First there was the physical pain. It turns out that the experience of having a 201-pound man dive into your planted left leg from the side, forcing your knee to bend in a way knees are not made to bend, is excruciating. "I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy," says Adrian Peterson, the owner of the knee in question.
Worse, though, was the psychological pain. Even as he fell to the turf against the Redskins at FedEx Field last Dec. 24, Peterson—who was 26 and had been at the peak of his physical ability a second before—began to understand what had just happened to him in the penultimate game of a desultory 3--13 season. "I knew my ACL was outta there," he says, a diagnosis that would be confirmed on the field by a test called the Lachman maneuver, administered by Vikings team doctor Joel Boyd. A tear of the anterior cruciate ligament is among the cruelest injuries any athlete can suffer. It takes most running backs a full calendar year to return to the field and another year to regain their previous form. Even in an age in which surgical and rehabilitation techniques have seen major advances, many backs are never the same, and Peterson knew it. "Why me?" he said repeatedly as he gripped the arm of the team's athletic trainer, Eric Sugarman.
As Peterson sat with both legs propped up on a padded table in the visitors' training room, straining to follow the events of the game through the distant roars of the crowd, with his left knee burning and throbbing and entombed in a brace, he thought about two things. The first was a boy he had noticed in the stands when he ran out onto the field two hours earlier. The fan was wearing a replica of Peterson's purple number 28 jersey and held a sign saying that what he wanted for Christmas was the running back's autograph. "I get a good feel on people when I see their face, their expression, the energy they have," Peterson says. "He was full of joy and happy."
"I'll get you after the game," Peterson had called out to the boy. "I promise. I'll get you."
He would not be on the field after the game, of course, so Peterson asked Jeff Anderson, the Vikings' VP of communications, to get the jersey from the boy and bring it to him. MERRY CHRISTMAS 2011, he wrote on the 2, and signed his name, careful not to twist too much while he wrote as to disturb his destroyed knee. On the white 8 he inscribed ALL DAY/GOD BLESS.
Peterson's second thought was that he would not just return to being the best running back in the world, which he'd been less than an hour before; he'd be even better, and he'd do it not in two years, or in one, but in 263 days—in time for the Vikings' 2012 season opener. "It was remarkable to see how quickly he was able to digest it, get his mind around it and move forward," says Sugarman. "I don't remember anyone ever looking forward that quickly."
"My mind just clicked over," Peterson explains. "I'll come back. I'll bounce back better."
Now that Peterson is 14 games into one of the most stunning comebacks any NFL player has ever made, now that, after a phenomenal 212 yards on 24 carries in a 36--22 win at St. Louis, he is just 188 yards from becoming the seventh man to rush for 2,000 in a season and has a realistic chance of breaking Eric Dickerson's NFL single-season record of 2,105, the world knows what that young boy learned last Christmas Eve: If Adrian Peterson says he's going to do something, he will do it.
The stories Peterson's teammates like to swap about him make it sound as if the Vikings' locker room is home to some sort of benevolent superalien. He is one of them—Peterson is extremely well-liked, even though he is the big star on a humble, small-market team—but he will often do things to remind them that he is different from them, too.
There are, for instance, stories about his diet. He is one of the world's fittest athletes. His body fat is 5.3%, meaning that 208 of the 220 pounds on his 6'1" frame are lean mass, the same, says Vikings strength coach Tom Kanavy, as an average 250-pound linebacker. But Peterson does not just have a sweet tooth—he has a mouth full of them. There was the Bible study session a few years ago to which Peterson brought a tube of raw cookie dough. He proceeded to peel back the wrapper like a candy bar and eat it all. Then there was the legendary snack he consumed on the evening of Oct. 13, 2007, at the team hotel in Chicago. Peterson filled a large Styrofoam takeout container with scoops of ice cream and slices of cheesecake. "He just hammered the whole thing," reports linebacker Chad Greenway. The following afternoon Peterson ran for 224 yards against the Bears. "It's like in Back to the Future when they're dumping garbage into the DeLorean for fuel," says Kanavy, who makes certain to note that these were anomalies and that Peterson's diet is typically very nutritious.
Most of the stories concern his body, and the remarkable things he can do with it. The day after games Peterson likes to squat 405 pounds, but he can lift much more. Once, he walked up to a squat rack that had just been used by a few offensive linemen and was loaded with nearly 600 pounds. "Do you know how much is on that?" Kanavy asked. Peterson shrugged and started his reps.
