The letter camefrom somewhere in Illinois, addressed to the Minnesota Vikings, ATTENTION:PURPLE JESUS. This was not the usual plea for a signed photo or a sweaty sockbut a request for Adrian Peterson to channel his inner Dr. Phil. "I knowthe season is approaching and everyone is very busy," begins the note froma woman who figured the best way to get her boyfriend of five years to marryher 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 thirdseason as a pro, Peterson has suddenly become everyone's wanted man, runningshirtless in a television ad for the NFL, in slow-motion black-and-white forNike and full tilt out of the backfield for the Vikings. Globally, he is fastbecoming the face of football, real and fantasy. Locally, in Eden Prairie,Minn., he remains the neighborhood big brother who plays catch with schoolkidsand collects the cookies and doughnuts they leave at his doorstep.
"The kidsalways bring the best snacks," says Peterson's uncle Chris Smith, who livespart time with the running back in the large suburban house. "I'm like, 'Wecan't eat that stuff. We're trying to stay sexy.'"
On Sunday,Peterson displayed his own gifts in a 34--20 victory at Cleveland BrownsStadium, tearing up the Browns' defense with the kind of speed and violentrunning that harks back to the game's greats. With Jim Brown in attendance andBrett Favre making his first start for Minnesota, it was Peterson who displayedthe greatest star power, toughing out 180 rushing yards on 25 carries and threetouchdowns, including a 64-yard dash down the left sideline that featured fivebroken tackles and two stiff arms.
He played throughdehydration and a bloody gash on his left arm, and spent a portion of halftimevomiting. For Peterson, it was worth it. Cleveland was one of the six teamsthat passed on drafting him out of Oklahoma in 2007 because of concerns abouthis durability.
More than Favre orany member of Minnesota's defense, Peterson is the heart of a 48-year-oldfranchise that's still in pursuit of its first Super Bowl trophy. Is he thebest running back in the NFL? "I answer that question this way,"Peterson says. "I want people to remember me as the best player to everplay the game. When you think about football, I want my name to pop up in yourhead."
Three days beforethe game in Cleveland, Peterson was sitting on his living room couch eating asteak with baked potato and broccoli, prepared by Geji McKinney, who is boththe team's and his personal chef. The television was tuned to the NFL openerbetween the Steelers and the Titans, and Peterson was relishing every hardhit.
"If I couldplay any other position, it would be safety," he explained. "SometimesI just want to hit somebody. One of these days you're going to see me as thegunner on special teams. You watch."
At 24, Petersoncan't help but exude the confidence of a world-class athlete entering hisprime. Last month, after watching Usain Bolt set the world record in the 100meters, Peterson turned to his uncle and offered this assessment: "Now I'mnot saying I'd have beat him, but I'd have been in the race."
Vikings receiverSidney Rice recalled the day last winter when Peterson tried to play Supermanwith quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's Lexus. The three players were driving onthe interstate after dinner when a tire blew.
"He didn'twant to call a tow truck," Rice says of Peterson. "He wanted to fix ithimself. He gets out, starts lifting the car and going, 'Pull, pull,pull.'"
The tire didn'tbudge. Peterson reluctantly lowered the car. Finally, they called thetruck.
"He has such aunique combination of Southern humility and Texas low-key charm, but it'sbacked with a fierce, fierce pride," says Bill Henkel, who representsPeterson at 10 Sports Marketing. "Sometimes it takes him two hours to getdressed. I tell him all the time, 'If I had a body like that, I wouldn't own ashirt.'"
Peterson's prideis most evident on game days and on the practice field, where he and rookiePercy 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 Vikingsto worry about.) Coach Brad Childress has had to chase Peterson out of thehuddle when he tries to sneak in extra reps.
"He's one ofthose 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 YearOne. He's developed patience, knowing how to put people on our offensive line'sblocks. There are plenty of backs who can get you that five yards, but whenyou've got it blocked exactly, can they get 15 to 20? Are they able to go allthe 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 andappearances. This past off-season, after rushing for 1,760 yards, he mostlysplit his training time between the Twin Cities and his native Texas, and cutdown on his nonfootball activities.
The exceptionswere 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. Buthis most meaningful stop was at the L.A. home of Jim Brown, who had invited himover to discuss their craft for a piece in the Sporting News. Also present wasPeterson's father, Nelson, who spent eight years in federal prison onmoney-laundering charges before his release in October 2006, during Peterson'sjunior year at Oklahoma.
"When his dadleft, it really affected Adrian, not having him around," says Smith."Now they can do things together, and he's better for it." Petersoncalls the trip to visit Brown a blessing, for reasons greater than Brown'sanointing him as the best running back in football. "My dad watched JimBrown play," he says.
Peterson got his25th and final carry against the Browns with a little more than six minutesleft and Minnesota leading by two touchdowns. Starting eight yards behind theline of scrimmage at the Vikings' 36, Peterson took a handoff from Favre andshot the left-side gap between tackle and guard. He shook off Browns freesafety 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 tossedcornerback Eric Wright out-of-bounds with the heel of his gloved righthand.
"I was rightbehind him, and I saw him grab [Wright] by the head," says Rice. "Itwas like he just redid that Nike Pro Combat commercial."
Cornerback BrandonMcDonald had two shots to bring Peterson down as his legs started churningagain, but Peterson separated himself with a stiff arm at the 36. From there hestreaked 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'twant to run by someone, he wanted to feel them," says tight end VisantheShiancoe. "I guess they felt him."
If the Vikings'first game of the season was supposed to be a test of Favre's arm, leadershipand place in the locker room, Peterson reminded all parties that he remains theteam's locomotive regardless of who's at the controls. On the Monday before theopener, Favre addressed his teammates about his decision to sign withMinnesota, including the on-again, off-again summer dance that resulted in sometension among the Vikes.
"All of thestuff that went on prior to training camp and up until I signed, I wanted toaddress," Favre said a couple of days later. "I felt like it cameacross 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 hardto think that somebody in the locker room wouldn't want Favre as theirquarterback, but there probably is somebody. I already know why he's here. It'sthe same reason [I'm here]. Anybody else thinking otherwise, they don't need tobe in there."
Peterson hasclearly hit his stride—in the backfield, in the locker room, on MadisonAvenue—but his influence extends only so far. After some deliberation, theVikings' public relations staff advised Peterson not to try to talk thatboyfriend into marriage, lest the union fail and Peterson be blamed.
Carrying a39-year-old quarterback and a talented offense to a Super Bowl will have tosuffice.
"If I could play any other position, it would besafety," says Peterson. "Sometimes I just want to hitsomebody."
"He didn't want to run by someone," saysShiancoe. "He wanted to feel them. I guess they felt him."
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
JUST SICK Bloodied, bandaged and weak from throwing up at halftime, Peterson still had the Browns at his mercy.
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
¬†MADE FOREACH OTHER Favre says he's never played with a back like Peterson; now the twoare paired in a Super Bowl--caliber backfield.
[See caption above]
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
MARKET MAKER It helps that the newest face of the NFL is a smiling one, as Peterson's love for the game shines through clearly.