|Posted on Wed, Oct. 27, 2004|
For Sooners' Peterson, football is the easy part
PALESTINE, Texas - The Anderson County Courthouse is a swirl of activity. Palestine's residents are taking advantage of early voting, and the same cars and pickups circle the silver domed building awaiting a parking space.
Rennie Thomas Kemp, running for precinct commissioner, is doing a little campaigning on a late morning, toasty even by Texas standards.
Some stop and listen to the pitch, others say forget it, they've already decided. But when the subject turns to the town's current celebrity, even the hard-boiled turn and smile.
Jacques Bell is handing out fliers, talking politics and football. He doesn't like the war in Iraq, wonders why Palestine holds a hot pepper festival when he doesn't know a soul in town who grows hot peppers, and wanted to know who the Sooners would be playing that weekend.
"Kansas? He could get some yards this weekend,'' Bell said with a smile.
Adrian Peterson, the extraordinary Oklahoma running back, does that to folks.
"Sure does," Kemp says. "Oh, he's some kind of football player."
Peterson did get some yards against Kansas, 122. Although it was his second lowest total of the season, he tied the NCAA record for reaching 1,000 yards in the fewest games - seven - and joining some elite company: Emmitt Smith of Florida in 1987 and Marshall Faulk of San Diego State in 1991.
Peterson enters Saturday's game against Oklahoma State as the nation's sixth-leading rusher at 146 yards per game.
Every week, Peterson expands some circle of greatness. Texans who saw him romp for more than 5,000 yards and 54 touchdowns in two seasons at Palestine High measure him against Tyler's Earl Campbell, Hooks' Billy Sims and Sealy's Eric Dickerson.
Sooners are saving space for him among the likes of Sims, Greg Pruitt, Joe Washington and Steve Owens.
Football followers from all over are comparing his start to other freshman wonders, such as Georgia's Herschel Walker, Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett and Ohio State's Maurice Clarett.
To which Peterson says, quietly like he says everything, "It's no surprise to me. I knew my ability and if I came in and worked hard, good things could happen."
His play has prompted Heisman Trophy talk. No freshman or sophomore has won the award. But Peterson is climbing the Heisman straw polls, and voters who have been surveyed recently have said they have no qualms about listing a freshman atop their ballot.
"People have called me about it, people from my hometown, it's crazy," Peterson says. "It's something I've thought about, but it's way in the back of my head."
Nobody who has seen Peterson's uncommon blend of sprinter's speed on a linebacker-sized body of 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds has been accused of reckless hyperbole.
"In my 10 years of coaching I've never seen anybody like him," Oklahoma offensive coordinator Chuck Long says. "He makes it look easy, but it's not easy."
Little in Peterson's life away from football has ever come easy.
His father is in prison. His brother was killed by a drunken driver. Peterson has survived some troubled years that interrupted his career and cost him at least one high school season. He's learned work ethic and maturity.
But he never had to learn football.
"That's always come natural to him," says Bonita Jackson, Adrian's mother. "He was always a little better than the rest."
Jackson was a three-time Texas 3A sprint champion from Palestine's Westwood High. Nelson Peterson, Adrian's father, was a high school basketball standout in Florida and became an honorable mention All-America at Idaho State.
Adrian's older brother, Brian, showed signs of a budding athletic star.
"I guess I couldn't help but be a good athlete," Adrian Peterson says.
Peterson dominated just about every game he played. There was that state little league tournament when he was 11 and got the MVP award.
"He didn't get tackled that weekend," Jackson says.
It was about that time that his father nicknamed him "A.D."
"He called me that because I could go all day," Peterson says. "I guess I've always been a little hyper about things."
But Nelson wasn't around when Peterson started middle school. He had been sent to the Federal Correctional Institute in Texarkana, Texas, to begin a 10-year sentence for laundering money from the sale of crack cocaine.
Over the next two years, Peterson drifted emotionally. Bonita Jackson eventually remarried to a preacher in Grapevine, Texas, but she knew only his father could fill the hole in their son's heart.
"He missed him, a whole lot," Jackson says. "He grew up with his dad, and he was always there for him. He showed him how to play ball. Then all the sudden he's not there anymore, and there was a lot of anger and a lot of hurt."
