For all the boldness and bluster of the NFL, Hall of Fame hype is not tossed around carelessly. Earning enshrinement requires years of sustained, spectacular performance, and one hit can derail even the most talented players. Adrian Peterson looked like he was headed for immortality when a nasty knee injury threatened to divert him from the fast track. Less than a year later, he was back on the gridiron, better than ever, racking up yards at a league-leading pace and helping a young team mature into a contender. Hello, Adrian, Canton is calling. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Adrian Lewis Peterson was born on March 21, 1985, in Palestine, Texas, a small town between Houston and Dallas. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His parents, Bonita Brown and Nelson Peterson, had been star athletes in college. Nelson was a shooting guard for Idaho State with an NBA career in the offing. That dream was derailed when a gun that his brother was cleaning discharged into his leg. The wound became infected and several surgeries later Nelson accepted the fact that his basketball career wasn’t going to happen. With several children to support, he joined the working world.

Adrian’s mother was a world-class track and field athlete. A Texas state champion three times over at Westwood High School, she attended the University of Houston on an athletic scholarship and was a sprinter and long jumper.

Adrian was a hyperactive toddler, ramping up his activity while others his age napped. His dad nicknamed him “All Day,” which was later shortened to A.D.—his nickname today. Adrian’s best friend was his older brother, Brian. The two fastest kids in the neighborhood, they loved to play sports. When Adrian was seven, Brian was riding his bike when a drunk driver hit and killed him. The tragedy occurred after Adrian’s parents had separated. The boys were living outside Dallas in Oak Cliff with their aunt, Bonita’s sister. After this tragedy, Adrian and his mom moved back to Palestine, so the youngster could be closer to his father and grandmother.

It was around that time that Adrian began to deal with his pain through sports. He was the star of the Pee Wee football team coached by his father. Nelson taught Adrian to meet force with force. Instead of trying to elude tacklers, sometimes it was smarter to hit them head-on. He also showed Adrian the importance of priorities. When the boy received his first F as a fifth grader, Nelson benched him. The rule for the rest of his childhood: No pass, no play.

Adrian was a huge Dallas Cowboys fan. The team was a perennial Super Bowl contender when he was young, and he loved Emmitt Smith. He would watch games on TV wearing his #22 Starter jacket. There was little question in Adrian’s mind that he would one day be a Cowboy.

By the time he was 12, Adrian was the star of his Pop Warner team. His coach told his players to remember playing with Adrian—they would want to tell their grandkids about him someday. Once, Adrian went an entire game without being tackled—the best the defense could do was force him out of bounds or hope he slipped and fell.

When Adrian was 13, his father was arrested for laundering money for a crack-cocaine ring. Though gainfully employed, Nelson was still chasing the big dollars he had expected to earn as a pro athlete. The lure of easy cash led to a catastrophically bad decision, and he ended up spending eight years in prison. Adrian and his dad communicated by phone and mail, as well as the occasional visit. In high school, Adrian spoke with his father the morning before every game.

Adrian had a better role model in his mother. Bonita remarried, to Frankie Jackson, a pastor at a church in nearby Grapeland. Some in the media have reported friction initially existed between Jackson and his football-star stepson, but Jackson steadfastly denies this. He says their relationship has always been loving and respectful. The family is a close and tight unit to this day.

Adrian continued his gridiron exploits at Westwood Junior High School. His mother had relocated to the town for a new job. Adrian also became a track and field standout. At Woodward, he won multiple medals in the 100, 200, triple jump and long jump—the same events in which his mother had once excelled. Looking back, Adrian's coach believes that the teen could have been an Olympic long jumper had he not pursued a football careered.

In 2000, Adrian began high school in Westwood. He played JV football as a freshman. Adrian’s family moved back to Palestine the following year, but he was not eligible to play for the Palestine High varsity football team until he was a junior. During his sophomore year, Adrian ran track and logged a 10.66 in the 100 at a spring meet.

Adrian found a valuable ally in coach Jeff Harrell. When Harrell was promoted to head football coach, Adrian was made the focal point of his coach's one-back system. He was so quick that he hit the line before the blocks happened. Harrell moved Adrian back from six yards behind the line to seven and then eight. 

Adrian got even faster as he matured. In 2002, he ran for more than 2,000 yards and scored 22 touchdowns. That's when he began to attract the attention of Division I recruiters.

ON THE RISE

After his junior year, Adrian realized he would likely have his pick of colleges. During his senior season, he decided that he wanted to go to a school where he could be a difference-maker in a national championship run. After considering Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Miami and UCLA, Adrian narrowed his choices down to USC and Oklahoma. There was a funny moment in coach Harrell’s office when recruiters got into a heated argument about who would get to see Adrian first.

