EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Twelve-year-old Kevin Warren was an aspiring basketball player in the Phoenix area, riding his bike one day when a driver lost control of her car and hit him.
The boy's life-altering, split-second airborne journey ended on a small patch of grass. He spent a month in traction and six months in a body cast, prompting doubt from the doctor about walking again, let alone playing sports.
That's not where the story ended for Warren, the Minnesota Vikings executive whose promotion last year made him the first black chief operating officer of an NFL team. That scare was really where the story began.
"When people talk about being flat on your back, I've been flat on your back," Warren said, reflecting on the accident's impact on his accomplishments. "I don't freak out about a lot. Because that's real life. Mentally, I didn't know if I was going to make it."
Warren overcame his injuries to find a role five years later as a freshman on Penn's 1981-82 basketball team that won the Ivy League championship. He transferred back home to Grand Canyon University, then an NAIA program, scoring 1,118 points in two seasons and eventually getting inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame. He went on to earn a master's degree in business administration at Arizona State and a law degree from Notre Dame, dual building blocks for a career that has steadily wound around the NFL, where he is highest-ranking black business-side leader.
Throughout the 1990s, Warren served as a player agent. Kansas City Chiefs guard Will Shields, now a Pro Football Hall of Fame member, was one of his clients. In 1997, Warren was hired by the St. Louis Rams as a vice president. He moved in 2001 to the Detroit Lions as a senior vice president of business operations and general counsel, before another stint with a law firm.
In 2004, he began advising Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler in his attempt to buy the Vikings from then-owner Red McCombs. Warren's connection with Jim Stapleton, a former Detroit Tiger executive he befriended while working in that city, led to East Coast developers Alan Landis, David Mandelbaum and Zygi Wilf, who became the lead partner when Fowler's financing fell short.
Warren was then hired on the leadership team when the Wilfs took over the franchise in 2005. Expecting to stay only a year or two, Warren and his wife, Greta, grew so fond of the Twin Cities area they made it home for them and their two children, a daughter now in college and a son now in high school.
"We learned early on he really exemplifies the kind of values that we want for our family and for the Vikings. He's really valuable on all fronts. He has such a unique background," President Mark Wilf said. "After spending this much time together, I don't want to say we know how to finish each other's sentences, but to a large degree we understand each other, and I think he understands our family, our philosophies, our business principles, our emphasis on community and communication."
His combo of business and legal experience has been helpful as a series of issues fell on his plate.
The bawdy player boat party in 2005. The StarCaps performance-enhancing substance case that started in 2008. The Metrodome collapse in 2010. In 2014 alone, former punter Chris Kluwe brought allegations of bigotry, the Vikings moved into a temporary stadium at the University of Minnesota and running back Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse.
"If you have one of those things in your career it's a lot, but I've probably dealt with seven of them since I've been here," Warren said.
Peterson and his camp expressed anger at Warren and the Vikings for what they felt was a lack of support while the NFL put him on an exempt list and ultimately kept him out for all but one game last season. After initially balking at returning to Minnesota, Peterson softened his stance, captured another rushing title and helped the Vikings become NFC North champions.
"I have an incredible respect for him as a man, as a father, as an NFL player, as a husband," Warren said. "I've never felt any tension with him whatsoever."
Since assuming the COO role, Warren has implemented a number of new initiatives, many of which came from Vikings business-side employees, each of whom he's met with one-on-one.
Eight new vice president titles were added, two for women. Breastfeeding suites for female employees at the corporate offices and for female fans at the stadium were installed, a woman-friendly perspective Warren credited to his time with the Rams working for owner Georgia Frontiere.
With the Vikings settling into a new stadium this summer, the work has only begun.
"I feel proud that I didn't get here, whatever that here is, based on color," Warren said. "But I am absolutely cognizant of the fact that this job, the opportunity that the Wilfs have provided to me, is bigger than me. I don't want to do a good job. I want to do a best-in-class job."
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL