Free agent Everson Griffen says 2018 incident changed his life

When Everson Griffen entered treatment in September 2018, he wasn't allowed to have a cell phone, but he brought a pass-rush dummy with him.

There was a small area in the back of the facility where Griffen -- the Minnesota Vikings' star defensive end and team captain whose bizarre encounters with police had become headline news -- could do running and conditioning work in solitude. Twice a week, between classes and art sessions and evaluation of his mental well-being, Griffen got to go to a gym, though he wasn't allowed to drive a car.

Roughly a month later, Griffen rejoined the Vikings, saying little publicly about the incident and looking, if not always playing, like the same old No. 97.

"Nobody knew that I was living in a sober house," Griffen told me by phone Thursday. "I lived in the sober house for three months, from October to the end of the (2018) season. I was living like I was in college. Had a roommate, had a little bit of clothes. I was going to my meetings. I did the whole nine. That was a part of my recovery. Just to reset. I wanted to reset.

"And I'm happy that 2018 happened, because I wouldn't be sitting here today, being able to tell my story and showing teams that I am strong, I am healthy and there's nothing really that you have to worry about, because I'm doing all the right things. There's nothing I'm doing behind the scenes that they should be worried about. I'm doing everything possible to make sure that 2018 doesn't happen again. And it will not happen."

After a decade in Minnesota, Griffen is a free agent, having voided his contract following a bounce-back 2019 season in which he recorded eight sacks. He said goodbye to the Vikings in an Instagram post last month after talks broke down on a new deal, though he told me "never say never" on a possible return to Minnesota.

Even at age 32, Griffen is arguably the top pass rusher left on the market. (His 57 sacks over the past six seasons easily beat former No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney's 32 in the same span.) But with the COVID-19 pandemic closing club facilities indefinitely and wiping out traditional free-agent visits and physicals, it's harder for teams to answer the questions they inevitably have about Griffen's state of mind and the type of person they're bringing into the building.

"This process, for me, has taken a lot of patience, a lot of self-reflection, too," Griffen said. "It's like, why haven't (more) teams been interested? And the reason why is because they don't know Everson."

What they know is largely based on what they read in a widely publicized police report from the 2018 incident: verbal outbursts in practice, prompting the Vikings to order Griffen to undergo a mental health evaluation; one encounter with police at a downtown hotel, another at Griffen's house after he'd entered teammate Trae Waynes' residence, shirtless and uninvited; an escape from an ambulance, before eventually going to a hospital for evaluation. Griffen was not arrested and faced no criminal charges.

According to Griffen's agent, Brian Murphy, while in treatment, Griffen "went through extensive evaluation with the best doctors available," and they ruled out serious mental-health issues, such as bipolar disorder. While Griffen admitted using cannabis that week, chemical dependency was not diagnosed either, Murphy said; Griffen's serious pursuit of health moving forward included a decision to abstain from drugs. ("That was just part of the program," Griffen said of his sober house stay, "to make sure that you could get back on track the proper way.")

"After five weeks of work and evaluation, the doctors concluded Everson's erratic behavior resulted from significant unresolved emotional distress, emotional incongruence and a lack of healthy coping skills," Murphy wrote in an email. "In short, his unprocessed emotions from a lifetime of really unfortunate and painful experiences -- including his mother's death in October 2012 (from spontaneous coronary artery dissection while visiting Griffen in Minnesota) -- finally boiled over the top. As a result, Everson 'coped' by relationally detaching and acting out in ways that were very uncharacteristic of his NFL career. While that experience cost him five weeks of the NFL season, it has also changed his life forever in very positive ways."

The events of 2018 were "a big eye-opener on the things that I needed to be resolved in my life," Griffen said. He dug deep to figure out where his problems began, back to his childhood amidst sometimes-trying circumstances in Arizona. Those are details he has discussed only with the team of medical professionals -- therapists, clinical psychologists, a life coach -- whom Griffen says he speaks with on a daily basis. (Minnesota's governor recently extended a stay-at-home order until May 4, so those meetings currently take place via video chat.) He realized he needed to reprioritize his life around his wife, Tiffany, and three sons, whose support he says was essential to turning things around after his hardest year became a public spectacle.

