joy they and their loved ones exuded was palpable.

No one, of course, was more openly giddy than former 49ers and Cowboys pass rusher Charles Haley, whose road to Canton was filled with potholes and petulance and represented a triumphant taming of some personal demons.

Haley's induction speech was Pure Charles -- his "all this (stuff) is green" punchline was an all-timer -- and his stirring words about confronting and seeking help for mental illness were especially important given the backdrop of Seau's tragic suicide.

And as with Gifford, Seau and the other enshrinees, there was a lot of goodwill coming his way.

"As a kid, I thought Charles was the coolest," recalled Scott Turner, the Vikings' quarterbacks coach. "He was playing for the Cowboys (for whom Turner's father, Norv, was the offensive coordinator), and when I was 10 years old, he had this motorcycle -- and he wanted to swing by and pick me up from school one day. My dad thought it wasn't the best idea, and I was so mad. I couldn't understand why he wouldn't let me."

Norv Turner, now Minnesota's offensive coordinator, smiled at the recollection.

"An opportunity missed," he said. "You win some, you lose some."

Football lost a great one on Sunday, and the 2015 season began anew, and there were hugs and tears and handshakes all around. And let the record show that even the journalist who was careless enough to shake Peterson's hand -- perhaps losing an appreciable amount of PSI in the process -- was able to suck it up and type this column.

Hey, it's a tough sport -- and it was a long six months.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.



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