As a senior in 2003, Adrian put up unbelievable numbers, rushing for 2,960 yards and 32 touchdowns. Often he only played the first half. In Palestine's final game, Harrell told him to do something special. Adrian responded with 350 yards and six touchdowns—all in the first half. After the game, players from the other team asked for his autograph. It was not the first time that had happened.


 

 

 

 

 


Emmitt Smith, 1995 Action Packed

     
 

Adrian’s final appearance as a high-schooler came early in 2004 at the All-American Bowl. One one play, he eluded all 11 defenders on the way to a highlight-reel touchdown. He scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and was named MVP of the game. Adrian also announced his college choice at the game—Oklahoma.

Adrian’s mom had tears in his eyes when she dropped him off at the Oklahoma campus the following summer. He told her not to worry and assured her he would be fine. The next day, he amazed the Sooner coaches with a 39-inch vertical leap, a broad jump of nearly 11 feet and a 4.2-second 40-yard dash.

Oklahoma was coming off a great year. Jason White, who had led the Sooners to the BCS championship game (which they lost to LSU), was the defending Heisman winner. He guided an offense that relied heavily on seniors. The team’s top receiving threat was Mark Clayton, and its running attack was paced by Jammal Brown and Vince Carter. But it was Adrian, a freshman, who ended up leading them into battle.

Adrian ran for 100 yards in the opener against Bowling Green, 117 yards against Houston, and 183 yards against Oregon. Against Oklahoma State, he rushed for 161 yards in the third quarter and pulled off an eye-popping spin move during an 80-yard TD run. He rumbled for 172 yards against Colorado and 225 yards against Texas. Adrian ran over, around and through tacklers. He drew comparisons to Walter Payton for his unwillingness to go quietly out of bounds and to Eric Dickerson for his powerful, upright running style.

Thanks to Adrian, one of the poorest rushing teams the year before became one of the nation’s best. He was spectacular, gaining 1,925 yards to smash the NCAA’s freshman rushing record. According to team statistics, roughly two-thirds of those yards came after he had been hit. Adrian was nothing if not tough. In a November game against Texas A&M, he made the difference in a close victory when he reentered the game after suffering a separated shoulder.

Despite his breathtaking season, Adrian finished second to Matt Leinart of USC in the Heisman Trophy voting. He did, however, become the first Sooner frosh to be named First Team All-American.


Adrian Peterson, 2004 Sports Illustrated
     
 

Oklahoma earned a berth in the BCS championship game against Leinart and the Trojans. It turned out to the most disappointing day of Adrian’s career. USC coach Pete Carroll knew Adrian well and retooled his defense to stop him. The Trojans limited Adrian to just 82 yards, as they rolled to a 55-19 blowout. A series of first-quarter turnovers doomed the Sooners and also served to neutralize their running attack.

Adrian’s only other disappointment his first year at Oklahoma was the separated shoulder against the Aggies. After the season, he had surgery to strengthen the muscles around the joint.

The 2005 campaign started well for Adrian, but a high ankle sprain suffered in Oklahoma’s first conference game against Kansas State limited his mobility the rest of the year. Still, he managed to finish second in the Big 12 with 1,108 rushing yards. He also found the end zone 14 times. The highlight of Adrian’s year was a spectacular 84-yard TD run against Oklahoma State. In that game, he accounted for 237 of the Sooners’ 269 yards.

Oklahoma limped to an 8–4 record, the worst of coach Bob Stoops’s Oklahoma career. They played Oregon in the Holiday Bowl and won 17–14, finishing the year ranked #22 in the country.

Another injury curtailed Adrian’s production in 2006. This time it was a broken collarbone suffered against Iowa State as he dove for the end zone at the end of a long touchdown run. Adrian’s father was in the stands. Just released from prison, he was watching his son play in person for the first. It was a bittersweet moment for Nelson and Adrian, who was named First Team All-Big 12 for the third year, despite missing the rest of the regular season.

Though the Sooners lost two early games in ’06, they regrouped to run the table—even after Adrian was sidelined. Their defense gelled and Adrian’s replacements—Allen Patrick and Chris Brown—got the job done. Oklahoma beat the Nebraska for the Big 12 championship and earned a berth in the Fiesta Bowl against Boise State.

Adrian returned in time to play in this game, which was decided by a two-point conversion in overtime. He gained just 77 yards in the 43–42 loss, ending his junior year as the school’s second all-time rusher behind Billy Sims.

