This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 6, 2008, issue. Subscribe today!
ADRIAN PETERSON just wants his ice cream.
A scoop of cake-batter flavor, in a cup, with pecans and caramel and maybe some crumbled Snickers. It is the wane of summer, and he practiced twice today at the Vikings training facility in Mankato, and he will practice twice tomorrow and again most every day until the three-week-long camp ends. It is "drudgery," explains coach Brad Childress, leavened not by nights out (there's a curfew) or female company (strictly prohibited) but only by the smooth, soothing deliciousness of a frozen treat.
Peterson, 23, has been thinking about his ice cream since the morning, fantasizing about it the way one would a Kardashian, his mouth curling up at the thought, a low, growly "Mmmmm" escaping from deep in his throat.
But first he must sign autographs. Because he is that guy. The fan favorite. Warm and generous. A hale young man, with white teeth and short, doll-like lashes, who runs with the elegance and intention of a wolf. A player who makes anything feel possible—even a Super Bowl. He knows that many of the people outside the gates are waiting just for him, that they have perched on a grassy bank or sidewalk for seven hours in 90 degree heat just to touch his forearm, get a signature on their No. 28 jersey. So Peterson lingers longer than any other player. He signs and chats and hugs until finally hunger overtakes him. "I'm sorry, y'all, I really need to get going," Peterson says, ducking his head into his neck. "Next time. Tomorrow? Okay?"
The crowd begins to whine, frantically flapping notebooks and programs in his face. "Adrian!" they bellow desperately, a swarm of would-be Rockys. Peterson smiles, extracts himself from the rows of outstretched hands, some shaking at his very nearness. "Come on, man," one teenager pleads, tugging at his shirt. "I'm black! I'm like you. I'm black!"
Peterson yanks himself loose, backs away. The teen's face crumples, tears sliding down his cheeks.
"Dang," Peterson says, walking to the golf cart that will drive him away. "I wasn't expecting that."
EXPECTATIONS are something Adrian Peterson knows a little about. He is only a few weeks into his second season as a pro but is already legendary. Not because of his records (rushing for an NFL all-time single-game-best 296 yards against the Chargers last November) or résumé (Pro Bowl MVP, Rookie of the Year, Heisman runner-up at 19) or even his supernatural physicality (able to race 100 meters in 10.3 seconds! Able to leap 38 inches in a single bound!). No, Peterson is a legend for that most modern of reasons—because he is being talked about. By his fans, of course, but also by his colleagues, awed into hagiography by his talent. "When he's not around we tell stories about the things he's done," says Vikings wide receiver Sidney Rice, Peterson's roommate on the road. "Like the time I saw him after a hard practice, in full pads, running full speed, trying to get somebody to run gases with him." Rice shakes his head incredulously. "You don't see anybody like that."
The Vikings started the season with big expectations of their own. In the overhauled NFC North, they were the ones to watch, largely because of the one to watch. Peterson is delivering, logging yardage and thrills, but the W's have been slow to materialize. For this, fans have mostly blamed third-year QB Tarvaris Jackson, who completed barely 50 percent of his passes in the Vikings' 0-2 start and was eventually replaced by Gus Frerotte. The 37-year-old journeyman promptly led the team to a home win over Carolina on Sept. 21, but the sense that all isn't quite right in Minnesota remains.
No one is more full of angst than Peterson. Moments after rushing for 160 yards in his team's heartbreaking 18-15 loss to the Colts on Sept. 14, he doesn't fixate on the team's QB struggles or its vulnerable secondary. He blames only himself. "Without the win, 160 yards doesn't mean anything," he says, tossing a towel into his locker. "I left plays out there. I left a touchdown out there."
Peterson blows air through his teeth, yanks his carefully pressed dress pants off a hanger, snapping the fabric. "I take it personally. I feel responsible. I do. I got tripped up. I need to do a better job picking my feet out of the hole. I can't make mistakes like that." His voice fades as he shakes his head. His body is tense, vibrating with disappointment. He rams his hands into his hips. "It's just," he grinds his teeth, "really, really frustrating."
The rest of the locker room is quiet, humid. Large purple duffel bags litter the floor like carapaces. Offensive guard Steve Hutchinson despondently swallows a sandwich from a cradle of tinfoil. Defensive end Jared Allen answers questions in his underwear, saying the team "needs to finds a way to win"; he's one of the few Vikes talking. Peterson takes a seat, burying his face deep in his hands.
His despair surprises no one. His teammates have come to know this side of Peterson well.
