Adrian Peterson lay motionless on the hotel bed, sucker-punched by the news his parents had tried to keep from him and unsure of what to do next. He was alone in a darkened room in Indianapolis, just after midnight on Feb. 25, eyes filled with tears, staring at the ceiling. I don't believe it. Not now. Not again. Please, God, give me the strength to make it through.
With his NFL scouting combine session hours away, Peterson, the former Oklahoma running back and one of the 2007 draft's top prospects, pondered his options. Should he leave Indy first thing in the morning, blowing off his workout for coaches, scouts and personnel men? Surely they'd understand once they heard what he'd just learned from his cousin Lorenzo Henderson: Peterson's stepbrother, Chris Parish, had been fatally shot in an apparent homicide in Houston.
At 1 a.m. Peterson's agent, Ben Dogra, called and told him, "We can skip the combine and wait until your pro day if it's just too much for you." That made sense, but Peterson, coming off back-to-back seasons cut short by injury, had a point to prove: This was about more than getting a big contract; this was about laying it all out and competing under pressure, about seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and fulfilling a dream that had driven him since he was seven. And he would be showcasing himself not only for the NFL but also for the folks back home in Palestine, Texas, who knew how difficult his journey had been.
Peterson called his mother, Bonita Jackson, and was so choked up that he could barely speak. "You've overcome a lot of obstacles," she reminded him. "This is just another one." Shortly before 3 a.m. Peterson closed his eyes and recalled Parish's words from a phone conversation they'd had a few days earlier: "You're gonna show 'em! Represent for all of us in Palestine. I'll be watching." Finally there was clarity. When his wake-up call came in four hours, Peterson would do his best to block out his grief and barrel his way to the top of the draft.
There is nothing subtle about Adrian Peterson, 22, as anyone who watched the human sandblaster during his three seasons at Oklahoma can attest. Some college backs burst through the line and run for daylight, dancing nimbly past defenders; Peterson seemed to seek them out, charging forward like a man trying to fight his way through a rock slide. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, most opponents realized what Peterson's nickname, AD, stands for: All Day.
"In college it was like I had a chip on my shoulder; I was trying to punish people every chance I got," Peterson says while enjoying a steak lunch on an early spring afternoon in Norman. "That's still going to be part of my game, but I'm going to be more versatile." The biggest knock against him -- and remember, if Jesus had been draft-eligible, some scout would have downgraded him for "lacking explosive burst while walking on water" -- is his durability, or perceived lack thereof.
After setting an NCAA freshman record with 1,925 rushing yards in 2004, the 6'1", 217-pound Peterson suffered significant injuries the next two seasons: a high-ankle sprain as a sophomore and a broken collarbone last October, limiting him to seven starts in each of those years. Because he has an upright running style and relishes contact, some coaches and personnel men question whether he'll be able to hold up as an every-down NFL back. And though Peterson insists he'll modify his game accordingly, those who know him best have a hard time buying it. "The only thing he knows is full speed, even if it's a couple of days before the game on the practice field," says Sooners cornerback Marcus Walker, Peterson's close friend and roommate. "That's AD; that's what makes him him. He's going to bring that attitude to whatever team drafts him, and I don't see him changing his style for anybody."
Various mock drafts project Peterson to be taken anywhere from third (by the Browns) to the middle of the first round -- the first running back picked, ahead of Cal's Marshawn Lynch. The Cardinals, selecting fifth, are strongly considering him despite signing veteran Edgerrin James last year, and Peterson has visited every other team drafting second through eighth: the Lions, Browns, Buccaneers, Redskins, Vikings and Falcons. "I see someone trading up to four or five to get him," says the scouting director of one team with a top five pick. "I think he's a complete freak. He's a young Eric Dickerson. And this guy runs angry."
The comparison with Dickerson, the Hall of Famer who still owns the NFL's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, isn't restricted to personnel circles. Current players also see it. "He's big, strong and fast -- and he runs with passion," says Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman. "That's a hell of a combination, and I definitely think he'll succeed."