This past October, Peterson attended the team's annual Halloween party dressed as the Incredible Hulk. People who do not normally see him out of pads asked where he'd gotten those extraordinary prosthetics for his upper body. There were no prosthetics—just a few coats of green paint. "Looked way better than Lou Ferrigno did," says Greenway.
The true source of Peterson's power, however, is his legs, which force you to expand your conception of what a human being's legs can look like. "They're like a horse's," says Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder of Peterson's lower limbs, which are impossibly muscled and so riddled with popping veins that it looks as if they've been vacuum-packed into his skin. They're also crosshatched with dozens of scars, which, like those on a great chef's fingers, indicate the nature of his life's work. "It's from constantly just churning through people," says Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. "Being a rough kid, too," Peterson adds.
Peterson's most prominent scars are on his left knee, and he acquired those from the scalpel of famed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews in Birmingham just six days after the injury. There are two scars, because Peterson also ruptured his MCL on that afternoon against the Redskins. Most ACL patients wait several weeks for surgery, so that the swelling can subside, but Peterson, with Week 1 in mind, insisted on going under the knife as soon as possible. Andrews operated on the morning of Dec. 30. That afternoon he explained to Peterson that he most likely wouldn't be able to even lift his damaged leg from a seated position for two weeks. "Like this?" Peterson asked, as he lifted the leg. "Like that," Andrews said.
One of the most important parts of rehabilitation, Sugarman explains, is managing the athlete's expectations so that he doesn't get discouraged during the painful and grueling process. "Some mornings I might have been like, I'm not sure how he's going to do," Sugarman says, of Peterson. "By the end of the day there was never a doubt. He blew away every landmark, every goal we had."
By April, four months after his surgery, Peterson had grown weary of competing just against his own healing body. One day he wistfully watched as his teammates ran a set of 16 gassers—sprints from sideline to sideline and back, each of which must be completed in under 16 seconds—as part of their off-season conditioning program. He asked Sugarman if he could join them. "I say, 'Adrian, that's not a good idea,'" Sugarman recalls. "He says, 'Listen, I'm not foolish, I'll be under control. Let me get two reps with those guys.' He did it, and he blew everyone away."
Peterson did not play a down during the preseason, and he was officially listed as questionable for the season opener, at home against Jacksonville. But he started, and soon Toby Gerhart, his backup since 2010, knew that he and the bench were destined to spend another season together. "Going into the year, everybody was talking about how I'm going to be splitting carries with him, how I'm a big fantasy sleeper," Gerhart says. "The first game, it was obvious—he was ready."
Peterson ran for 84 yards on 17 carries against the Jaguars, but, as the Vikings expected, he has improved as he has continued to get stronger. Over the season's first four games Peterson averaged 83 rushing yards. The next four, he averaged 111. In his last six he has averaged an astounding 173, putting nearly a quarter mile between him and Marshawn Lynch, the NFL's second-leading rusher, with only history ahead of him.
Peterson is back to doing what only he can do, making Tecmo Bowl runs that are unpredictable even to opponents who think they might have discovered a hint of a tendency on game film. "When you see him run live, and he makes some crazy cut—in a situation that might have come up in the past, just a different cut—you go, Is that humanly possible?" says Vikings running backs coach James Saxon. Remarkably, those closest to him can see that he is still not entirely right. "You can tell he's not 100 percent," says Antoine Winfield, a 35-year-old cornerback who has been with the Vikings since 2004, three years before Peterson's rookie season. "He's not as explosive coming in and out of his cuts as I've seen him. That'll come."
In fact, when Peterson examines his legs—those rippling, scarred-up legs—he's not happy with what he sees. "I'm looking at my legs all the time, and I can see how much more defined my right one is," he says. "Knowing my body, knowing how much stronger it's going to become, that's how I know I'm going to continue to get better." This seems like a good time for a reminder that Peterson, in his current form, needs to average 147 yards in the next two games to break the 28-year-old single-season rushing record and is on pace to become just the fourth man in history, after O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, to average more than 120 yards per game and 6.0 per carry. What would "better" even look like?
In the shadow of the roller coasters inside the Mall of America, 20 restaurants have laid out tables overflowing with their best dishes for Taste of the Vikings, the team's annual charity event, held this year on Nov. 19, during Minnesota's bye week. But when the doors open at 7 p.m., the guests, who'd paid $150 apiece, run not for barbecued meats, sliders and cupcakes. They run for Adrian Peterson.
