INNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson spent half an hour after a recent practice listening to stories about a topic he knows all too well: rehabilitation. As his teammates shuffled off to lunch and early afternoon workouts, Peterson chatted with Jack Jablonski, a local high school junior who is bound to a wheelchair after sustaining a devastating injury in a hockey game. Peterson beamed as Jablonski detailed the improvements he has made in his recovery, such as the ability to move his arms and legs just enough to excite his own doctors. It was the kind of news Peterson had been eager to hear ever since he became connected to Jablonski nearly a year ago.
Peterson is the NFL's hottest story right now because of how he has thrived on the field after shredding the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee on Dec. 24, 2011. He's the type of person who motivates somebody like Jablonski, whose spinal cord was damaged by a vicious hit six days after Peterson's injury. By now, every NFL fan knows about the incredible season Peterson has carved out just 12 months after an injury that changes most running backs forever. What they don't know is how much he values interactions with people such as Jablonski. "He told me I inspired him," Peterson said. "I'm inspired by what he's done."
It's not surprising that Peterson can be so humble in a moment that was arranged to benefit a courageous teenager. He has always been the antithesis of what we've come to expect from our superstars. Peterson isn't big on bravado or self-promotion, and he rarely shies away from answering a tough question. His performance this season, which has accounted for 1,898 rushing yards through 15 games -- only has reinforced everything about him that is impressive. Along with having an opportunity to break Eric Dickerson's NFL single-season rushing record, Peterson is hurtling toward the kind of season that will likely be remembered for decades.
Of all the impressive single-season records in league history, nothing compares to what Peterson will have done if he surpasses Dickerson's record of 2,105 yards. Not the 31 touchdowns San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson scored in 2006. Not the 5,476 yards New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees threw for last season. And not the 1,892 (and counting) receiving yards Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson has amassed this year.
None of those players faced the odds that Peterson has battled in 2012. In short, we may be witnessing the best individual season by any NFL player ever.
Peterson's bid to topple Dickerson's mark was hurt when he rushed for only 86 yards on 25 carries in a win over the Houston Texans this past Sunday, leaving him 208 yards shy of breaking the record. Still, if anyone is up to the task, it's Peterson. He already owns the NFL's single-game rushing record of 296 yards, and he has rushed for 200-plus yards in a game four times in his career, including twice in the past four games.
On Sunday, he will go for the record when the Vikings play host to the Green Bay Packers, against whom he rushed for 210 yards against in Week 13.
But even in light of a severe knee injury and arduous rehabilitation process, Peterson isn't stunned to be making a run at history. "I'm not surprised by what I'm doing because I'm always shooting for the moon and reaching for the stars," he said. "Even when I got hurt, I had the mindset that I'd be back this season."
But Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier thinks otherwise. "When you put it all together, it's hard to find anything that compares to this," Frazier said. "We all know how devastating an ACL injury is, but to come back fast and play at a high level? I don't know what comes close to that. Adrian is dominating the position, and he's making waves across the entire league."
Peterson's success has been mind-blowing enough that the debates about the league's most valuable player and comeback player of the year awards should be anticlimactic if Minnesota makes the playoffs. While Denver's Peyton Manning has been splendid in his return from a neck injury that required four operations and cost him the entire 2011 season, he hasn't done what Peterson has done. Peterson has averaged 155.4 rushing yards over the past nine games. He has thrived behind an inconsistent second-year quarterback (Christian Ponder), an offense that has lost its top receiver to injured reserve (Percy Harvin) and against defenses who know exactly what's coming (he has gained a stunning 932 yards after contact this year). Manning, no matter how you assess it, has had substantially more help around him this season.
Peterson has been so good that teams stack the box with eight or nine defenders routinely in hopes of containing him. During a 212-yard game against St. Louis on Dec. 16, the Rams opened the contest with five defensive linemen, an alignment more commonly used in goal-line situations. "Most teams will only go to a 'diamond' front when they're absolutely desperate, but St. Louis did it on the opening drive," Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "We've seen teams play him just about every way possible in order to take him away. And they haven't really stopped him yet."
"He's a very good running back," said Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who helped keep Peterson shy of the 100-yard mark for the first time since Week 6 in Washington. "You can't say enough about that guy, because he's a heck of a football player. Obviously, we were happy to hold him under 100 yards, but we [weren't] happy with the results of the overall game."
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Peterson is the calm he has maintained as he's moved closer to Dickerson's record. After talking with Jablonski, he spent a few minutes signing autographs and dismissing the added pressure that comes with chasing history. "I definitely feel [the attention] heating up because a lot more people want to talk about the record, the injury or our playoff chances." Even after Houston held Peterson relatively in check, he didn't seem frustrated, saying, "Of course I care about the record, but it's not going to overwhelm me. I'm going to play my game. If it comes, it comes."
The mere fact that Peterson is in this position at all remains difficult to comprehend. When he crumbled to the turf after Washington Redskins safety DeJon Gomes crashed into his left knee following a 3-yard run last December, Peterson knew immediately that something had gone horribly wrong. He also realized he couldn't waste time fretting over the hit that tore two ligaments in his left knee. Before he left the stadium that afternoon, he was already peppering the Vikings' medical staff with questions on how to jump-start his rehabilitation.
