Jim Souhan
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In his first year with the Big Ten, Kevin Warren became known as the first Black person to become a major conference commissioner.

In his second year with the Big Ten, Warren became known as everyone's favorite piñata.

The former Vikings COO took heat for deciding to play football in a pandemic, then for postponing the season, then for restarting the season, then for a messy schedule in which games were canceled because of COVID-19.

Donald Trump called him to urge him to play. Players, parents, politicians, coaches and athletic directors begged or petitioned to play, while medical experts warned of the myriad risks of sports during a pandemic.

Warren became the target for those who oversimplified the decisionmaking process, which included chancellors, university presidents, athletic directors and medical personnel. Yet in some ways, Warren said this week, 2020 was a year of growth and comfort.

He split his work between his home in Edina, the family apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, and the Big Ten offices in Chicago. In Edina, he would rise early, ride his Peloton, then conduct Zoom meetings, sometimes from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

He and his wife, Greta, got to see just how hard the other worked, and Warren enjoyed time with his daughter, Peri, while his son, Powers, played football at Mississippi State.

This weekend, the family is flying to Miami to watch Big Ten champion Ohio State play Alabama in Monday night's national championship game.

"My faith is strong and I have a positive outlook on life,'' Warren said. "I think so many times we're raised in a manner to think that when you are challenged that something is wrong, or that you were being penalized in some way.

"I look at situations like this as opportunities. I believe in healthy tension.''

Warren recounted the stories of many in his family who overcame obstacles to become successes. Warren himself suffered a broken femur at 11, after a car hit him and almost killed him while he was riding his bike. He used the settlement from the lawsuit to build a pool in the family's backyard to rehab his leg, and became an outstanding college basketball player.

One of Warren's signature allegories is: "You have to be willing to build your own pool. And you have to be willing to pay for it."

"It's these moments of stress and challenges when we grow the most," he said this week. "I analogize it to a great workout. The workouts that make you better are the ones where you push yourself. So as I look back over my 30-year work career, 2020 is one of the best years I've had not only professionally but personally.

"We were able to bond as a family. We haven't been home as a family since my daughter went to school in 2015. I will always be saddened by all of the people who lost our lives to this virus, but personally this was an awakening for me, especially with all of the social justice issues we've had to face in our country."

He noted that the conference placed four teams in the football Top 25, and is 3-1 in bowl games, and that the men's and women's basketball conferences are thriving. He even texted a news release indicating that 1,602 student-athletes were named to the Academic All-Big Ten team, the most since the award was established in 1990.

Warren promised to care for student-athletes' physical and mental health and well-being, so deciding whether or not to play weighed on him. He pointed out that there was no one he could call for advice on how to conduct big-time sports during a pandemic.

"We announced the season, and then I had the meeting with our medical personnel, then made the determination to postpone the season," Warren said. "When I started to feel we had a chance to play was when we formed medical subcommittees. When those took shape, that's when I said to myself, 'We have a chance to have a safe and healthy season.' I'm so humbled, and grateful to a number of people who stepped up to make that happen.''

Monday night, he'll be in Miami to cheer for Ohio State, one of the schools that criticized him the most during the past year.

"I don't take personally any criticism I've received," Warren said. "Some things come with the territory."

Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com