They were country, the father says, and country meant you didn’t cry, you didn’t run to your mama, and you didn’t feel the pain. You took your hurt, and you swallowed it whole.
And so on a lost afternoon more than two decades ago, Nelson Peterson brought his 6-year-old son, Adrian, to a football field in the east Texas town of Palestine, intent on teaching a lesson learned the only way many people from that part of the world knew how. He dressed young Adrian in a football helmet and pads, placed a ball in the child’s hands and had another 6-year-old run as hard as he could at Adrian, knocking him to the ground.
They did this again and again and again, until the son understood a truth the father had found for himself many years before.
“Be the one to initiate the force of the attack, instead of being the receiver,” Adrian Peterson says softly.
Want to know how Peterson could lie on the turf in New Orleans two Mondays ago with an ankle already sprained, a knee hyperextended to the point of wobbling and a right shoulder dislodged at a garish angle, then run for 97 yards against the Carolina Panthers six days later? He did what he had always done when such inconveniences came up. He wrapped the ankle tight, flexed his knee until he could run and popped the shoulder back into place. Right there on the field.
“Once I realized it was out, it was kind of stuck and it was kind of jammed there,” he says of the shoulder. “Bam! I shoved it in there quick.”
A smile spreads across his face.
“It felt 10 times better, immediately,” he says.
He is sitting in a glass entryway just off the practice fields at the Washington Redskins' facility in Northern Virginia, four days before Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, a beloved team of his youth. There’s nothing that says he should still be in the league, much less playing like he has this season. That the NFL’s 10th all-time leading rusher is carrying the Redskins' offense with 339 yards in five games at 33 years old — an age when every other top back in the modern game has gone into steep decline — is one of football’s more remarkable stories.
“I had a lot of respect for you before we got you. Now it’s off the charts,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden says he recently told Peterson in admiration of the way he has played through pain.
Then again, there may be no tough quite like stubborn, cold, resilient east Texas football tough, where the code of the game says you pop a dislocated shoulder back into place and keep running. Nelson Peterson was a basketball star at Idaho State who lost an overseas professional career when a gun his brother was cleaning accidentally discharged, lodging a bullet in his leg. Two doctors told him the leg would have to be amputated, so he looked for new doctors until he found one who said he could keep it.
“If I’m in a s----eating contest, I’m in it to win,” Nelson says by phone from Texas, where he still lives. “Adrian’s the same way. If you tell him ‘you can’t do something,’ he will run through a brick wall until he can.”
When he came to the Redskins in late August, after 10 years with the Minnesota Vikings and a season split between New Orleans and Arizona, Adrian Peterson sprinkled his interviews with proclamations about being the best running back ever and someday breaking Emmitt Smith’s record of 18,355 rushing yards (still 5,740 yards away), almost as if he needed to convince everyone that at 33 — three years past the age when most backs break down — he is as good as before.
He doesn’t do this as much now, sounding less like a boxer trying to sell an imaginary reality and more like the kid from east Texas, taught by his father to deal with whatever comes, pain or not.
You don’t seem surprised when you do big things, someone says to him.
Peterson laughs. His eyes sparkle.
“I don’t, do I?” he says.
From Texas, Nelson Peterson offers an explanation for everything his son has achieved these past few months.
“It’s a love for the game,” Nelson says. “That’s what makes him different from most other players. He really just loves the game.”
An opportunity lost
Love comes from pain, because for all the glamour and the $97 million made over 11 years in football before this fall, Peterson’s life has been hard. Love is the brother, Brian, just one year older than Adrian who was his constant childhood companion. Adrian was bigger and stronger. Brian was leaner and faster. If Adrian was going to play pro football, Brian was going to run in the Olympics.
They were 7- and 8-year-olds living in Dallas by then, beating kids twice their age in local races. Then, one day, a drunk driver hit Brian, knocking the boy into the air. He died soon after.
Peterson never lost the vision of his brother, and when people ask him where he gets this love for football that still drives him after all these years, he says it starts there, with an 8-year-old boy in Dallas who never got to be 9.
“When I played, I was doing it for him as well, because he didn’t have an opportunity,” Peterson says. “It was snatched from him. So I look back and I remember all the potential that he had at a young age. . . . I think about all the things that I accomplished [and] I can only think about what he would have accomplished.”
In a way, this is why Peterson seems to shrug at his age. He sees himself as young, while everyone else in football seems to see him as old. Almost to prove this, he flicks a giant hand through the air mid-thought, catching and squashing a gnat in his palm while finishing his sentence.
“I don’t get caught up in an old or older mentality that a lot of people bring on themselves,” he says. “It ages you. Your thoughts will actually age you. For people to say 30 and 40 is old, people get caught up in that system, and I don’t.
“I’ve never understood what that stigma [of age] is, but that’s kind of how it goes,” he adds. "[The media] kind of put a clock on our back. I don’t allow that to put me in a category. I’m unique. I’m one of a kind. That’s the type of mind-set I have. . . . That’s how I choose to think.”
A label he can’t shake
For many, what happened in 2014 defines Peterson more than any touchdown run or 100-yard game.
He does not talk much about the allegations he abused his then-4-year-old son that led to him pleading no contest to a misdemeanor reckless assault charge that November. He is still angry about missing all but one game of that year while he was first placed on the Vikings' exempt list after his indictment that September and then suspended by the NFL for the rest of the season following his plea.
Peterson doesn’t deny the basic fact of the case: that he disciplined his child with a wooden stick during an offseason visit the boy made from his mother’s home in Minnesota to Peterson’s outside Houston. He told police he was disciplining his son after he had pushed another of his sons off a motorbike video game.