The first 50 people to line up inside and pay an extra $50 can have their photo taken with the running back. Ponder will be in the frame too, but he is under no illusions. "Everyone wants to come see him," Ponder says. "It's fine. It's fun."
Earlier in the day Peterson had asked Anderson how long he had to stay at this mandatory event. But once it got going, he looked like there was nowhere else he would rather be. "I always see the kids, the fans, their faces light up," he says. "You want to spend extra time."
"I'll tell you what: Adrian's a real schmoozer, man," Ponder says. Ticket holders approach timidly, bearing Vikings helmets and jerseys and scraps of paper, and Peterson signs each item with a flourish. He has a compliment for everybody. He tells people with glasses that he likes their frames and asks where he can buy a pair. He admires an older woman's coiffure. "She had some nice, red hair," Peterson says. "You don't really see redheads that much." For each photo he leans in closer and smiles more broadly than he had for the last.
Supremely talented athletes can be selfish with their gifts. They will display them but haughtily make it clear that they are doing so for themselves alone, and off the field or the court they live behind gates and tinted windows and velvet ropes. Peterson is not that way. While his singular gifts are his own—he was born with them (his father, Nelson, and mother, Bonita Jackson, were both decorated amateur athletes), he works to exploit them, he has suffered for them—he wants to share them. He wants to allow people—and not just his parents and siblings and friends, including his girlfriend, Ashley, and their 16-month-old son, Adrian Jr., and his eight-year-old daughter, Adeja, who lives in Texas, but everyone—to make his joy their joy.
The last photo snapped, Peterson walks slowly through the Taste of the Vikings event trailed by a growing crowd. He is wearing a brown plaid dress shirt with a white collar buttoned all the way up. His left cuff is monogrammed with the letters AD. They stand for All Day, the nickname his father gave him when he was a tireless toddler. Peterson stops to talk about the shape of his career, and what the future might hold. He is 27 now—not old for a great running back, but not young, either. Brown retired at 29. Sanders retired at 31. Surely All Day has reached high noon?
"I'm still in the morning," Peterson says. "I feel like I can play 10, 12 more years. You look at Ray Lewis, London Fletcher, Charles Woodson, Antoine Winfield on our team—there are a lot of guys who have played in the league for a long time and are still getting it done."
None of those guys, it is pointed out, is a running back. "Yeah, it's a different beast, with the wear and tear on your body. But I feel good, man." He shrugs.
"If he says he wants to play 10 more years, if there's anybody who can do it, it'll be him," says Leslie Frazier, the Vikings' coach.
Peterson has other plans, too. He has spoken with Magic Johnson to get advice on becoming a socially conscious entrepreneur. And he wants to run the 400 meters for Team USA at the Rio Olympics in 2016. "People look at me crazy," says Peterson, who as a high schooler in East Texas clocked an official (though wind-aided) 10.33 seconds in the 100-meter dash, and who swears his personal best is 10.19. "I just sit back and smile."
The team security guard who has been assigned to Peterson looks jittery, as the circle of fans surrounding the Vikings' star has expanded and is inching closer. He and the guard decide on their exit route, but then the player spots three little boys, looking up hopefully. "Let me take a picture with these guys, though," he tells the guard as he approaches Benjamin and Noah Chung and their friend Matthew Lee. "How you guys doing?" he asks. He leans in and smiles.
Peterson knows there might come a time when people are no longer interested in watching him, in being close to him, in sharing what he has, if only for a moment. But not yet, not nearly yet.
He is 27 now. Surely All Day has reached high noon? "I'm still in the morning," Peterson says. "I feel like I can play 10, 12 more years."
Peterson is back to doing what only he can do, making Tecmo Bowl runs that force you to wonder, Is that humanly possible?
For rare photos of Adrian Peterson, as well as Peter King's MMQB, Chris Burke's Must-Win Watch and complete coverage of the season's final two weeks, go to SI.com/mag
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
FORM AND FUNCTION Peterson struck a pose last Friday in Minnesota, two days before gashing the Rams for 212 yards in a road win that kept the Vikings in the playoff picture.
THE LONG RUN Peterson spent last New Year's Eve in a hospital bed (left) plotting his return; four months later he was doing sprints with teammates, and by early December against Green Bay (21 carries, 210 yards) he was in full stride.
BRIAN PETERSON/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.COM (ACTION)
[See caption above]
LIFE SIGNS The scar from Peterson's ACL surgery joined dozens of others that crosshatch his legs, markers of his brutal profession.