As Gridiron celebrates its own ‘second coming’ in the shape of a new website, we open the archive to recall, somewhat appropriately, the subject of the magazine’s first-ever cover story… the man they called ‘Purple Jesus’.
By Neil Reynolds
On Christmas Eve 2011, the Minnesota Vikings were playing the Washington Redskins on the road and trying to get through the final two games of a difficult campaign. While the Vikings eventually recorded their third and final victory of the season, they could not have felt any lower when boarding their charter plane bound for Minneapolis.
Season of good cheer?
It most certainly was not, even though Leslie Frazier’s men had fought and scratched their way to a 33-26 victory. The reason for the malaise was the fact that one rather significant seat remained empty on the airplane. The Vikings were heading home for Christmas while their superstar running back, Adrian Peterson, was spending the first of several nights – including New Year’s Eve – in a Washington, D.C. hospital.
On the opening drive of the third quarter, Peterson embarked upon what seemed like a routine run through the line and was felled as the helmet of Redskins safety DeJon Gomes slammed into his left knee, turning his leg at a frighteningly gruesome angle. Three distinct and disturbing popping sounds were heard, according to players on the field at the time. As Peterson was helped off and carted into the locker room, Vikings and NFL fans feared the worst and were right to be concerned. The league’s best running back had torn his ACL and shredded his MCL.
Naturally, some wondered if Peterson would ever be able to return to full strength. How would a player who exuded speed, power and the ability to cut on a dime fare on one severely damaged leg? There were even those who were worried enough to suggest that Peterson might not come back at all.
Pundits and supporters alike should not have worried. A little more than eight months after suffering such a serious and potentially devastating injury, the man rightly dubbed ‘Purple Jesus’ was starting on opening day in a season that will go down as one of the greatest in NFL history. Peterson blew all that “he won’t be fully healthy until his second season back” talk out of the water, rushing for 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns on 348 carries. ‘All Day’ produced one amazing run after the other and seriously threatened Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing mark of 2,105 yards set in 1984. He simply dazzled with a heady mix of speed, power and athletic grace. In short, he was unstoppable.
In an era of the forward pass – and given the extent of Peterson’s injury suffered at the end of the previous season – it was a remarkable feat that gave the perennial Pro Bowler considerable satisfaction, particularly as it came during a year in which the Vikings were able to show vast improvement and return to the playoffs with a 10-6 record. Legendary Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown called Peterson’s return “a miracle” and others were lining up to laud AP’s “neuro-muscular genius”. Some labelled the Texas native “a freak” but most definitely in a good way.
So was his performance made all the sweeter given the nature of his knee injury?
“I would be lying if I told you otherwise,” Peterson admitted to Gridiron magazine. “Coming back from the injury added a little more to what I was able to do in 2012.
“I had so many people doubting me. They were saying, ‘Well, you’re not going to come back, you’re not going to be as strong’ but I was just able to show people that when you remain resilient and you’re passionate and dedicated and put a lot of hard work in, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.”
After going under the knife of renowned orthopaedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews – who also oversaw the rehabilitation of Robert Griffin III this year – Peterson attacked his recuperation with a frenzy. He had no intention of missing any of the 2012 regular season and was in the line-up for a Week 1 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Before he could start putting his body through the mincer, though, Peterson had to get his mind right. And he approached his comeback with the correct attitude.
Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman worked with Peterson every step of the way and explained: “In any long-term rehabilitation there is a period where an athlete goes through some disbelief that he has suffered an injury. In Adrian’s case he attacked it right from the get-go with a positive attitude and he always had that first game of the season circled. He aspired to play in that first game and he did an excellent job.”
Peterson, who is now preparing to embark upon the seventh season of what could very well turn out to be a Hall of Fame career, worked like a trojan in the months leading up to the 2012 campaign. As soon as the doctors gave him the necessary clearance to do so, Peterson spent hundreds of hours punishing his body in the gym, sprinting up and down a steep hill that banks one side of the field at the Vikings’ Winter Park practice facility and running stadium steps. He even took a dip in the pool with nothing more than a little rubber duck to keep him company.
While demonstrating the plethora of equipment at the disposal of Vikings players, Sugarman showed me the hydro-therapy pool earlier this season. It was a place where Peterson did a great deal of vital work returning to full fitness.
