NEXT ATHLETE: ADRIAN PETERSON
Youth is Served Sooner than Ever these Days. And We’re Not Just Talking About Superfrosh Adrian Peterson
By Gene Wojciechowski
His easy is your hard. It's that simple. Adrian Peterson
is a prodigy, defying logic and the laws of physics, not to mention
the once-indisputable notion that a true freshman cant make hard look
A freshman doesn’t finish second in the Heisman balloting. A freshman doesn’t transform a program already thigh-pad-deep in national titles. A freshman doesn’t cause a senior teammate to lower his voice in a near-reverential tone. “When the guy’s foot hits the ground, the earth moves in the opposite direction,” says defensive end Dan Cody.
Nine months ago, as he unpacked the last of his belongings from the trunk of the family Cadillac, Peterson turned to his teary mother and said, “Mama, don’t cry. I’m gonna be all right.” All he had were his clothes, his photos from Pop Warner—the ones of him and older brother Brian—and a national rep that didn’t mean squat to anyone on the formidable Oklahoma Sooners roster.
The next day, coach Bob Stoops escorted Peterson to the indoor workout facility, where hard-ass über-trainer Jerry Schmidt waited to test the new kid. “Be careful,” said Stoops to Schmidt. “He pulled a hamstring or something in track.” Peterson waited until Stoops walked away before tapping Schmidt. “There’s nothing wrong with my hamstring,” he said.
Schmidt, who looks like a DI from Parris Island, cracks a rare smile as he recalls the moment. “He’s got on some funky high-tops and old shorts,” he says. “The guy never asks what were going to do, and then he does a 39-inch vertical, a 10'7" broad jump.” Schmidt pauses to let the numbers sink in. “He runs 4.43, 4.42. He’s a freak.”
A freshman doesn’t lead a senior-weighted team to a BCS championship game. A freshman doesn’t rush for 1,925 yards 1,365 of them after getting hit. A freshman doesn’t have pro personnel directors wondering what he’ll look like in an NFL uni. Then again, look at him out of one: 6'2", 216 pounds; an upper body that looks like a topography map; ostrich-egg biceps; legs ordered from Fast-Twitch Direct.
Put a football in Peterson’s hands, and an intuitive I, Robot kind of thing takes over. Nebraska wideout Santino Panico, who played strong safety against Peterson in the 2004 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, has a catalogue of stories from the event. “He gets the ball on a pitch, the defensive linemen stop him in the backfield,” says Panico. “The free safety, the linebackers they’re all there. Ten guys have Adrian stopped, but somehow he breaks free on the sideline. I take a real deep pursuit angle and catch up with him. I’m going to get him…” No you’re not. Peterson freezes Panico ever so slightly with an inside feint, then outruns the DB and geometry. Panico winds up on the wrong end of SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays, Stuart Scott doing the mocking.
Okay, so USC held Peterson to 82 yards in the recent BCS championship. By doing so, they paid him their highest compliment. How else to describe a defense whose first priority was stopping a freshman rather than a sixth-year, Heisman-carrying quarterback? Coach Pete Carroll well knew the breadth and width of the young man's talent. After all, he recruited him, hard. He had him mingling with Leo, and walking past those trophies in Heritage Hall. Carroll saw the possibilities.
“He’s going to be an all-timer, however many years he plays,” says Carroll, and he should know, having spent 16 seasons on pro sidelines. “He’ll have great numbers and he’ll play in the NFL forever. It’s in the cards.”
The winning hand, according to Carroll: Classic style… great speed… terrific strength… and size… slashes… not easily knocked off his feet… runs through tackles… long legs, steps out of tackles extremely well… great burst to finish.” Adds Stoops: “When he has nowhere left to go, he comes after you.”
Peterson is a football amalgam, equal parts Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, says USC safety and old-school connoisseur Darnell Bing. No, he’s a Marcus Dupree throwback, say OU historians. No, say others, he’s Eric Dickerson reincarnate.
Actually, he’s Adrian Peterson, his own singular football entity. In a word, NEXT.
YES, PETERSON’S easy is your hard. On the field, at least. What he wouldn’t give for a life without so many painful moments, or without those visits to a federal prison in Texarkana, Texas, or without the fans insisting his mom pose for photos as if she were a tourist attraction.
What he wouldn’t give for your normal.
