Everson Griffen Is the Redemption Story Fueling the Surprise Vikings' Success

Anna Katherine ClemmonsFeatured Columnist IDecember 28, 2017

FILE - In this Nov. 23, 2017, file photo, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen (97) stands on the sidelines during an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, in Detroit. Griffen was only a part-time player for his first four seasons in the league. The last four years, he's become a workhorse defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings and one of the most effective pass rushers in the league. (AP Photo/Jeff Haynes, File)
Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

"It takes a man a long time to grow up." — Everson Griffen 

Perhaps the most important aspects of a professional football player's life are neither skill nor hard work. Rather, the key to success—that intangible that steers him toward a long Hall of Fame career—is how he learns to live and grow outside of his sporting career. How he makes decisions, how he builds a community and how he matures.

Maturation, after all, is never guaranteed. Everyone grows and ages; but for some, bad decisions and mistakes overpower talent and drive, leading to a life of regret. 

For Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, maturation wasn't just a choice—it was the defining experience separating a Pro Bowl career (and this season, a Super Bowl pursuit) from the tabloid-headlining, cliched fall from grace so often tagged to the rich and famous. 

Griffen, who recently turned 30 amidst his best professional season to date, spent much of his early adulthood overcoming a path of pitfalls and falling just short of actualizing his potential. He endured love, loss and hard decisions before realizing that the only way to excel on the field was to discover and live out his purpose away from it. 

"Ahhhhhhh! Ahhhhhh!" 

Griffen's baritone echoed through Vault Fitness' main floor, overpowering the rap music playing from the ceiling speakers. He squatted low, shifting his weight to the left side before moving, surfer-like, in a crouched position to his right. He froze, motionless, for several seconds before shaking out his 6'3", 273-pound body and returning to his starting stance, preparing to slice in front of an imaginary defender. 

"That's much better back-knee flexion there. Can you feel that?" Shawn Myszka, Griffen's movement skills acquisition coach, said. "That goes along with where we were at the other day." 

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

Griffen nodded, analyzing the movement discrepancies as he relayed how he'd felt on Atlanta's turf during the Vikings' Week 13 road win five days prior. Griffen, a standout pass-rusher known for his quick get-off, had struggled with the stadium turf's easy give and finished the game without a sack. 

"I'm frustrated," Griffen said. "I go into a game expecting a sack. I know I can beat this guy at least one time to get to the quarterback." 

So following the Vikings' Friday practice, Griffen—whose 13 sacks rank fourth in the NFL—attended his twice-a-week movement training session in the Eden Prairie-based gym ready to manifest that frustration into work. 

After an intense hour-and-a-half training, Griffen drove 30 minutes to his sprawling lakeside home to spend time with his family (his wife, Tiffany, and their three sons: Greyson, 4, Ellis, 2, and Sebastian, 2 weeks), followed by an hour-long home acupuncture session and a date night with Tiffany. 

Even though his days often begin with 5 a.m. hyperbaric chamber sessions, Griffen is almost always in motion, bouncing to the beat of his own energy. He's holding a sleeping Sebastian on his chest, bear-hugging Greyson when his oldest son returns home from pre-K or joking with Tiffany about a recent purchase. Griffen laughs often, his wide, joyful smile evident as he pats his dozing newborn's back and talks about his upcoming 30th birthday. 

"I bet people look at me now like, 'Everson got three kids and married? Whew!'" Griffen said, laughing. "'Who's that woman over here that changed him?' My family is what I'm most proud of. I couldn't do it without them." 

As an adolescent growing up in Arizona, the gifted athlete was a gregarious goofball and a troublemaker who often got an earful from his mom. Those labels stayed with Griffen throughout his collegiate playing days at USC and during his rookie season with the Vikings. Despite a powerhouse pro day, they drafted Griffen in the fourth round. He knew he had the tools to be great—but he hadn't yet figured out how to piece his life together. 

This season, his eight-year evolution has been readily apparent. Griffen was voted to his third straight Pro Bowl, and the captain of the Vikings' top-ranked defense may help his team become the first NFL squad to play in a Super Bowl on its home field.

Perhaps most importantly to Griffen, he's learned from his mistakes and figured out who he is as a husband, as a father and as a man. 

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

"He's definitely become more dedicated—now he knows what it takes to be great," Tiffany said. "He knows he can do it, so he made the decision and he goes all-in. This year is the most consistent he's ever been. I think figuring out his mental game and knowing who he is as a person has played a big role. It's all clicking now." 

Growing up in Avondale, Arizona, Griffen was loud and lovable. He and his older brother, Charlie Jr., were raised by their mom, Sabrina Scott. She worked full-time, but she took care of her boys and ensured they always had the newest pair of Nikes or Jordans. Griffen never washed a load of laundry, never ironed a shirt, never cooked a meal. He held one job for a week in high school—working concessions at a dog track—before he was fired. 

His focus was sports. Griffen was too big for Pop Warner football, so he found other outlets. Baseball was his first love, but after breaking his arm twice—the second time, during high school, when he fell off of the roof of a moving car while joking around with friends—he couldn't throw as powerfully as before. So he shifted his attention to football and played on his first organized team, making the varsity squad his first year. 

