Adrian Petersonlay motionless on the hotel bed, sucker-punched by the news his parents hadtried to keep from him and unsure of what to do next. He was alone in adarkened room in Indianapolis, just after midnight on Feb. 25, eyes filled withtears, 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 Oklahomarunning 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 forcoaches, scouts and personnel men? Surely they'd understand once they heardwhat he'd just learned from his cousin Lorenzo Henderson: Peterson'sstepbrother, Chris Parish, had been fatally shot in an apparent homicide inHouston.
At 1 a.m. Peterson's agent, Ben Dogra, called and told him, "We can skipthe 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 byinjury, 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 aonce-in-a-lifetime opportunity and fulfilling a dream that had driven him sincehe was seven. And he would be showcasing himself not only for the NFL but alsofor the folks back home in Palestine, Texas, who knew how difficult his journeyhad been.
Peterson calledhis mother, Bonita Jackson, and was so choked up that he could barely speak."You've overcome a lot of obstacles," she reminded him. "This isjust another one." Shortly before 3 a.m. Peterson closed his eyes andrecalled Parish's words from a phone conversation they'd had a few daysearlier: "You're gonna show 'em! Represent for all of us in Palestine. I'llbe watching." Finally there was clarity. When his wake-up call came in fourhours, Peterson would do his best to block out his grief and barrel his way tothe top of the draft.
There is nothingsubtle about Adrian Peterson, 22, as anyone who watched the human sandblasterduring his three seasons at Oklahoma can attest. Some college backs burstthrough the line and run for daylight, dancing nimbly past defenders; Petersonseemed to seek them out, charging forward like a man trying to fight his waythrough a rock slide. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, mostopponents realized what Peterson's nickname, AD, stands for: All Day.
"In college itwas like I had a chip on my shoulder; I was trying to punish people everychance I got," Peterson says while enjoying a steak lunch on an earlyspring afternoon in Norman. "That's still going to be part of my game, butI'm going to be more versatile." The biggest knock against him--andremember, if Jesus had been draft-eligible, some scout would have downgradedhim for "lacking explosive burst while walking on water"--is hisdurability, or perceived lack thereof.
After setting anNCAA freshman record with 1,925 rushing yards in 2004, the 6'1", 217-poundPeterson suffered significant injuries the next two seasons: a high-anklesprain as a sophomore and a broken collarbone last October, limiting him toseven starts in each of those years. Because he has an upright running styleand relishes contact, some coaches and personnel men question whether he'll beable to hold up as an every-down NFL back. And though Peterson insists he'llmodify his game accordingly, those who know him best have a hard time buyingit. "The only thing he knows is full speed, even if it's a couple of daysbefore the game on the practice field," says Sooners cornerback MarcusWalker, Peterson's close friend and roommate. "That's AD; that's what makeshim him. He's going to bring that attitude to whatever team drafts him, and Idon't see him changing his style for anybody."
Various mockdrafts project Peterson to be taken anywhere from third (by the Browns) to themiddle of the first round--the first running back picked, ahead of Cal'sMarshawn Lynch. The Cardinals, selecting fifth, are strongly considering himdespite signing veteran Edgerrin James last year, and Peterson has visitedevery other team drafting second through eighth: the Lions, Browns, Buccaneers,Redskins, Vikings and Falcons. "I see someone trading up to four or five toget 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 guyruns angry."
The comparisonwith Dickerson, the Hall of Famer who still owns the NFL's single-seasonrushing record of 2,105 yards, isn't restricted to personnel circles. Currentplayers also see it. "He's big, strong and fast--and he runs withpassion," says Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman. "That's a hell of acombination, and I definitely think he'll succeed."
But Saints backDeuce McAllister cautions, "As you mature as a running back, particularlyas a physical back, you have to change your game. If you don't figure out howto avoid hits, your body simply won't last. And with AD, the better he cancatch the ball, the more money he'll make."