A confluence of will and heredity (his mother, Bonita Jackson, was a three-time Texas state high school track champ; his father, Nelson Peterson, played college hoops) explains the yardage, but not the motivation. Maybe that comes from the memory of brother Brian, who was 9 when a drunken driver ran down his bicycle as 8-year-old Adrian played across the street. Maybe it comes from his father, who is serving 10 years in that Texarkana prison. And maybe it comes from his adoring mother and pastor stepfather, Frankie Jackson, who says he loves Adrian “more than life itself.”
All anyone knows for sure is Brian’s photo sits in a place of honor in Peterson’s dorm room, that he can drive to Texarkana with his eyes closed, that his mother and stepfather receive as much love and respect as they dish out. “Adrian has experienced a lot, says Bonita, her newborn, Frankie Jr., gurgling on her lap. “I used to tell him, ‘Go before God. Have Him help you with your anger. Just cry.’ He did that, and it helped a lot.”
The journey from A to OU begins in Palestine, an afterthought between Dallas and Houston. The town has produced its share of Division I-A players (Sooners defensive tackle Lynn McGruder, for one), but none who has generated the pomp that accompanies Adrian Lewis Peterson, or, as Nelson has dubbed him, AD. As in, can run All Day.
Peterson first ran for a Pop Warner team called the Oilers. Steve Eudey, who owns a trophy shop and convenience store in town, was his coach, and by the time Peterson was 12, Eudey was telling his players to remember they once were All Day’s teammates. At times the young Peterson was literally unstoppable, as in that one youth league playoff game in, of all places, Texarkana. “I don’t believe they ever tackled him,” says Eudey, who recently had Adrian, Bonita and Frankie over for Christmas dinner. “They ran him out of bounds. And oh, I think he fell down a few times.”
If only it were all so easy. Never having fully gotten past the death of his brother, Peterson was by now also dealing with the awkward transition that comes from blending families. Frankie, a pastor at Cedar Branch Missionary Baptist Church in nearby Grapeland, tried too hard to be a stepfather instead of a parent. Peterson perhaps tried too hard not to be his son. “You don’t want your real dad to feel like he’s been left out,” admits Bonita. A real dad, who, by the way, had slipped into a life of crime. In 1999, when Peterson was in seventh grade, Nelson was convicted of money laundering in connection with the sale of crack cocaine. Father and son spoke on the phone, but confusion and a sense of betrayal lurked just below the surface of their conversations.
So Peterson relied on sports to redirect his pain. He played jayvee football as a freshman but made no permanent impression on the Palestine High staff. That was before he ran a 10.66 at the state track meet, and before assistant Jeff Harrell was promoted to head coach and installed a one-back offense. Soon Harrell was staring at his staff in disbelief as Peterson reached Mach 1 in the six yards to the line of scrimmage. Peterson hit the hole so early that Harrell had to move him back to seven yards behind the ball, then eight. (Oklahoma coaches have done the same.) He was a blur. A rumor.
But he was still a mess. The summer after his junior year, as he dropped his sprint time to 10.33 and raised his profile among football recruiters, Peterson was finally toppled by his emotional Samsonite. After he called Bonita from a track meet in Miami, he could contain himself no longer. The loss of Brian, the loss of Nelson it was all too much. He began to sob. Bonita did too.
It wasn’t a breakthrough, it was a cleansing. Peterson won’t discuss such private moments, but if his on-field exploits over his final two seasons are any indication, he’d begun to accept what he hadn’t been able to before. He rushed for 2,960 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior in 2003, and in the final home game of his high school career, Harrell said, “Adrian, lets make this game special.” Does 350 yards and six touchdowns—in the first half—qualify? Peterson didn’t play in the second half. That happened a lot. “I didn’t think I could live with myself had he gotten hurt,” says Harrell.
The mail was arriving as if every day were April 15 and Peterson’s home were the post office. For two years, his phone began to ring in the morning and didn’t stop until late at night. “In one ear and out the other,” says Peterson of the pitches. Except for two. Peterson wanted to play for national championships, and only Norman and LA seemed likely sites for future dynasties. Besides, on the first official day of recruiting, Coach Stoops flew to Texarkana to visit Nelson. Meanwhile, OU assistants Cale Gundy and Darrell Wyatt were talking to Peterson, offering no flattery and making no promises. “We want you, we need you,” said Gundy. “But we’re going to win with you or without you.” That frankness was appealing.
