Adrian Peterson at gateway to history
Jeffri Chadiha [ARCHIVE]
December 27, 2012
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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...
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