"When Ev came in as a freshman, he was bigger than our seniors," Kelly Epley, Griffen's high school football coach at Agua Fria, said. Griffen's physicality enabled him to dominate on both sides of the ball, and he earned early comparisons to another Arizona high school gridiron great, Terrell Suggs. 

"As a freshman, he was bodying seniors on big league teams," his childhood best friend, Jeffrey Bennett, said. "It was like, 'This dude is going to be freaking talented.' I knew he had that ambition, that automatic talent to just be a monster." 

Griffen also excelled at track and field, and part of his skill set can likely be attributed to genetics. He and his mother still hold the male and female shot put records at Aqua Fria. But despite his physical skills and natural talent, Griffen's maturity lagged behind. His loud personality, combined with his minimal filter ("He has no censor," according to Bennett), made him a popular student-athlete, one who earned A's in the classroom while also getting called out for his antics. 

Entering his senior year, Griffen realized he was a lock to play at a top Division I program, but only if he showed the maturity.

"That's when I saw the big difference," Epley says. "He started making those around him play at a higher level. We had a kid transfer in from California who was a little bit of trouble. He wouldn't have made it through our program if Ev hadn't taken him aside and babysat him through that year. That's when I realized Ev isn't just valuable as a player but also as a leader and a mentor." 

As a 6'3", 266-pound senior, Griffen ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds. He was the top recruit coming out of Arizona and narrowed his collegiate options to USC, UCLA, Arizona, Oklahoma and Michigan. He liked then-head coach Pete Carroll's program at USC, he felt the school had strong academics, and he wanted to be close enough to home that Scott could attend his games.

And as much as Griffen liked Carroll's program, the former USC coach felt the same about his star defensive end.

"He's always been a potentially great player, and early on you could see that," Carroll said. "He found it in college and then he carried it over to this level and he's been extraordinary. As he's grown up and been able to capture his opportunity and make the most of it, he's doing all of that, and he's a fantastic young man." 

He headed to USC in the fall of 2007. 

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Everson Griffen #93 of the USC Trojans celebrates after sacking Jimmy Clausen of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2009 in South Bend, Indiana. USC won 34-27. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Los Angeles, however, proved to be a city of temptation for Griffen and his roommate-teammate, Jordan Campbell, and that seemed to stick with Griffen wherever he went. 

"Nothing can deter you from being an 18-year-old athlete in L.A.," Campbell says. "A guy like Everson, who worked for everything he had to get to that national stage, until you go through it yourself … you make mistakes and grow up, you become a better person. It takes time." 

On July 4, 2009, the duo was cited by local police for a noise violation while attending a party on Nantucket Island. Griffen's antics were mostly an extension of his personality and his popularity (he and Campbell also joined a fraternity). He played in all 12 games as a freshman, totaling 21 tackles, 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Scott drove to every home game and often attended away matchups, bringing Griffen fresh laundry and spending as much time with him as possible.

After a breakout junior season, Griffen decided to forgo his senior year and declare for the 2010 draft. 

"In college, I could've maybe won Defensive Player of the Year and all of that, but I was just a young boy partying," Griffen says. "It was about, OK, I know I have to do enough to get drafted and I know I'm better than a lot of people … but I wasn't really locked in like that in college. In the NFL, you can't just show up and play. You gotta study, you gotta work out, you gotta practice hard." 

The Vikings chose Griffen in the fourth round, with the 100th pick.

"I should've gone higher, but I was a knucklehead," Griffen says. "Character issues. I was a wild cannon." 

Looking back now, Griffen says he's thankful. Had he been drafted in the first round and received a lucrative contract, Griffen said he probably wouldn't even be playing football. 

As a rookie in 2010, Griffen was tested by defensive line veterans like Jared Allen, Pat Williams and Brian Robison. He played on special teams and was often frustrated by his lack of playing time. 

"We were a little hard on him," Robison says, laughing. "He'd come in, snot-nosed little rookie, a little cocky, so we had to knock him down a few notches. It was fun, but definitely seeing him mature over the years has been great. Now he's not afraid to ask questions, whether it's about football or life. He'll talk to guys and figure out the right way to do things." 

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Griffen's first year was a learning process in and out of football. In January of 2011, while back in Los Angeles, Griffen was arrested on a Friday night for public intoxication. Less than 72 hours later, he was pulled over by police during a routine traffic stop. Griffen provided an invalid license and then proceeded to run from officers. He then got into a physical altercation with the officers—the jail bracelet from his first arrest still dangling from his wristand was tased and arrested on felony battery charges. 

Bennett called him a few days later.

"When you make bad decisions, what will you do?" Bennett asked his best friend. "Will you say, 'I could've been this,' or do you want to say, 'I did that, I made bad decisions and I learned from them'? You're following in the footsteps that you said you wouldn't do. I know immaturity happens, but at the end of the day, ask yourself, 'Who will I really be to be better tomorrow?'" 