That’s where Adrian would stay, as he decided to forego his senior season and declared for the NFL draft. He attended the combine in Indianapolis and impressed scouts with his speed and skill, including a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash. Once again, however, Adrian was forced to use sports to block the pain of a personal loss. The night before the combine, he learned that his half-brother Chris had been shot and killed in Houston.

The lingering question about Adrian among NFL scouts and coaches concerned his durability. He had been hurt for about a third of his college games, and teams wondered if his broken collarbone would be fully healed by the start of the 2007 season. The Cleveland Browns were rumored to be interested in Adrian, but they signed Jamal Lewis to a contract instead and grabbed Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn with their pick, the third in the draft.


Matt Leinart, 2004 Sports Illustrated
     
 

Five other players were selected before the Vikings picked. Minnesota then made Adrian the first running back taken in the draft. Their plan was to work him into a rotation with veteran Chester Taylor, but coach Brad Childress began rethinking this strategy after Adrian reeled off 103 yards against the Atlanta Falcons in Minnesota’s opener. He also scored on a 60-yard catch and run. After he reached the end zone, he blew a kiss to his late brother.

The Vikings were winning games, and they were clearly better with Adrian in the lineup. In a mid-October meeting with the Chicago Bears, Adrian showed his explosive ability when he broke loose for 224 yards against one of the NFL’s top-ranked defenses. He scored three touchdowns in the game and added a 53-yard kickoff return that set up the game-winning field goal. One of the TDs against Chicago was classic A.D.—a power move to pierce the line, a feint in the secondary, and then a 70-yard sprint to the end zone. Adrian gave a lot of credit for his big day to Minnesota’s offensive line. Indeed, his blockers played flawlessly all afternoon.

The Chicago game turned out to be a mere prelude to Adrian's November performance against the San Diego Chargers, owners of one of the league’s better run defenses. Adrian sliced through tacklers all game long, finishing with a record 296 yards and three touchdowns. He surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in just his eighth game, which set a record for first-year players.

Adrian also set a Minnesota record for 50-yard runs in a season, with a 64-yarder that tied the game against San Diego in the third quarter. Late in the game, he ripped off a 35-yard run but was on the sideline when the team realized he needed just three more yards for the single-game record. Adrian reentered the game and got those yards—along with a standing ovation from the Minnesota crowd. The Vikes won the game 35–17.

Eric Dickerson’s rookie record of 1,808 yards now seemed within reach. Unfortunately, a knee injury against the Green Bay Packers a week later landed Adrian on the bench for two weeks. He returned to score a pair of TDs and gain 116 yards against the Lions. Adrian finished the season strong, totaling 1,341 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 games. He also caught 19 passes, including a 60-yard TD reception. He finished as the NFC’s rushing leader and was second in the NFL to Ladainian Tomlinson, who had 1,474 yards for the Chargers. Adrian did lead the NFL in yards per game, with a 95.8 mark.

The Vikings won the two games Adrian missed, but they could manage just an 8–8 record for the season. Adrian was named Offensive Rookie of the Year and tabbed as a starter in the Pro Bowl. In that game, he ran for 129 yards and a pair of TDs. He was named MVP after the NFC’s 42-32 victory.

MAKING HIS MARK

With enemy defenses now completely focused on stopping Adrian, Childress hoped young quarterback Tarvaris Jackson would step up in 2008 and spread the field a bit. That did not happen—eventually veteran Gus Frerotte ascended to the starting role. But it mattered little, as Adrian ran roughshod over the league. Overcoming an early-season hamstring strain, he helped the Vikings win nine of their final 12 games to capture the division championship—their first since 2000. The turning point came in Week 10 against the Packers. Minnesota came into the game 4–4. Adrian rushed for 193 yards against Green Bay that day, including a 29-yard scamper for the deciding touchdown in a 28–27 victory.


Adrian Peterson, 2007 Upper Deck Insert
     
 

Adrian took over the NFL rushing lead two weeks later and never looked back. He finished with 1,760 yards and averaged 110 yards per game to lead all of pro football. The only other players to top the NFL in yards per game their first two seasons were Jim Brown, Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson. Adrian was also named a Pro Bowl starter for the second year in a row. Of course, he would have traded these honors for a playoff win, but it was not to be. The Vikings hosted Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles and fell 26–14. Both Minnesota scores came on runs by Adrian in the second quarter—the first a 40-yarder and the second from three yards out.