“We use water therapy all the time,” Sugarman explained. “Adrian Peterson was in this pool a lot when on the comeback trail from his torn ACL. The treadmill at the bottom of the pool moves at eight-and-a-half miles per hour but the best thing about it is that if I put you in there at chest level, you would only be at 10 per cent of your body weight. So it meant that a guy who was injured and limping like Adrian could come in here and function totally normally because the water took his body weight away. It was a very important tool in getting a very important player back on the field.”
Even though an all-time great like former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice had warned that accelerating recovery from a shredded knee could – as happened to him – result in a cracked kneecap, Peterson drove himself forward and succeeded in being ready for opening day. But do not be fooled into thinking it was the medical equivalent of a walk in the park.
“It was definitely a tough process,” the five-time Pro Bowler stressed. “When I’m able to look back on the whole process and the entire season, I’m able to appreciate it even more than those on the outside because only a few guys know how much hard work I put into my recovery. There were days when I was too sore to even do anything but I was mentally able to push through the pain, knowing it was making me better and pushing me forward to get to where I was trying to be. It was tough but I had a good supporting cast who helped me through some of those tough times and, ultimately, things worked out very well.”
Sugarman, who was a key member of Peterson’s support staff, added: “The mental aspect of any rehabilitation, whether it’s a guy who has an ankle sprain or a guy who has a torn ACL, is really important. Adrian had his head to the ground and he talked a lot about people doubting him and thinking he was not going to achieve his goal. But he got the job done.”
From a physical point of view, Peterson simply wowed those who were close to him. That was never more evident than during an organised team activity in Minneapolis at the end of April 2012. Peterson spent the practice session working out on his own. When the activity on the field concluded, Vikings players were instructed to run “gassers” across the field and, despite being just four months removed from major surgery, Peterson was itching to get involved. Not happy with the effort being put forth by the skill-position players, he asked to join in with the final three sprints for receivers and tight ends. After an undoubtedly nervous coaching and training staff gave him the green light, Peterson duly out-sprinted every receiver on the team. That prompted tight end John Carlson, who joined the Vikings in the 2012 off-season, to say: “At that point, I was wondering if this guy really did have knee surgery four months ago.”
Despite such impressive physical displays, Peterson insists the battle was won inside his head and not in every Herculean muscle in his body.
“I would say it’s more of a mental struggle than a physical one because I feel like your body can do so much but the mind can hold it back,” admitted the man with 8,849 rushing yards to his name. “So this was a challenge for me. I’ve always been a hard worker, dedicated and pushing myself by saying, ‘Hey, there’s somebody else out there who’s working hard, too’. Are you going to be able to say, ‘You out-worked this person’ or ‘No one out-worked me today’.
“The mental aspect is very key in coming back from an injury like I had. There were times when I had to brainwash myself because I was in so much pain or I just didn’t feel like doing the everyday routine. On those days I had to mentally put my mind somewhere else and tell myself ‘Hey, this is what you’re trying to accomplish and this is what you’re trying to do. This is what you have to do to get there – are you going to do it or not?'”
Those words may be easy to say, yet the actions themselves are not so simple. Peterson was called upon to show tremendous resilience and courage in returning to become the eventual Most Valuable Player of the 2012 campaign.
“I had a decision to make and, 99 per cent of the time, I made the decision to push forward,” Peterson admitted. “That was the case, no matter what I was doing, whether it be lifting to get my strength back or flexibility drills to get the range of motion back in my knee. That was so painful trying to break down the scar tissue and loosen up the muscle that had been sitting straight for a couple of months. It was excruciating pain but, mentally, I was able to get through it. It ended up being a pretty spectacular season. It made me realise how blessed I am and it was just a blessing to be involved in a year like that.”
And with Peterson now back to full strength and heading to Wembley in 2013 to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday September 29, conversations can resume about whether he is an all-time great and not just the best of his era.
Vikings head coach Frazier is happy to lead such discussions and he concluded: “I played with a guy in Chicago who many consider to be the greatest of all time in Walter Payton. But to be around Adrian and to see what he has accomplished and is still accomplishing, that is special.
“When you use the word great to describe Adrian Peterson, I don’t think that is an over-exaggeration. This guy is special and he is very unique.”