MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — Everson Griffen broke into the NFL as one of the youngest players in the league, and he can now say that everything came a little too fast for him at the start.
The money, the game, the attention, it was a lot to handle for a 22-year-old who left USC a year early, and it caught up to the Minnesota Vikings defensive end in the winter following his rookie year.
Two arrests in three days for unruly behavior back in Los Angeles branded him as a troublemaker, and many inside and outside the organization wondered if he would give himself a chance to reach the potential that his physical gifts laid out for him.
“Guys that young coming out of college, getting a boatload of money. It just takes maturity,” Griffen said. “It took a long time for me to mature and know what I really wanted and that’s to become a great football player for the Minnesota Vikings.”
It may seem like just yesterday, but more than three years have passed, and those who have been around Griffen marvel at the steps he’s made.
He is married with a young boy at home, has established himself as one of the team’s most generous players in the community and is starting the first year of a five-year, $42.5 million contract that guarantees him $20 million, making him one of the pillars of a rebuilding defense.
“He’s one of those guys that I think is going to be a success story,” Vikings GM Rick Spielman said. “A guy that has made mistakes or made some poor decisions off the field at the time, but I think (he is) not only maturing as a football player, but maturing as a person, you saw that. You sit back there and watch him grow. So we felt very confident to go ahead and invest in that.”
In his first four seasons in the league, Griffen started just one game while playing behind All-Pro Jared Allen. His physical talent has been apparent since early on.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer even used the 6-foot-3, 273-pound Griffen as a gunner on the punt coverage team and previous defensive coaches played him at both end and tackle while occasionally dropping him back into coverage as a linebacker.
But he had just 5½ sacks last season and didn’t make the kind of splash plays that many expected to start seeing from him on a more regular basis.
The Vikings said goodbye to Allen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams, two long-time stalwarts and team leaders, in the offseason, and Spielman decided he’d seen enough from Griffen both on the field and off to make him one of the new faces of the revamped unit.
“Everson for the most part did have some slipups, but we’re betting that he has matured and he’s shown that maturity and that he will continue to embrace that role,” Spielman said.
“It seems like even another light switch went on with him when we showed that confidence in him.
“But I also told him that when we go down this road and you receive the type of contract you received, it’s not just about what you do on the field. There are a lot of responsibilities that come with it as a team leader and how you’re going to represent the organization as well.”
One of the most obvious changes during Vikings training camp this season has been Griffen’s emergence as a spokesman for the defense. With Allen and Williams gone, he has eagerly tried to step up and fill the void, speaking with an earnestness and enthusiasm that he wasn’t able to do when he was finding his way earlier in his career.
“You’ve got to embrace it. I’ve been dreaming of this,” Griffen said. “The only thing I can do is hold myself to a high standard and go out there and compete each and every day to become the player I want to become for my team.
“I’m just trying to have a good 2014 season with the Minnesota Vikings and let’s win. We’re here for one thing and that’s winning games, no ifs ands or buts. We’re here to win games. That’s all we want to do here.”
So far he has made a strong first impression with coach Mike Zimmer and the rest of the new staff brought in to replace Leslie Frazier after last year’s 5-10-1 disappointment.
“He’s very eager,” Zimmer said. “He wants to please. He wants to do good. He’s excitable. But obviously I’m spending a lot of time in the defensive meetings, so I get a chance to talk to him quite a bit. But he wants to do things right and he’s a good kid and I’m glad we have him.”