"Adrian's never happy with himself," says receiver Aundrae Allison. "He doesn't understand his accomplishments." Of course, from this humility flow his greatest strengths. "Adrian is different," Childress explains. "He's 100 mph every day. He's never looking for the break. He's not looking to hide. We're always asking him to slow down. Because frankly, the other players can't go that hard."
Rice remembers the first time he spied Peterson. "Adrian was alone in the gym doing pull-ups. I just stood there and watched him, lifting himself up over and over. Everyone else had gone home. But he was still there." Since that day, Rice has witnessed more miracles. Players dragged 15 yards, defensive clusters blown out like confetti, speed that blurs the eyes. "We call him A-Robot," Rice says. "I can't remember ever seeing him exhausted. He'll tell us not to bend down when we're tired. He'll say, 'There's no air down there. Stand up. Lean on me.'"
During the Colts game, Peterson was true to form. As players tumbled, he nimbly leaped over their fallen bodies. Defenders tried to drag him down, but he shook them off like a grizzly shuddering off snow. Waiting for his go on the sideline, his legs jerked and lifted like sewing needles. He pranced, swung his hips, watched his teammates, cheered when they executed, fist-bumped as they jogged off the field. When his turn came, he raced back to the line, every play a Christmas morning. So astonishing was his effort, onlooking Colts president Bill Polian vociferously swore after each Peterson play.
None of this mattered to Peterson in the end.
"I feel like I didn't do enough," he says softly.
What more could you have done?
"I could have come up with the big play," he says flatly. "I could have done my job."
BEFORE THE SEASON started, when all was promise and optimism, Peterson explained how his own expectations came to be. "When I was young, I had the dream of the NFL," he says, plopping down on a massage table after a camp practice. "My mom put it into my head: Don't settle for less. That mind-set has stayed with me."
Growing up in rural Palestine, Texas, with his mother, Bonita, he made a list of goals and posted it on his door.
Get on top of my grades
Get in my Bible more
Stay out of trouble
Be the best that I can be
"Believe it or not," he says, "some of the same things I did last year on the field I've been doing since middle school. I push myself harder. I do extra drills. No matter how tired I am, I make sure I'm first. I got a long way to go, but I figure if I just keep doing the things I have been doing, I should be all right."
Peterson tells a story about winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. How, after he broke his collarbone in 2006 during his final season at Oklahoma, some scouts saw him as damaged goods. How, before the season, he and some other rookies were asked to pose with the ROY trophy for an NFL promotion. How, when it was his turn to hold it, he cradled it like his baby girl, and thought, See you at the end of the season.
"I'm pretty sure other players said the same thing to themselves," he says, raising his eyebrows. "But I doubt they took it as seriously as I did. When I held it, it was like it was already mine."
For all his physical dominance, Peterson plays a head game. "You can tell yourself anything," he explains. "If mentally you don't cave in, if you push yourself beyond where you thought your body could go, you can do almost anything. A lot of people lack that ambition. I figured that out pretty early."
"I've been full speed since I was little," Peterson adds, shrugging. "I'm a spaz."
WE ALL KNOW what it looks like when promise fails. (Tony Mandarich.) When potential evaporates. (Lawrence Phillips.) When our chosen one descends into common humanity. (Ryan Leaf.) Which is why, when we see promise exceeded, when someone comes along who takes the job seriously—we can all be forgiven if we go a bit wobbly in the knees.
Even if he doesn't.
This, like everything else, is a result of perspective. When Peterson was 7, he watched as his 8-year-old brother, Brian, was struck by a drunk driver while riding his bike on the sidewalk. Brian was thrown into the air, landing on his head. A week later, the family decided to discontinue life support. "That was a lot of hurt," says Adrian's father, Nelson, who had split from Adrian's mom years earlier and worked in town as a forklift operator. "To have that taken away from him. They were like twins."
It was shortly after the accident when Nelson phoned Adrian and told him he was going to start playing organized football. Nelson would coach his son every day. Order another kid to hit him, four, five, six times in a row. Show Adrian how to meet the contact, stop bracing for the impact. Tell him to make his own daylight. "I made it mandatory that he be the first one to come across the line during sprints," says Nelson. "Then I'd make a side bet with the other kids: If they beat him, they'd get out of running. But he never lost."
Then, with Peterson entering middle school, Nelson went away to prison, sentenced to 10 years for drug-related money laundering (he served eight). "When he left," Adrian says, "all I could think about was how many games he was going to miss."