What he, and those close to him, claim is that the public reaction to the incident — in which the son was allegedly left with lacerations on his legs, back, buttocks and scrotum — was representative of a cultural divide between east Texas country, where fathers whupped their sons, and a society that was shocked by such an archaic form of punishment. Evidence, they say, is a grand jury in Montgomery County, Tex., that examined the charges in September of that year and declined to indict him (a “no bill,” in legal terms), only to have the county prosecutor indict him several days later.
But the details of the case upset many who said Peterson had been too violent in his punishment. In suspending Peterson, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell cited “emotional and psychological trauma to a young child who suffers criminal, physical abuse at the hands of his father.” A person in the league told ESPN that the alleged injury to the boy’s testicle was “a specific factor in separating Peterson’s actions from what a civil society would accept as reasonable corporal punishment.” In suspending Peterson, Goodell said he did not believe the running back showed remorse.
When he made the plea agreement, Peterson, who has had six children (including a 2-year-old son who died in 2013 after being beaten by the child’s stepfather), told reporters that “I truly regret this incident,” that “[I] take full responsibility for my actions” and that “I love my son more than anyone can even imagine.” Today, Peterson and those close to him bristle at the label that is forever attached to his name: child abuser.
“It sucks every time I see it,” he says. “But I’m not like, ‘Oh, my God,’ because I’m comfortable. I’m comfortable knowing that every time I go home, my boys run up to me and hug me and say, ‘Hi, Dad.’ And every time they want something, they know who to come to. They know who’s going to be, ‘Yes!’ All my kids know that.”
He shakes his head.
“What p----- me off the most about the whole situation was they had reports I stuffed leaves in his mouth and stuff like that,” Peterson continues. “That was something that was out there: ‘He actually put leaves in his mouth.’ I actually heard someone say that on TV, on ESPN. That right there is probably the only thing that made me so hot. It was like, ‘What monster would do that?’ first off. And why would a grand jury say ‘no bill’ if they knew I stuffed leaves in his mouth and beat on him? No, I don’t care who you are; [a grand jury] will you take you down [for that].
“So that was the thing that aggravated me the most, knowing that I got a no bill in Montgomery County. I sat there in front of eight older, mid-aged, country Americans. Caucasian. And they asked me whatever they wanted to ask me. They were able to go through the due process of getting evidence and investigation from interviews and stuff like that. They spoke to me. They spoke to my wife [who is not the child’s mother]. I told them exactly what happened. They looked me in the eyes as I was saying everything that I was saying, and, as bad as it looked, they knew it wasn’t child abuse and it happened exactly as it happened.”
He sighs and then tells a story about the day he first saw his son after six months of court battles. They were in a therapist’s office, by court order, and the boy crawled up to him and mentioned the name of Peterson’s assistant, a giant of a man they call “Uncle Chris.”
“I figured how I can get to your house,” Peterson says his son whispered into his ear that day. “You can get Uncle Chris to come sneak me away from my mom’s house, and he can just fly me down to Houston so I can be with you.”
For a moment, Peterson is silent.
“Just the face value [of the news reports] made people just go: ‘How can you do this? You should go to jail,’ ” he says. “They didn’t know that when I spanked him he didn’t move one muscle or drop one tear the entire time I was spanking him.”
Keep pushing through
“Losing a whole year, it was a major setback for the things he wanted to accomplish,” Nelson Peterson says. “It was mentally draining, but I think mental toughness had a lot to do with how he dealt with it.”
Keep pushing through the bad times, he always told his son. That was the lesson of life in Palestine.
“You got to deal with the adversity when things don’t go your way,” Nelson says. “A man is built by his adversity. It’s not all about the fame. Anybody can handle the good times. What happens when you have the bad?”
If Peterson thinks about it, there are any number of moments from his past that could have filled him with rage. His brother’s death, the lost season of 2014, his father’s charge that the Vikings “wasted his career by not getting a quality quarterback” aside from one year of Brett Favre. There were the two injury-riddled seasons that left him without a team until August this offseason, leaving him to create his own training camp in his Houston gym — just him and his trainer, James Cooper — while the rest of the NFL ignored him. Even the Redskins weren’t interested in signing him when they invited him for a workout Aug. 20, but they brought him on after he overwhelmed Washington’s decision-makers by running hard and never once asking for water, while the other backs trying out were begging for a drink.
Angry? No. Anger does not drive him, even if it looks that way when he runs, bursting through the line, pulling tacklers downfield.
Instead, he says, he is appreciative. For 10 years, he watched players cycle though Minnesota until the locker room felt like a revolving door. He was happy to never be one of them, to remain in a single place. And Washington? This has been a gift. He is amused when he hears teammates and commentators talking about how he has had to adjust his run-first game to the pass-catching responsibilities of the Redskins' offense.
He loves catching passes, he says. The problem in Minnesota was, aside from Favre, he never had a quarterback who got him the ball. He says he is thankful to play with quarterback Alex Smith, who always looks for his running backs.
“I think he enjoys not being pigeonholed in a role,” Smith had said about him earlier in the day, slyly adding: “That can happen to old guys.”
Now, looking across the Redskins' practice fields, Peterson doesn’t seem all that far from the day his father put him in a helmet and pads and had another kid knock him to the ground.
“His mind-set is he hates to lose,” Nelson Peterson says.
Just like that long-ago day in Texas, Peterson keeps getting back up. Everybody’s expectations can wait. He doesn’t want to go.
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