Words don't come easily to Adrian Peterson. Strolling across the
manicured grounds of the Georgia Southern campus, the Eagles'
most celebrated athlete greets schoolmates with a big smile and a
pronounced stutter--the result of a speech impediment he has
battled since he was a toddler in the four-stoplight town of
Alachua, Fla. "It's getting better," says Peterson, a 21-year-old
junior fullback. "I think I can overcome it."
In a different green space, from end zone to end zone, there are
few impediments that Peterson hasn't conquered. Last season
Peterson rushed for 2,704 yards, including 897 in the postseason,
as the Eagles won the I-AA title. He also became the first
sophomore to win the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the
most outstanding I-AA player. Last Saturday against Johnson C.
Smith, he ripped off 162 yards on 17 carries, marking the 24th
consecutive regular-season game in which he had rushed for at
least 100 yards and leaving him seven games shy of matching the
NCAA record set by Ohio State's double Heisman Trophy winner,
Archie Griffin, in the 1973 through '75 seasons. With an average
of 168.9 yards rushing per game, Peterson is on pace to finish
with 7,431 for his career, eclipsing the division record of 6,193
set in 1998 by Jerry Azumah of New Hampshire. "I don't think
anyone can shut him down," says Georgia coach Jim Donnan, whose
Bulldogs surrendered 152 yards to Peterson in a 29-7 Georgia
victory on Sept. 2. "It's like playing against Michael Jordan:
You've got to hope you can hold down his points and hope that the
other guys around him don't beat you."
Peterson shrugs off the notion that he may become Division
I-AA's most viable Heisman candidate since Steve McNair of
Alcorn State finished third in the 1994 balloting. Peterson,
5'10", 212 pounds, with 4.5 speed in the 40, is less thrilled
about the possibility of winning a trophy than about
stiff-arming would-be tacklers.
Eagles coach Paul Johnson considers himself fortunate to have
Peterson's services. "I thought for sure that he'd end up at
Florida, like his brother [Mike, now an Indianapolis Colts
linebacker]," says Johnson. Several schools stopped recruiting
Peterson after he failed to meet the NCAA minimum on his first
crack at the SATs. (He would qualify on his second try.) Johnson
wonders whether Peterson's stuttering caused a communication
breakdown during telephone recruiting calls. "Everyone knew he
was a pretty good player coming out of high school," says
Johnson, "but there was no way of knowing he was this good."
While Johnson points out areas in which Peterson could use some
work (blocking, reading defenses), he concedes that Peterson
doesn't have far to go in his quest to join his big brother in
the pros. Such a compliment from the normally taciturn coach
leaves Peterson speechless, this time out of modesty. "I have a
ways to go," says Peterson, "but I guess I am"--he searches for
the right word--"blessed."
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MAHONEY