One of Griffen's biggest supporters (in addition to his mom) was his wife. The two instantly connected after meeting at a club in 2010. Within two weeks of dating, Tiffany told her roommate she'd met the man she was going to marry. They were inseparable, and in October of 2012, during Everson's third NFL season, they got engaged. Tiffany was six months pregnant with Greyson, and Scott had arrived several days earlier to visit. 

Six days after their engagement, Tiffany arrived at Everson's condo to find Scott lying in the stairwell. She had died instantly of spontaneous artery dissection—when a tear forms in one of the blood vessels in the heart and blocks blood flow. She was 52. 

Griffen missed several days of practice to attend his mom's memorial service and funeral, but he still played in the Vikings' game the following week. 

"When my mom passed, it was really, really hard on me," Griffen says. "I put my issues to the curb. I felt like I had to just keep moving forward. And I didn't process it for a long time." 

His intense football focus led to a renewed commitment, and he finished the season with eight sacks, a forced fumble and a 29-yard pick-six. Greyson Scott Griffen was born in January of 2013, his middle name a tribute to Sabrina. 

"Sabrina was so excited about the baby on the way," Tiffany says. "She'd already bought him gifts and was so full of joy. If she were still here, she'd probably be living with us and loving every minute of it." 

Prior to the 2014 season, Jared Allen signed with the Bears. Griffen earned the starting right end position and enjoyed a breakout year, totaling 57 tackles (more than double his previous year) and 12 sacks, and laid the foundation for his first Pro Bowl nod a year later. 

"He had a lot of raw talent in 2014," Andre Patterson, who joined Minnesota as the defensive line coach that season, says. "He was still learning how to be a pro football player, and he was figuring out who Everson is as a person ... we've had several conversations on what his legacy is going to be as a man. Over time, I think those messages started to set in, and he's started to live his life that way." 

Griffen had always worked out incessantly; now, he began using his off day to pore over film, breaking down opponents and finding potential weaknesses, which he would share with Patterson early Wednesday mornings. He scheduled massage therapy, acupuncture, bought a hyperbaric chamber and began working more intensely with Myszka. 

"The thing I like about Griff is it doesn't matter how talented he is. It doesn't matter what accolades he's getting. He works hard, day in and day out, and he's going to put literally everything he has into it," Robison says. "He seems to be more in tune with how offenses work. And off the field, he's become a family manhe's all about his kids and spending as much time with them as possible." 

Griffen coached Greyson's soccer team this year and said he hopes to coach his boys in athletics—but not as a head coach. "Too many parents yelling at you," he said, laughing.

During the summer, the family stays in Minnesota and takes their 26-foot deck boat out on Lake Minnetonka. Griffen loves tubing and wrestling with his boys and hanging out at home. He's still a jokester; Tiffany says he'll often take her to the Mall of America and stand in the rotunda, yelling, "TIFFANY!" as loudly as possible while dancing around. 

This year, Griffen recorded at least one sack in each of his first eight games. He has 13 on the season and 61 for his career. "I know I can get to 100. That's my goal," Griffen says.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The 12-3 Vikings are playoff-bound and looking to play in the franchise's first Super Bowl since the 1976 season. 

"I think the biggest difference [this year] is he moves very fluidly; there's not a lot of wasted movement," Allen said. "He has a great get-off and he's fast as he can be. He's powerful and he has a great instinct to find the ball." 

Griffen credits his movement training for his position efficiency. "I don't run just to runif I'm running, I'm doing it for a slice, changing direction, etc.," Griffen says. "We never waste movement. That's why I enjoy it so much and my game is always getting better with this [movement training], because we find new ranges, new bandwidth. I love it, I live by it, and it's hardthat's why everyone doesn't like to do it." 

And as he's developed his playing skill and repertoire, he's also attuned to his transformation away from football. "I would say this year was my biggest growing year by far," Griffen says. 

That doesn't mean he still can't act like a kid. On Thanksgiving Day, with the Vikings kicking off against the Lions in Detroit, Tiffany went into labor four weeks early. She FaceTimed Griffen during pregame so he could watch his third son's birth live.

After sacking Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Griffen lifted his jersey to display a handwritten message on his undershirt: "I just had a baby boywhat should we name him?" (While he and Tiffany enjoyed reading the creative array of social media responses, the name they ultimately chose—Sebastian—was one they'd previously picked.)

"We're just now starting to see the best of him," Patterson says. "He's gonna continue to get better and better because he's figuring this game out. And most importantly, he's figuring life out. We all do, right? When I got here, my first focus was his talent, but the reason he hasn't been what he could be is because he wasn't right [off the field]. But once we got him right, now the whole world is starting to see this amazing talent that this guy is." 

Whether that is cycling through his movement training on the field three hours prior to game time, wrestling with his sons after practice or crowd-sourcing baby names via a T-shirt after a monstrous sack, each moment is the embodiment of who Griffen is today: a standout defensive end, a relentless worker, a team leader, a devoted father and husbandall titles he has earned and worked toward through years of evolution and change.

And amidst it all, he remains a joyful man who embodies love—and still finds time to have fun. 


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