Washington Post sports page October 29, 2004 Just before BEDLAM
Maybe the most remarkable part isn't the 100 yards in his
first college game, the head-turning 225 yards a month later against Texas, or
even the fact that he has reached 1,000 yards rushing in just seven games,
something only two other freshman backs -- gentlemen named Emmitt Smith and
Marshall Faulk -- have ever accomplished.
Rather, maybe the most remarkable thing about Adrian Peterson -- freshman of Oklahoma -- is that this is what people who know him consider the predetermined course. Sooners Coach Bob Stoops was asked earlier this season if he and his staff expected this -- seven college games, seven 100-yard rushing performances -- from a kid just 10 months removed from little Palestine (Tex.) High.
"Sure we did," Stoops said. Simple as that.
Why not? The physical reasons are obvious. At 6 feet 2, 210 pounds, it hardly matters that he is just 19, because he can run over you, past you, in a circle daring you to catch him. Tomorrow against Oklahoma State, he will merely be doing what's expected of him again -- running the ball for the second-ranked Sooners, moving closer to the school's season rushing record of 1,896 yards, set by Billy Sims.
But there are other things that have made Peterson into a more hardened young man than most freshmen, things we don't see when he lays his shoulder into a tackler, seemingly always churning out an extra yard or two.
"He's been through a lot," said Jeff Harrell, Peterson's high school coach. "But he's really handled it well. It's kind of amazing."
When Peterson was 7, he was riding a bicycle with his brother, Brian, older by just 11 months. A drunk driver careered toward the bike, with both boys on it. Adrian Peterson jumped off. Brian Peterson couldn't. Brian was killed. Adrian watched.
"It still touches him, even right now," said his aunt, Ola Hall. "That's a situation that will always be there. He'll never forget that."
Nearly five years ago, when Peterson was not yet in high school, his father, Nelson Peterson, was convicted on money laundering charges in a drug case. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His son might be setting records, scoring touchdowns. Nelson Peterson has watched it from the Federal Correctional Institute in Texarkana, Tex.
"His dad put a football in his hand at an early age, and he's been going ever since," said Hall, Nelson Peterson's sister. "Every time he gets the ball, I think he's running for his dad."
That's enough for anybody to handle, be they 49 or 19. Yet Peterson doesn't seem jaded by any of it. In the immediate aftermath of his performance against Texas earlier this month -- when he certainly was the best back on the field, despite the presence of Longhorns senior Cedric Benson -- he couldn't contain his broad smile. He spoke simply.
"I just went out there and ran the ball hard," he said. "That's all I do, just try to run hard every time."
Which is what Harrell had seen at Palestine -- enrollment, 928 -- as Peterson ran for 5,011 yards in his final two high school seasons combined. Though Harrell said he expected the jump to college would be "real, real big," he had been around Peterson enough to understand how the kid might handle it. He watched him fend off recruiters from every school in the nation, watched how he ignored the fact that Texas fans implored him to stay home and be a Longhorn -- even taking out a full-page ad in the Palestine Herald-Press, pleading, "Stay here!" -- and winced when he chose the place where he felt most comfortable.
Thus, Harrell said, there is no reason to view this half-season performance as anything but typical. Typical, at least, for Peterson, who once in high school ran for more than 300 yards and six touchdowns -- in the first half.
"Ability-wise," Harrell said, "there's nothing he can't do. The sky's the limit."
Which is why coaches from various colleges frequently crowded into Harrell's office on a daily basis, occasionally arguing about who would talk to Peterson first. It's also the kind of thing that made Mark Clayton, the Sooners' senior wideout, look back into the line while running a route against Oregon, watching Peterson burst forward, stop seemingly in mid-air -- pivoting on one foot -- and advance.
"I was like, 'Dang, what can't he do?' " Clayton said.
What he can't do, it seems, is have a normal life, and not just because he has already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, not just because he has become a legitimate -- did someone say "leading"? -- candidate for the Heisman Trophy. His mother, Bonita Jackson, tried to make things as regular as possible, even as his brother died and his father went to prison.
"He had a really good home life," Harrell said. "That family support he had, I think, is what helped him get through those tough times. And he also has a great relationship with his father."
That relationship is sustained not only because the two make regular phone calls, but because when he was still in high school, Adrian Peterson hopped in a car in Palestine and drove the 190 miles to Texarkana, where he could speak to his father in person. When the Sooners were off for a weekend in September, Peterson again traveled to Texarkana, just to spend the few free hours he had.
"That relationship is very important," Hall said. "I don't know what it would take to tear that apart. They're bound. Always have been. Always will be."
It was, however, another trip to Texarkana that helped put Peterson in Sooner crimson rather than the burnt orange of Texas. Head coaches are allowed one in-home visit during the recruiting process. Stoops didn't go to Palestine. He went to meet with Nelson Peterson in prison.
"We want to get to know the parents as well as we can," Stoops said, and he declined to outline the details of the visit. "That's between us."
Stoops, though, was the only head coach to make the trip to Texarkana. And now, despite the frustrations of those in Palestine and throughout the entire state, Peterson is cranking out yardage north of the Red River -- unlikely, considering a poster of former Texas running back Ricky Williams still hangs on his bedroom wall.
"I was a diehard Texas fan growing up," he said.
No longer. After Peterson committed to Oklahoma in February, he chose to report to Norman early in the summer. Widely considered the top recruit in the nation, he arrived without airs, coaches and teammates said. Rather, he showed up and went to work immediately.
"He's a sponge," said Kevin Wilson, Oklahoma's co-offensive coordinator and running game coordinator. "He's a smart kid, and a hard-working kid. . . . He's not coming in saying, 'I'm really good. Look at me.' He's coming in saying, 'I want to learn. I want to be a more complete player.' It's snowballing in a positive way."
Tomorrow, the snowball continues. Smith reached 1,000 yards in seven games as a Florida freshman in 1987 and became the career leading rusher in NFL history. Faulk reached 1,000 yards in seven games as a freshman at San Diego State in 1991 and became, arguably, the NFL's best player. Now, this kid, of whom so much is expected.
"I'm enjoying it," Peterson said. "I don't know if I expected it, but I'm enjoying it.