PETERSON HAS an affinity for all things small-town. He irons his own pants and shirts. He’s a sucker for honey buns and Red Lobster, and he’ll be your friend for life if you cook him pork chops, cabbage, macaroni and cheese, and banana pudding. Around kids, he melts like a stick of Land O Lakes. But disrespect him and he’s harder than steel.
“A kid on my East team—I’m not going to tell you his name—decides he doesn’t like Adrian getting all the attention,” says Panico, launching into another story. “He’s talking, you know how players are, words you can’t print. Basically, he was telling Adrian he was overrated, that he was going to kill him. The whole time he’s pouring ketchup, salt, pepper, anything he can find, into a napkin. Adrian isn’t saying a thing. Finally he says, ‘Okay, well see.’
“Then the other player goes to throw the napkin at Adrian. I’m not going to let that happen, so I step in and the thing hits me right in the chest. Adrian looks at me—the stuff is dripping down my shirt and just says, ‘Thanks, man.’ See, I’m a psychology major. I like to see how different people act in different situations. Adrian could have said, ‘I am the s. I am No. 1.’ But he didn’t. He doesn’t believe the hype.”
Gundy watched most of the All-American Bowl, including Petersons TD runs of 15 and 50 yards in the fourth quarter. His prize recruit had said he'd end the suspense during a break in the game, so though he’d informed the Sooners of his intentions a week earlier, the coaches still collected around a television set near game’s end. After an agonizing few moments, Peterson pulled out an OU cap for the cameras. “A great relief,” says Gundy.
For the Sooners, maybe. For everyone else, not so much. “It felt like your guts were being turned inside of you,” says Michael Haywood, who wooed Peterson at Texas before recently becoming the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame.” I think he could be the best ever.”
Still, when Bonita delivered him to the Norman apartment of McGruder early in the summer of 2004, no one knew what to expect. A freshman doesn’t impress upperclassmen. A freshman doesn’t overshadow a returning Heisman winner. A freshman doesn’t become an instant local celebrity.
“Coming into two-a-days, I had my doubts,” says junior fullback J.D. Runnels. “I didn’t know if the hype was going to match the results.”
Match? Peterson rushed for an even 100 in the opener against Bowling Green. He made a juke-they-puke move on his way to 117 yards against Houston, and gained 74 of his 183 yards in the fourth quarter against Oregon. His spin move on an 80-yard TD run against Oklahoma State became instant legend, as did the 161 yards he gained—in the third quarter. His 172 yards against Colorado included a 32-yard scoring run that featured a 360, broken tackles and breakaway speed. Ralphie couldn’t have knocked him down. Against Texas he gained 225 yards, prompting a classy postgame handshake from coach Mack Brown and a hug from Haywood. “People asked me, Why did you hug him?” says Haywood. “Hey, he’s a great guy. And I enjoy watching him run.” By season’s end, Peterson had 11 100-yard games, including three 200-yarders. And he elevated a rushing attack that had been 65th in the nation before he arrived to 16th.
After games, Frankie would recite his rushing totals. “Really?” Peterson would say. He didn’t have a clue. “He’s been that way since Pop Warner,” says McGruder. “He’s still as humble as he was when he got here. He’s too cool to believe.”
Peterson would also have postgame talks with his dad, who’d offer advice from what he saw on television. The two were able to speak just after Adrian’s disappointing night in the Orange Bowl. “He was ready to come home that night,” says Nelson. “Now he has to start over and work harder than he did last year. Guys are looking at him as a leader, and I know he’s up to it.”
In mid-January, Peterson underwent outpatient surgery to tighten ligaments in his left shoulder. He’ll miss spring practice, but he’ll be fine for the start of next season. At which point, says Eudey, “he’ll be on the cover of every football magazine known to man. And he won’t care.”
Nelson Peterson will; he calls OU coaches every other week from his low-security home to check on his son. Bonita and Frankie Jackson will. Someone asked Frankie if he thought Adrian will win a Heisman. “At least one,” said the proud stepfather. And Cale Gundy will. “On a scale of one to 10, he’s at seven right now, and that’s scary,” says the Sooners assistant. “The kid is running around out there on just freakish, God-given ability.”
A freshman doesn’t cause us to count the nano-seconds before he becomes a sophomore, before he empties another bottle of whiteout on everyone’s preconceived football notions. Next fall, the temptation will be to measure Peterson by yardage gained and goal lines crossed. That would be a mistake. Better to calculate the distance between his easy and his hard, between smashing records and feeling normal. Between now and Next.