With the NFL’s most dominant runner in their backfield, the Vikings realized they needed a capable quarterback at the helm. They lured Brett Favre out of retirement, and he came through as expected. Rookie Percy Harvin further improved the team’s aerial attack. After 11 games, the Vikings were 10–1 and Adrian was finding all sorts of room to run. In the season opener against the Cleveland Browns, he piled up 180 yards and scored three times. He also had 133 yards against the tough Baltimore Ravens in a 33–31 win.

The Vikings finished the regular season with three losses in their final four games, but they hung on to win the NFC North again with a 12–4 record. Any thoughts that Minnesota had run out of gas were erased in the season finale, a 44–7 wipeout of the New York Giants. Adrian got the afternoon off after gaining 54 yards on nine carries. That gave him 1,383 yards for the year to go with an NFL-best 18 rushing touchdowns. He also proved to be a capable receiver, reeling in 43 passes. In all, Adrian accounted for over 1,800 yards—about the same as the year before.

Minnesota manhandled the red-hot Dallas Cowboys in their first playoff game, scoring a 34–3 win. Favre connected with Sidney Rice on three scoring plays. The Vikes now stood just one victory away from the Super Bowl. Facing the New Orleans Saints in the noisy Superdome, Adrian got the scoring started with a 19-yard touchdown run. He scored twice more on the day and ran for 122 yards, but Favre threw a critical interception in the closing moments of the fourth quarter with the score tied at 28–28.  The Saints won the game in overtime on a 40-yard field goal.

From the heights of 2009, the Vikings plumbed the depths in 2010. Favre played much of the year with nagging injuries, leaving Adrian to carry the offense at times. He still managed to gain 1,298 yards in 15 games, but Minnesota could not overcome a 3–7 start (which cost Childress his job) and finished at 6–10. Early on, it looked like Adrian might grab his second rushing title after he registered nearly 400 yards in his first three games. He finished sixth overall and second in the NFC. The stat that the coaching staff liked was Adrian’s fumbles. He lost just one during the year, whereas in past seasons ball security was an issue for him.

The Vikings signed Adrian to a new deal early in the 2011 campaign to make him the highest-paid running back in league history. He turned in a solid first half, but injuries cut him down in the final eight games—including a high ankle sprain and a torn ACL and MCL suffered against the Washington Redskins the day after Christmas. He was 30 yards short of a fifth straight 1,000-yard season when he was helped off the field.

For most players, an injury as serious as Adrian’s can end a career. Just returning to full strength often takes a few years. Adrian had a different idea. He worked hard over the next eight months and was ready for the 2012 season.

Adrian had much to prove, as did the Vikings, who won a mere three games the season before. Adrian scored twice in the opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, an exciting 26–23 win decided on a field goal in overtime by rookie Blair Walsh. Another young star, quarterback Christian Ponder, handled himself magnificently in a tight game. As for Adrian, he seemed tentative at first, but he gained confidence and ran better and better as the game wore on.


Brett Favre,
Black Book Partners archives

     
 

The Vikings went through their ups and down in the ensuing weeks, winning three straight home games but losing five of seven right after. Ponder was showing good leadership even in the losses, and Adrian inspired his teammates by powering through tackles to turn short gains into big ones. It was a big lift, especially considering he was running behind a young and rebuilt offensive line.

Beginning in Week 7, Adrian was simply unstoppable. He dropped 153 yards on the Arizona Cardinals and followed that with five straight games of at least 100 yards. In November, he torched the Packers for 210 yards—including an 82-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. With the Vikings playing for a possible playoff spot, Adrian was more than 300 yards ahead of the second-place NFL runner with four games to go.

Football is a team sport. As spectacular as Adrian is, the Vikings’ success will depend on the performance of the players around him. But one thing is certain. Adrian has proved that nothing—not even a shattered knee—can slow him down.

ADRIAN THE PLAYER

Adrian is very big and very fast. Perhaps bigger and faster than people realize in the heat of battle. During his rookie year, a lot of defenders took bad angles on him and paid a dear price. Either Adrian ran past their intended point of contact or simply ran right over them.

Adrian is also deceptive. His shakes and wiggles freeze experienced open-field tacklers, giving him running room where it seems he has none. When he cuts or spins or sidesteps, he is back at full speed within a stride. Once in the open field, Adrian tends to get faster where other backs might level off. He has pull-away speed when it matters most, even after the 2011 knee injury.

When he first entered the league, Adrian got into the defensive backfield with an effortless, upright running style. That led to a fumbling problem as well as some vicious hits. He has learned to protect the ball much better over the last few years and also has made the stiff arm into a formidable weapon.


Adrian Peterson,
Black Book Partners archives
     

 

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