She means more hurt, for a family that had already known too much. When Adrian was 9, he watched his 11-year-old brother Brian get run over. The family was living in Dallas at the time, and the kids had just come home from school. Adrian went to play football. Brian got on his bike; the oncoming drunken driver didn't notice him until it was too late.
"I saw it happen," Peterson says. "It was like in slow motion."
"They were so close, those two," Jackson says. "Adrian was a little bigger, but Brian was faster. They were brothers and friends."
Now, without brother or father, Adrian began high school by uncharacteristically taking some uncertain steps. He was on and off the football team in his freshman year at one school and then transferred to Palestine High as a sophomore. But his grades had slipped, and paperwork problems with the transfer limited Peterson's season to three games on the junior varsity.
Jeff Harrell became Palestine's football coach that May and saw Peterson on the track. He had grown progressively faster as a sprinter and finished second at the state meet. At 6-1 1/2, he was pushing 200 pounds.
"This is going to be some football player," Harrell said then.
In his first high school game, as a junior, Peterson rushed for 212 yards. In his second, he went for 340. After his fourth game, he had a scholarship offer from Texas A&M.
Peterson went for 2,051 yards and 22 touchdowns that season, and his game, along with his maturity, seemed to be on a different level.
"You could just tell he was focused," Jackson says.
Peterson would need to be as he prepared for an intense recruiting battle.
The walls at Hibbert Sports, the equipment and apparel store across the street from Palestine High, are stocked with Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Texas gear. By far, the Longhorns' burnt orange is the most popular color in the place.
"In the whole town," says Jason, whose nametag says "head coach."
Texas was on Peterson's list, along with the Aggies. He took several unofficial visits to those schools. Officially, he went to Arkansas, UCLA, Southern Cal, Miami and Oklahoma.
Jackson was telling friends she wanted her son to stay close to home, and if Palestine could have voted, Texas would have been the choice. It might even have been Peterson's choice once.
A Ricky Williams poster remains tacked up on his bedroom wall, along with hundreds of recruiting letters that serve as wallpaper.
An uncle, Chris Smith, played for Texas in the 1990s.
"I was a diehard Texas fan growing up," Peterson says.
A full-page ad in the Palestine Herald-Press implored Peterson to become a Longhorn. "Make us proud, Adrian. Stay here!"
But things were falling into place for Oklahoma. Last October, when he pretty much had narrowed his choice to Oklahoma and Texas, Peterson was standing on the Longhorns' sideline during the annual Red River Shootout when the Sooners won 65-13.
Peterson was on his way home when a Texas assistant called. "Y'all got beat," Peterson told him. "Y'all got beat real bad."
Peterson took another jab at the Longhorns over the summer: "Texas gets better players. But they don't get better once they get to Texas."
Also, the Longhorns already had a starting running back in senior Cedric Benson. A freshman season in Austin could be an apprenticeship. At Oklahoma, the position would be competitive.
The clincher probably came when Sooners head coach Bob Stoops and assistant Darrell Wyatt were the only coaches to visit Nelson Peterson in prison.
"We make it a point to get to know the parents of the players we recruit," Stoops says.
No matter the address.
That made an impression on Peterson.
"It showed they cared about me," Peterson says. "I'm still close to my dad."
So during a high school all-star game in San Antonio, about six weeks after he completed a 2,960-yard, 32-touchdown senior season at Palestine, Peterson doffed a crimson Sooners hat, and crushed the spirits of many in his hometown.
Palestine has forgiven Peterson.
Some have simply become Sooners fans_especially after Peterson ran over Texas in the Sooners' 12-0 victory three weeks ago as if the Longhorns were Huntsville High .
"We're trying to get Oklahoma jerseys in here now," Jason from Hibbert Sports says.
Peterson didn't need to make up with his father, who will be released in 2007.
They've stayed close through the years. So close that during an open week for the Sooners in September, Peterson motored to Texarkana and spent five hours visiting his dad. Two weeks later, after the 225-yard rushing performance against Texas, Nelson received his son's first call.
