The letter came from somewhere in Illinois, addressed to the Minnesota Vikings, ATTENTION: PURPLE JESUS. This was not the usual plea for a signed photo or a sweaty sock but a request for Adrian Peterson to channel his inner Dr. Phil. "I know the season is approaching and everyone is very busy," begins the note from a woman who figured the best way to get her boyfriend of five years to marry her was to have Peterson call him. "I am getting tired of waiting for him, and in this day and age it's OK for the girl to ask, right?"
In his third season as a pro, Peterson has suddenly become everyone's wanted man, running shirtless in a television ad for the NFL, in slow-motion black-and-white for Nike and full tilt out of the backfield for the Vikings. Globally, he is fast becoming the face of football, real and fantasy. Locally, in Eden Prairie, Minn., he remains the neighborhood big brother who plays catch with schoolkids and collects the cookies and doughnuts they leave at his doorstep.
"The kids always bring the best snacks," says Peterson's uncle Chris Smith, who lives part time with the running back in the large suburban house. "I'm like, 'We can't eat that stuff. We're trying to stay sexy.'"
On Sunday, Peterson displayed his own gifts in a 34–20 victory at Cleveland Browns Stadium, tearing up the Browns' defense with the kind of speed and violent running that harks back to the game's greats. With Jim Brown in attendance and Brett Favre making his first start for Minnesota, it was Peterson who displayed the greatest star power, toughing out 180 rushing yards on 25 carries and three touchdowns, including a 64-yard dash down the left sideline that featured five broken tackles and two stiff arms.
He played through dehydration and a bloody gash on his left arm, and spent a portion of halftime vomiting. For Peterson, it was worth it. Cleveland was one of the six teams that passed on drafting him out of Oklahoma in 2007 because of concerns about his durability.
More than Favre or any member of Minnesota's defense, Peterson is the heart of a 48-year-old franchise that's still in pursuit of its first Super Bowl trophy. Is he the best running back in the NFL? "I answer that question this way," Peterson says. "I want people to remember me as the best player to ever play the game. When you think about football, I want my name to pop up in your head."
Three days before the game in Cleveland, Peterson was sitting on his living room couch eating a steak with baked potato and broccoli, prepared by Geji McKinney, who is both the team's and his personal chef. The television was tuned to the NFL opener between the Steelers and the Titans, and Peterson was relishing every hard hit.
"If I could play any other position, it would be safety," he explained. "Sometimes I just want to hit somebody. One of these days you're going to see me as the gunner on special teams. You watch."
At 24, Peterson can't help but exude the confidence of a world-class athlete entering his prime. Last month, after watching Usain Bolt set the world record in the 100 meters, Peterson turned to his uncle and offered this assessment: "Now I'm not saying I'd have beat him, but I'd have been in the race."
Vikings receiver Sidney Rice recalled the day last winter when Peterson tried to play Superman with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's Lexus. The three players were driving on the interstate after dinner when a tire blew.
"He didn't want to call a tow truck," Rice says of Peterson. "He wanted to fix it himself. He gets out, starts lifting the car and going, 'Pull, pull, pull.'"
The tire didn't budge. Peterson reluctantly lowered the car. Finally, they called the truck.
"He has such a unique combination of Southern humility and Texas low-key charm, but it's backed with a fierce, fierce pride," says Bill Henkel, who represents Peterson at 10 Sports Marketing. "Sometimes it takes him two hours to get dressed. I tell him all the time, 'If I had a body like that, I wouldn't own a shirt.'"
Peterson's pride is most evident on game days and on the practice field, where he and rookie Percy Harvin take turns trying to prove who is Minnesota's fastest player. (Rice says some days it's Peterson, others it's Harvin—so Bolt has two Vikings to worry about.) Coach Brad Childress has had to chase Peterson out of the huddle when he tries to sneak in extra reps.
"He's one of those guys that you have to slow down and pull him by the belt loop and say, Whoa!" Childress says. "He's leaps and bounds over where he was in Year One. He's developed patience, knowing how to put people on our offensive line's blocks. There are plenty of backs who can get you that five yards, but when you've got it blocked exactly, can they get 15 to 20? Are they able to go all the way to the house?"
After making thePro Bowl in his first two seasons, Peterson's profile couldn't help but grow. As a rookie he ran for 1,341 yards and logged a busy itinerary of travel and appearances. This past off-season, after rushing for 1,760 yards, he mostly split his training time between the Twin Cities and his native Texas, and cutdown on his nonfootball activities.
The exceptions were a handful of trips out West, including to Las Vegas for Tiger Jam XII, Tiger Woods's charity event, and Los Angeles for a Nike commercial shoot. But his most meaningful stop was at the L.A. home of Jim Brown, who had invited him over to discuss their craft for a piece in the Sporting News. Also present was Peterson's father, Nelson, who spent eight years in federal prison on money-laundering charges before his release in October 2006, during Peterson's junior year at Oklahoma.
"When his dad left, it really affected Adrian, not having him around," says Smith. "Now they can do things together, and he's better for it." Peterson calls the trip to visit Brown a blessing, for reasons greater than Brown's anointing him as the best running back in football. "My dad watched Jim Brown play," he says.
Peterson got his 25th and final carry against the Browns with a little more than six minutes left and Minnesota leading by two touchdowns. Starting eight yards behind the line of scrimmage at the Vikings' 36, Peterson took a handoff from Favre and shot the left-side gap between tackle and guard. He shook off Browns free safety Brodney Pool with a head-and-shoulder fake and glided to the left. Then, in a blink, his feet stopped near the sideline at the Browns' 41 as he tossed cornerback Eric Wright out-of-bounds with the heel of his gloved righthand.
"I was right behind him, and I saw him grab [Wright] by the head," says Rice. "It was like he just redid that Nike Pro Combat commercial."
Cornerback Brandon McDonald had two shots to bring Peterson down as his legs started churning again, but Peterson separated himself with a stiff arm at the 36. From there he streaked into the end zone. Says Favre, who has been in the NFL since 1991, "I haven't played with a running back like that."
"He didn't want to run by someone, he wanted to feel them," says tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. "I guess they felt him."
If the Vikings' first game of the season was supposed to be a test of Favre's arm, leadership and place in the locker room, Peterson reminded all parties that he remains the team's locomotive regardless of who's at the controls. On the Monday before the opener, Favre addressed his teammates about his decision to sign with Minnesota, including the on-again, off-again summer dance that resulted in some tension among the Vikes.
"All of the stuff that went on prior to training camp and up until I signed, I wanted to address," Favre said a couple of days later. "I felt like it came across well because it was from the heart."
Says Peterson, "It's good that he did that, but he didn't have to do it for me. It's hard to think that somebody in the locker room wouldn't want Favre as their quarterback, but there probably is somebody. I already know why he's here. It's the same reason [I'm here]. Anybody else thinking otherwise, they don't need to be in there."
Peterson has clearly hit his stride—in the backfield, in the locker room, on Madison Avenue—but his influence extends only so far. After some deliberation, the Vikings' public relations staff advised Peterson not to try to talk that boyfriend into marriage, lest the union fail and Peterson be blamed.
Carrying a 39-year-old quarterback and a talented offense to a Super Bowl will have to suffice.