It was the kind of determination that Peterson's teammates had grown accustomed to seeing in him. It also sounded naive to some veterans who understood that reconstructive surgery for a torn ACL often requires at least nine months of recovery and as much as two years before an athlete feels completely comfortable. When Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield traveled to Houston in February to hang out at Peterson's offseason home, he listened as Peterson vowed to do what seemed impossible. "He was doing some stretching exercises and he was telling me how he wanted to come back better than ever," Winfield said. "I thought to myself, 'That sounds good but we'll see how this goes.'"
Winfield and his teammates grew more optimistic when they lined up for sprints after a team workout in late April. Peterson had been doing his own rehabilitation drills on the sideline but was miffed by the efforts of his teammates. From Peterson's perspective, the skill players weren't giving nearly enough effort while running. To prove his point, he asked to run the final three sprints with the receivers.
Vikings tight end John Carlson, who had joined the team a few months earlier, was blown away by Peterson's conviction. "He went out there and beat all the receivers in half-gassers for the rest of that workout," Carlson said. "At that point, I was wondering if this guy really did have knee surgery [four] months ago."
Added Peterson: "That was when I saw how far I was coming along. It wasn't just talk anymore."
There were plenty of days, Peterson acknowledged, that the mental strain of rehabilitation gnawed at him. He couldn't believe the frustration that festered in the first few weeks of the process, when he would strap his left leg into a strength-training machine and struggle to stretch its range of motion. For a player who was a Pro Bowler in four of his first five seasons -- and had earned a reputation as the league's most violent runner -- it was a major blow to Peterson's ego. Rarely had he been in a position that he couldn't literally power his way to a desired result.
The upside was Peterson learned things that would eventually help him on the field. "That was the time when I was forced to be more patient," Peterson said. "I had to focus on a lot of little things during the rehab process and still be mentally locked in to do it right. It was a challenge."
As much as people focused on Peterson's physical skills during that recovery, his mental discipline improved in ways that nobody could really see at the time. Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave had spoken to Peterson about the mental hurdles of rehabilitation during the offseason, just to be sure his star was in the right frame of mind. Musgrave understood that returning from a major injury wasn't solely about rebuilding one's body. It was mainly about understanding that an athlete's body would never be the same again.
Peterson got the message, but his hunger at Minnesota's training camp was undeniable. While his teammates practiced in regular drills, he remained on a side field where he ran plays with Vikings trainer Eric Sugarman. Peterson took handoffs from Sugarman. He ran routes and caught passes. And most notably, he stewed. "He was definitely champing at the bit," Musgrave said. "He was ready to practice, but we always believed in sticking to our plan."
That plan called for something comparable to a pitch count in baseball. Frazier and Musgrave didn't expose Peterson to any action during the preseason, and they limited him to 17 carries (for 84 yards) in a season-opening win over Jacksonville. But once Peterson carried 25 times in a Week 3 win over San Francisco, everything changed. The Vikings clearly were ready to utilize their best weapon as much as possible after that point.
Frazier wasn't merely moved by Peterson's comfort with his surgically repaired knee. The Vikings star had become a more mature, detail-oriented runner, one who limited his negative-yardage runs substantially. "He'd become a more patient runner," Frazier said. "He was a better student of the game. His pass protection was better. I was even telling him how much better he is at catching the ball. That has to do with going through such an intense rehab. He's also trusting his line more, because he's not just busting it up in there. He's waiting for them to do their job."
The cumulative impact of Peterson's success isn't felt only in the highlights that have resulted from that approach. It's also inspired the chemistry so vital to the Vikings' late-season playoff push. Those jaw-dropping bursts -- he has seven runs of more than 50 yards this year -- don't solely happen because his offensive line is doing its job. They also result from receivers blocking downfield and fullback Jerome Felton leveling linebackers at the second level. The success that Ponder has enjoyed in key wins over San Francisco and Houston also relates to this advantage. Peterson's presence is so daunting that it eases the pressure on a young quarterback trying to find his way.
More than anything, Peterson's success changes a conversation that has hovered over the NFL in recent years. The passing game has dominated the league to the extent that many observers have questioned the value of running backs in today's game. The Vikings have countered by using the fullback more than ever since Peterson's arrival in 2007 and making an old-school approach look hip. Even Frazier admits, "I can't tell you how many times I've had to defend my run-first approach in the past. That hasn't happened so much this year."
What has happened is the kind of season that shouldn't be easily lumped into any existing category. When Minnesota plays the Packers on Sunday, Peterson's pursuit of Dickerson's mark will mean plenty to everybody in the Vikings franchise, especially since a playoff spot and a division rivalry are part of the season-ending storyline. "You'd love to see a guy who has worked so hard and has overcome so much to win that crown -- but ultimately that is against our defense," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews recently told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "I don't think any of us want to see that happen."
It's not clear how Peterson -- who is nursing a strained abdominal muscle --- will react if he breaks the mark, or if he'll be able to bask in the magnitude of it. The only certainty is that this isn't just history in the making. It's the kind of season that may be long remembered as the greatest we've ever seen. As Peterson said, "I've only been in the league for six years, but I do know this much -- I've never had more fun than I'm having right now."