Peterson wasn't just the nation's top-rated recruit. He may have set some kind of record for distance between top- and second-rated recruit.
"In most years, there are three or four players who could be No. 1," says football recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree. "But he was so far advanced in his game, he was as solid a No. 1 as maybe I've ever seen."
With those credentials, Oklahoma veterans weren't sure what type of attitude Peterson was packing when he arrived in Norman. But Peterson could not have scripted his first impression any better.
"I was expecting him to come in all cocky," Oklahoma senior center Vince Carter says. "But he was just the opposite. He showed respect for the older guys."
It's difficult to believe now, with 90 carries in the last three games, but nine weeks ago there was speculation about how much Peterson would play. Three running backs were to figure in the opener, starter Kejuan Jones and the freshmen Peterson and D.J. Wolfe. As the season approached, Wolfe actually passed Peterson on the depth chart.
Peterson got 16 attempts in the opener against Bowling Green and stopped at precisely 100 yards, becoming the school's first freshman running back since 1972 to reach rushing triple digits in his freshman debut. The talker was a 35-yard scoring run that showed a burst the Sooners hadn't seen in a while.
The output and confidence grew over the next few weeks with victories over Houston, Oregon and Texas Tech. Peterson easily topped 100 each time, setting a school record by opening his career with four 100-yard games.
Texas took away Oklahoma's passing game and Peterson ran wild, going for 44 the first time he touched the ball.
At Kansas State, for the first time this season, Peterson ran into a wall in his first road game. The halftime line: 13 attempts, 26 yards. The third quarter was only slightly better, but the fourth belonged to Peterson.
Two-yard runs were becoming 5, then 8. Peterson amassed 46 of the 78 yards on the touchdown drive that gave the Sooners a 10-point cushion. His clock-killing runs on the next possession clinched the game. He finished with 130 yards in 36 carries, and Long, the offensive coordinator, loved what he saw.
"He protected the ball in traffic like he hadn't all season, he had a chip block on a touchdown pass and got some tough, tough yards when we really needed it," Long says. "He's still learning some things, like feeling the holes. But he does have the power and speed to make up for it.
"And," Long's voice trails off while he shakes his head, "he's a freshman."
Last weekend against Kansas, he had a lighter load, gaining 122 yards on 22 carries in a 41-10 romp.
Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer settled into his Dallas-bound Southwest Airlines seat, one of those that face backward , and before he could open his newspaper, the Oklahoma fan sitting across from him wanted to talk about Peterson and how he compared to great Oklahoma backs.
"He could be one of the best, if not the best, but we've had great ones," Switzer says.
Sims won the 1978 Heisman. Owens won it in 1969 and Billy Vessels in 1952. And there's Pruitt, Washington and Marcus Dupree, who set a standard for rookies.
Dupree lasted less than 1 1/2 seasons at Oklahoma, following a dispute with Switzer.
How long Peterson lasts remains to be seen. Of course, his dispute could be with the NFL.
If Peterson continues a rushing pace that could have him pushing 2,000 yards, the early-departure challenge will become a talking point.
The NFL kept the gates closed on young players when Clarett's attempt failed in court. Peterson had said after last season that if Clarett had won his case it would have been tempting to grab NFL millions, claiming he could, as a high school senior, out run anybody on the Dallas Cowboys.
The Sooners expect to have Peterson until at least his junior season. After that? He wants to reach the potential that his parents didn't. Nelson Peterson's tryout with the Philadelphia 76ers ended when he suffered a gunshot wound in the leg.
Jackson, who attended Houston on a track scholarship, left school after two years when she became pregnant with Brian, and Brian never got the chance.
"I think about that," Peterson says. "My parents never got to realize their dreams. Maybe I can help them complete their dreams."
Adrian Peterson's game-by-game rushing statistics
Opponent, Att. Yds. Avg. (TDs)
Bowling Green, 16 100 6.25 (1)
Houston, 25 117 4.68 (2)
Oregon, 24 183 7.63 (2)
Texas Tech, 22 146 6.64 (1)
Texas, 32 225 7.03 (0)
K-State, 36 142 3.94 (0)
Kansas, 22 122 5.55 (1)
Totals, 177 1023 5.79 (7)