"It was televised. Videos," Griffen said. "Everybody counted me out."

It's a complicated situation for other GMs and coaches to sort through from afar, especially considering most haven't time spent time with Griffen since before the 2010 NFL Draft, when there were -- in Griffen's words -- "all these red flags and all these things that people questioned" about inconsistent play, leadership ability, character, etc.

A junior entry from USC, Griffen slid to Minnesota in the fourth round and appeared in 11 games as a rookie, then got arrested twice in three days after his rookie season for suspicion of public intoxication and battery on a police officer at a traffic stop. (The first charge was dropped; Griffen pled guilty in the latter case, receiving a fine and probation.) The Vikings stuck by him, and Griffen rewarded them. He recorded 17.5 sacks over the next three seasons, despite playing limited snaps as a reserve. Re-signed to a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension in March 2014, Griffen became a starter and broke out with 12 sacks that fall. Teammates have voted him team captain each year since 2015.

In his original statement after the 2018 incident, Griffen acknowledged he was addressing personal issues he had battled "for a long time." Yet in spite of whatever he was going through, it rarely has prevented him from doing his job at a high level. Griffen missed just two games from 2011 through 2017 while establishing himself as one of the NFL's best rushers. In February, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer called Griffen "a terrific person" and has cited him publicly and in team meetings as a model for other players to follow.

After taking a $3 million pay cut last March -- and in exchange, getting the right to void the three remaining years of his contract with six sacks or 57 percent playtime, which he easily surpassed last season -- Griffen returned to Pro Bowl form, helping the Vikings return to the playoffs and getting another 1.5 sacks as they stunned the New Orleans Saints on Wild Card Weekend.

"I'm a hundred percent positive that 2019 was just a glimpse of what I still have left in the tank," Griffen said. "I was after practice going to my counseling meetings, going to see my therapist, getting my massages. It was still a work in progress in the 2019 season. I just wasn't focused (solely) on football. And that will never still be the case, because I have to focus on outside of football: What makes Everson healthy?"

He sets daily goals, such as reading books (current selection: Healing the Child Within) and expanding his mind. Griffen says he has discussed with his medical team all the variables that would come with moving to a new city, and they'll be with him every step of the way. If an interested NFL team wants to speak to his doctors, or view his medical records, Griffen says, "Yeah, of course. Why not? There's nothing to hide."

Physically, Griffen has rarely encountered problems. In a decade in the NFL, Griffen has never had a surgery. He's regularly the first player on the field several hours before kickoff, going through an intense warmup routine. Since he was a rotational player his first four seasons, Griffen says, he has thicker tread on the tires than most 10-year vets. When he's not doing his meetings or helping his kids (ages 7, 4 and 2) with schoolwork during the lockdown, he's lifting in his home gym and doing field work four days a week with his longtime movement coach, Shawn Myszka.

There's no rush to sign anywhere, Griffen says. The focus is on finding the right fit, the right coaching staff, the right culture. He wants a chance to win a ring. More than anything, Griffen says, he wants to find a team that loves him for him. And he envisions being the same guy the Vikings loved even through the hard times: high energy, ready to work, accountable, a leader.

"I'm going to do anything possible in my body to make sure I'm putting myself and this team in the position to win," Griffen said. "And at the end of the day, I'm going to make sure I take care of myself, too. Because that's the most important part, is taking care of myself, and that's the new Everson. I'm finally taking care of myself, not just in a physical way, in a mental way, in a healthy way and really taking ownership in it and growing from that and being able to identify my flaws and my failures. I feel the best I ever felt.

"I'm very capable of going into a new environment and learning the ropes. It's just been fun to be in the league for 10 years. It's been a blessing. Four Pro Bowls, one second-team All-Pro. And there's been obstacles, but through the obstacles, I have fought back each and every time and I have proven that I am a guy that you can count on. Everybody has their hard times. And I push through the hard times and I'm still here standing and ready to go."

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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