But Saints back Deuce McAllister cautions, "As you mature as a running back, particularly as a physical back, you have to change your game. If you don't figure out how to avoid hits, your body simply won't last. And with AD, the better he can catch the ball, the more money he'll make."
Peterson, who caught only 24 passes as a Sooner, put his pass-catching skills on display by working primarily at receiver during Oklahoma's March 13 pro day. What he couldn't answer in those drills were questions some have about his pass blocking. One AFC scout goes so far as to rate Peterson behind Lynch in overall ability, saying, "If you combine the fact that [Peterson's] not great on third down with the durability concerns -- I mean, the guy just runs so recklessly -- I'm not sure he's your ideal every-down back."
Mention this to Peterson and he practically jumps out of his booth in the restaurant. "You hear this stuff, and it's just crazy," he says. "A high-ankle sprain? Anyone could get one of those. And I hurt my collarbone diving into the end zone -- that's just a fluke."
The latter injury, in a victory over Iowa State on Oct. 14, sidelined Peterson for the rest of the regular season. Yet he returned for what proved to be one of the greatest college football games in history, racing 25 yards for a touchdown on his final carry in Boise State's stunning 43-42 overtime upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. "That describes everything to me in terms of his intangibles," one NFC scouting director says. "Knowing he's a sure top 10 pick and with several people telling him not to risk it, he still comes back to play in the bowl game. His competitiveness just took over."
Where does the fire come from? Ask Peterson, and his soft eyes become misty. "I went through a lot of things growing up," he says. "I spent some nights sleeping in the car. I lost my brother at a young age. My father went to jail. But, hey, everybody's got a story."
Peterson's starts with the horrific accident he witnessed at the age of seven: His eight-year-old brother, Brian, was struck and killed by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle. Peterson remembers the scene "like it was yesterday. It was unreal. I was maybe 15 feet away, on the grass in front of our apartment complex, playing football with some friends. We were in this curved driveway, and [Brian] was riding up and down the hill. I saw him go down and I ran to him, screaming his name. When I got there his head was all swollen. I tried to raise him up a little bit. I said his name. I didn't get a response."
Jackson, the boys' mother, says that for nearly a decade Adrian was so devastated that "he wouldn't open up about it, even to me. He talked to a counselor at school, but that was it. We'd leave flowers every year on Brian's birthday, but for a long time Adrian wouldn't go to the grave site. The two of them were like twins, and it was a real emotional trauma for him."
Peterson says his brother's death "made me a stronger person. When I think about how athletic he was ... I never could beat him in a race. He made all A's in school. Who knows what he might have been able to accomplish. It motivates me to work even harder." It also helped Peterson fight through his grief at the combine. He ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds and had a 38 1/2-inch vertical leap, among other superlatives.
Later that day, in interviews with NFL teams, Peterson answered questions he mostly expected -- including those about his close relationship with his father, Nelson, who spent eight years in federal prison for money laundering -- and dodged one query that floored him. During his interview with officials from the Raiders, including owner Al Davis and new coach Lane Kiffin, Peterson recalls, "Someone asked me, 'Are you in a relationship right now? You got a girlfriend?' I nodded yes, and he asked, 'So, are you in love?' There were 15 people staring at me, and I just looked back at them. I mean, that's getting kind of personal."
Peterson had no problem revealing his innermost feelings about football. "Teams were asking what kind of back I thought I was," he recalls, "and I'd tell them, 'I'm a little bit of LT [LaDainian Tomlinson] -- his ability to hit the hole, his vision, his breakaway speed -- and a little bit of Larry Johnson, with the initial attack and determination.' People were looking at me like I was crazy, saying, 'Uh, that's a pretty good combination.'"
The recollection makes Peterson laugh as he finishes lunch and exits the restaurant with a discernible bounce in his step. "The NFL's the best of the best," he says. "They're not going to be able to stack nine in the box to stop one guy, and I'm pretty sure those 245-pound linebackers won't be able to run me down in the open field. I think about that, and I get excited. I'm ready to go."
Wherever Peterson goes on draft day, this much is certain: He'll take on his next challenge the only way he knows -- running headlong, fast and furious, plowing through the pain.