Peterson, whocaught only 24 passes as a Sooner, put his pass-catching skills on display byworking primarily at receiver during Oklahoma's March 13 pro day. What hecouldn't answer in those drills were questions some have about his passblocking. One AFC scout goes so far as to rate Peterson behind Lynch in overallability, saying, "If you combine the fact that [Peterson's] not great onthird down with the durability concerns--I mean, the guy just runs sorecklessly--I'm not sure he's your ideal every-down back."
Mention this toPeterson and he practically jumps out of his booth in the restaurant. "Youhear 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 endzone--that's just a fluke."
The latter injury,in a victory over Iowa State on Oct. 14, sidelined Peterson for the rest of theregular season. Yet he returned for what proved to be one of the greatestcollege football games in history, racing 25 yards for a touchdown on his finalcarry in Boise State's stunning 43--42 overtime upset of Oklahoma in the FiestaBowl. "That describes everything to me in terms of his intangibles,"one NFC scouting director says. "Knowing he's a sure top 10 pick and withseveral people telling him not to risk it, he still comes back to play in thebowl game. His competitiveness just took over."
Where does thefire come from? Ask Peterson, and his soft eyes become misty. "I wentthrough a lot of things growing up," he says. "I spent some nightssleeping 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 startswith the horrific accident he witnessed at the age of seven: His eight-year-oldbrother, Brian, was struck and killed by a drunk driver while riding hisbicycle. Peterson remembers the scene "like it was yesterday. It wasunreal. I was maybe 15 feet away, on the grass in front of our apartmentcomplex, 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 tohim, screaming his name. When I got there his head was all swollen. I tried toraise 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 "hewouldn't open up about it, even to me. He talked to a counselor at school, butthat was it. We'd leave flowers every year on Brian's birthday, but for a longtime Adrian wouldn't go to the grave site. The two of them were like twins, andit was a real emotional trauma for him."
Peterson says hisbrother's death "made me a stronger person. When I think about how athletiche was ... I never could beat him in a race. He made all A's in school. Whoknows what he might have been able to accomplish. It motivates me to work evenharder." It also helped Peterson fight through his grief at the combine. Heran the 40 in 4.38 seconds and had a 38 1/2-inch vertical leap, among othersuperlatives.
Later that day, ininterviews with NFL teams, Peterson answered questions he mostlyexpected--including those about his close relationship with his father, Nelson,who spent eight years in federal prison for money laundering--and dodged onequery 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 agirlfriend?' I nodded yes, and he asked, 'So, are you in love?' There were 15people staring at me, and I just looked back at them. I mean, that's gettingkind of personal."
Peterson had noproblem revealing his innermost feelings about football. "Teams were askingwhat 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, hisvision, his breakaway speed--and a little bit of Larry Johnson, with theinitial attack and determination.' People were looking at me like I was crazy,saying, 'Uh, that's a pretty good combination.'"
The recollectionmakes Peterson laugh as he finishes lunch and exits the restaurant with adiscernible bounce in his step. "The NFL's the best of the best," hesays. "They're not going to be able to stack nine in the box to stop oneguy, and I'm pretty sure those 245-pound linebackers won't be able to run medown in the open field. I think about that, and I get excited. I'm ready togo."
Wherever Petersongoes on draft day, this much is certain: He'll take on his next challenge theonly way he knows--running headlong, fast and furious, plowing through thepain.
Where Will He Go?
To find out which teams have a line on Adrian Peterson and his peers, check outupdated mock drafts from Peter King and Don Banks. ONLY AT SI.COM
"He's a complete freak," says one scout, "ayoung Dickerson. And he runs angry."
Photographs by Greg Nelson
Slowed in each of the past two seasons by injuries, Peterson is fully healthyand getting ready to take on the pros.
Photographs by Greg Nelson
Peterson puts his rushing skills up there with Tomlinson's andJohnson's.
NATE BILLINGS/THE OKLAHOMAN/AP
A team that shies away from Peterson because of a perceived recklessness willmiss out on a runner of uncommon passion.