Peterson's drive began to slack. He played, but his appetite diminished. He made some questionable friends. Let his grades slip. Acted out in class. His mother propped him up, told him, "If no one believes in you, I believe in you." But there were money troubles, family troubles. Somebody threw a rock through the school window, and Peterson was blamed. People he believed were his friends weren't. As he started high school, nothing was solid. Nothing made sense. He felt, he says, "crazy." Then one day after Peterson's sophomore season, his father called him. The two had spoken weekly since Nelson was sent to prison, but this conversation wasn't the typical how-you-doing. "He said, 'I know. I know you are the best running back in Texas. But you got to show the world that you are the best.'"
Peterson closes his eyes for a moment.
"My next year, my junior year, I blew up. I worked my way up to being the No. 1 recruit in the nation. That phone call was the defining moment of my life."
Peterson says he was never angry with his father. That he worked to understand. "The things that he was doing, they were bad, but he was also a coach in the community, helping kids who didn't have much try to do something with their lives. People say, Oh, he was messing with drugs, so he's got to be this bad person, this gangster. People judge him. But me? I have nothing but love for him."
When Nelson hears this, his voice cracks. "We share a bond like no other. I tell him every day, Don't waste your opportunities, your life is good. But like a light switch, it can cut off on you. Bam. Just like that."
BACK IN THE DAY, Peterson was a big rabbit hunter. Pop them, skin them, eat them. He'd walk to the woods near his house and fire his BB gun at will. Nobody worried he'd put his eye out. "I was a good shot," he says. "It's funny. At my house now, in Eden Prairie, you see a lot of rabbits. My cousin and I joke, Man, these rabbits wouldn't stand a chance if we was in Palestine."
The town where Peterson grew up is the sort of place where roads start off gravel and end up dirt. The top two employers are the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Wal-Mart. Still, Peterson misses home. "If I could live anywhere, I'd live in Texas."
Come winter, he often finds himself looking out his windows, the landscape an unfamiliar, deadening white. "Sometimes it seems like it doesn't get dark at night," he says forlornly. "And I'm like, Damn, my family, all my friends are back South."
Peterson is next in line at Cold Stone Creamery. Behind him, several people snap pictures with their camera phones. He takes his ice cream and sits outside, the iron chair buckling a little as he sits down. "I lost my first toenail today," he says proudly, pointing down with his tiny plastic spoon. Then he talks about having his 4-year-old daughter, Adeja, "the smartest decision I ever made." Peterson was 19 when he became a father and remains close friends with Adeja's mother, who is raising their daughter in another state. "People tried to steer me away from having a child," he says, "but I wanted her. Bringing my daughter into this world is the best thing I've ever done. I'm happiest when I'm with her."
Happier than on the field? Peterson smiles the smile. "A man should take care of his family. That's the most important thing."
Peterson plans to do just that. And if he awoke tomorrow and his feet had fallen off in his sleep, he'd have a backup plan. "Wingstop," he says. "Buffalo wings. But better. I could get some franchises, hire the family. Be the king of all Wingstops."
Yes, Peterson takes losing hard, takes the feeling of letting down his team and his fans even harder. But despite his despair this season, there's no need to worry about him. Life has shown Peterson its random cruelty, its anarchy. So he armors up. Works the odds. If the bottom falls out, he'll be ready. "I don't want to be caught off guard," he says. "I don't like to feel vulnerable. I have trouble trusting people. I do." He points to his shoulder tattoo, his high school nickname—The Diesel—inked when he was still a kid. "I just loved the image. An 18-wheeler. Something so powerful, so strong. Something you can't get out of the way of."
Then he lifts his shirt, revealing a newer tattoo covering a swath of his lower abdomen, the body of Christ holding the comedy and tragedy masks. "I designed it myself," he says. "I like the faces. One for good times, one for bad. Because I've seen both."
His thoughts return, as they often do, to his parents. His mother ran track at the University of Houston, went to the Junior Olympics. "Then she got pregnant with my brother. And right after him, she got pregnant with me. So her track career was done for good." His dad, a star hoops player at Idaho State, had his NBA dreams derailed when his brother accidentally shot him in the leg. "For a full year, they were talking about cutting his leg off."
Peterson has stopped eating, ice cream oozing to liquid in its cup. "I feel a responsibility to carry their dreams," he says softly. "I don't just do this for myself." He leans back in his chair, the cameras of fans clicking behind his head. He doesn't hear them. He is someplace else. Earlier that morning, Peterson was signing balls -- ;before the first few games and inadvertent lessons about what he could and could not control—and he pondered his blessings.
"I sometimes wonder, Why me?" he said. "But no answer comes."
He clutched his pen for a moment to wave at a little boy. The boy, overcome, clutched his father's leg to steady himself.
"I figure," Peterson continued, "I should stop wondering. Sometimes there just isn't an explanation. Sometimes," he said, tossing a football into the air, then catching it, "you just get lucky."