MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings could hardly hold training camp without some kind of controversy or sideshow.
This version came with quite the twist: special teams coordinator Mike Priefer in the spotlight.
As players unpacked their vehicles carrying necessities and diversions for the three-week stay at Minnesota State University, signing autographs for clamoring purple-clad fans in this annual rite of reporting day, the usual prominent figures stepped to a makeshift podium for questions from the media outside the team’s temporary residence.
This time, Priefer and long snapper Cullen Loeffler were among the interview subjects.
Strange, yes, but part of the process following former punter Chris Kluwe’s complaint that Priefer taunted him two years ago with homophobic language. The Vikings commissioned an outside investigation that lasted six months and last week announced a three-game suspension for Priefer.
An unsatisfied Kluwe vowed a lawsuit, but his attorney has held off on filing it while continuing to talk with the team’s lawyer about a settlement.
“In this situation, with my comment, I’ve failed. I didn’t just go below the bar. I went way below the bar. I made a mistake. I was wrong. I brought a lot of undue attention to the Minnesota Vikings organization and brought an unwanted distraction, and I apologize,” Priefer said.
According to a summary of the report released by the Vikings, Loeffler corroborated to the investigators Kluwe’s claim that Priefer made a vicious anti-gay remark in their presence. Priefer was trying to agitate Kluwe, who became a supporter for same-sex marriage rights as Minnesota considered in 2012 a constitutional amendment to ban it. The amendment was voted down.
Loeffler said he never believed Priefer was being serious that day at practice.
“I always thought it was a joke. They both laughed about it,” Loeffler said.
Kluwe and Loeffler were friends during their eight years together on the team, but Loeffler said Thursday he has not spoken with Kluwe since the outspoken ex-punter revealed in January his allegations of a bigoted atmosphere around the team and claimed he was cut prior to last season for his views and advocacy.
As for having to testify to the investigators against his position coach, Loeffler denied any hesitancy or awkwardness.
“I just told the truth, as the Vikings wanted me to tell the truth. They’ve been supportive throughout the process and it wasn’t hard for me at all,” he said.
General manager Rick Spielman clarified that Priefer’s suspension will take effect with the start of the regular season, and he won’t be allowed at team headquarters during that time.
Priefer will take sensitivity training classes through an outside firm during the first week of his ban, and the team will decide whether or not to reduce his punishment to two games.
Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer have been considering options for fulfilling Priefer’s responsibilities while he’s away, but they weren’t ready to reveal the plan. Spielman said the suspension came directly from owners Zygi Wilf and Mark Wilf.
“I can’t tell you how much I respect him, not only as a family man and as a person but also as a football coach. He’s made a mistake and he owned up to that mistake and he’s going to serve his suspension, and then we’re going to move on,” Spielman said.
Neither Spielman nor Zimmer answered directly whether they considered firing Priefer, before or after the investigation was complete.
Priefer initially denied making the remark, but he relented in a subsequent interview with the investigators. Neither Spielman nor Zimmer expressed any concern about Priefer’s dishonesty.
“I’ve had a chance to visit with Mike Priefer on numerous occasions, almost every single day, to find out what kind of person he is. I knew his father. I know what kind of family guy is. He made a mistake. So I just go by what I see. I don’t go by what I hear,” Zimmer said.
Priefer’s voice seemed to crack at one point during his session with reporters: “I feel like I let my family down,” he said.
The coach declined to speak about other issues pertaining to the investigation, including Kluwe’s claim that he made multiple homophobic remarks. Priefer said he hoped his news conference was the beginning of a rebuilding of his credibility. He also said he wasn’t worried about losing his job.
“I learned a hard lesson. I’ve got to be sensitive to other people in what I say, and that’s not going to happen again,” Priefer said.
Football was still at least part of the theme Thursday, with players required to pass a conditioning test in order to be cleared for the first practice Friday.
“It’s a distraction today, but tomorrow, I’ll be focused on football,” Zimmer said.
Star running back Adrian Peterson was eager for Zimmer’s first camp.
“I expect it to be tough. He’s a hard-headed guy, and he expects the best from us,” Peterson said.