METAIRIE, La. — It was late April, time for Adrian Peterson to make a decision about his future.
He was back home in Houston after a free-agent visit to New Orleans. He was praying for a sign. Saints? Patriots? Seahawks? Another team? Then one day he was looking for a duffel bag in his home office. Things were out of place because the house was being cleaned, and he couldn't find the bag. So instead he grabbed a black leather bag he'd had for years. It had a piece of tape on it. Peterson had forgotten why it was there. He tore off the tape.
And there was his sign.
The logo of the New Orleans Saints.
For many, it is difficult to think of Peterson representing anything other than the Vikings. Over the past decade, he was the Vikings. When you thought of the Vikings, you thought of Peterson going through defenses like wildfire through dry brush.
Until the last few years. In 2014, he played only one game as a result of a suspension stemming from child abuse charges. Then last season, he tore his meniscus in the second game. He returned late in December but was not himself.
And without Peterson as its driving force, the team's offense evolved. His coaches came to think he didn't fit as well as he used to. He was closer to the end than the beginning. His contract called for him to make $18 million. When they chose to make him a free agent, it wasn't even a surprise. No one reacted harshly to the decision. Not media. Not fans. And not Peterson.
"It was time for a change of scenery," he says. "I wanted to do something different. I knew a change was needed."
There was no doubt he no longer belonged in Minnesota.
He belonged in New Orleans. But why? Surely the answer wasn't just a duffel bag.
The reason has something to do with Sean Payton.
It was Payton who drove the Saints' pursuit of Peterson, and Payton who is trying to derive something special from him.
When Peterson found out the Saints were interested in him, he called his old college teammate Clint Ingram, a linebacker who had spent time with the Saints.
"I told him Coach Payton was one of the sharpest coaches I've ever been around," Ingram says.
During Peterson's recruiting visit to the Saints, Payton met him for breakfast at the Ritz Carlton. The pancakes, eggs over medium and hash browns from the buffet went down easy, as did the sales pitch from Payton.
"I loved his honesty," Peterson says. "He was straightforward. I could sense he really wanted me to be a part of the organization. All coaches want to win, but you can see it more with him. He's very passionate about what he does. About 98 percent of the time, he was doing the talking."
Payton also asked some questions. He wanted to know Peterson's favorite runs. Peterson's answer? Power and Duo. These have not been staples of the Saints' running game in the past. But that might be changing, and luckily the team has a fullback in John Kuhn who can help make it work.
"There are certain runs that he values over others," Payton says. "Well then I value them, too."
Kuhn says the best thing about Payton is he looks to create matchups based on his personnel.
For nearly every game of his career, Peterson has been the focal point of the opposing defense. That should change with Drew Brees as his quarterback. Payton wonders what Peterson can do against seven in the box.
He'd also like to see what he can do after catching a pass in space against lone defensive backs. Peterson is reputed to be a rundown player only with average ability as a receiver and pass protector. The Saints present an opportunity to show this pony can turn more than one trick.
Peterson has had more than 400 receiving yards only once in his career. This year, he'd like 500.
"I was attracted to playing with Brees, a guy who is good at distributing the ball to different players," Peterson says. "I know in this system, I'll get some opportunities to catch the ball in space. Drew Brees, he'll get the ball to me."
If anyone can reimagine Adrian Peterson, it's the head coach of the Saints.
The reason has something to do with his willingness to accept a different role.
When Peterson was a toddler, the story goes, his father gave him a nickname: AD, because he could go All Day. The nickname followed him to Oklahoma and Minnesota, and came to describe him as a running back. The more handoffs Peterson took, the more effective he became. Nobody was better at wearing down a defense and closing out a game in a fourth quarter.
Now, on the Saints' practice field, and in the locker room and weight room, teammates are calling him something else: "AP."
"I don't mind it," Peterson says. "AD reminds me of my childhood. AP sounds more professional and grown."
The nickname change is appropriate because his new role probably won't be about going all day. On his free-agent visit, Peterson also met with Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and a few other front-office men. They sat in a private area in Emeril's, and the conversation wandered—Peterson's love for the game, why the Saints were a potential fit, Peterson's appreciation for the French Quarter and local cuisine, and his experience with the Vikings.
Loomis asked about what kind of role Peterson hoped for. Peterson said he wanted to contribute to helping the team win, whatever way that was. "It was a good answer," Loomis says.
Peterson never brought up number of carries. "I don't need all those carries to be my best," Peterson says. "I don't think I became a great player by having to have 20 or 30 carries to get 200 yards. If they feed it to me, hey, I'm going to eat. Whenever I get opportunities, I'll take advantage of them."
I don't think I became a great player by having to have 20 or 30 carries to get 200 yards. If they feed it to me, hey, I'm going to eat. Whenever I get opportunities, I'll take advantage of them. —Adrian Peterson
He is joining a team that already has a 27-year-old former Pro Bowl running back in Mark Ingram, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season, and a third-round draft pick in Alvin Kamara, who is expected to become the Saints' new Darren Sproles.
Peterson has had more than 300 carries in a season four times. Times have changed, though.
"He'll probably get half of that," says former Saints running back Deuce McAllister, now the color commentator for Saints radio broadcasts. "If he gets [about 150 carries], he'll get probably 700 to 1,000 yards."
Peterson has faith that Payton will play the best running back for the situation. What he doesn't say—but what is clear—is that he believes he will be the best running back in most situations.
Of course, in July, Payton is keeping his options open. He says he will determine how to play his backs on a game-by-game, situation-by-situation basis. But he also said if a runner is feeling it, he will stick with him. And there could be more carries to be had than in the recent past, as Payton is expressing a desire to run the ball more. It could benefit both Peterson and the Saints to use him selectively.
The situation has Payton channeling Toby Keith.
"There's that song," Payton says. "I ain't as good as I once was. But I'm as good once as I ever was."
The reason Peterson is here has something to do with his desire to go where others cannot.
On his first day in the Saints' weight room, Peterson approached a group of players doing box jumps.
"We were feeling pretty good about ourselves because we were jumping at a pretty good height," Kuhn says.
Peterson eyed the box, which was 42 inches high. He lined up to jump. And instead of jumping with two legs, as his teammates had, he nailed the jump with just his left leg. And then he did it with his right—the one that was surgically repaired last season.
His teammates were stunned. "That was kind of the, 'Hey, I'm here,' moment," Kuhn says.
There had been a similar moment a couple of weeks earlier at O Athletik, the Houston gym that Peterson owns. His trainer, James "Coop" Cooper, tested Peterson in a superset of four exercises. First, bench pressing 300 pounds. Peterson nailed 12 reps. Then pullups. Peterson hit 20. Next was bench pressing 225 pounds. Peterson made it to 20 presses. Last was squatting 425 pounds. Peterson did it eight times. All with no rest between sets.
"That's a really good PR (personal record)," says Cooper, who has been working with Peterson for eight years. "He normally wouldn't be near that kind of PR until May, and he was there in late March."
"These guys are no jokes," Cooper says of the younger backs.
But Cooper says Peterson is either ahead of them or even with them in terms of speed, cutting ability and being able to come out of breaks.
"There are the NFL players, there are the NFL starters, and then there is the upper-echelon 1 percent," Cooper says. "He is still going to be in that upper 1 percent."
On the subject of percentages, Peterson's body fat is 6 percent after some dietary changes, and his weight is holding steady where he wants it: between 215 and 219. Even in a locker room full of professional athletes, he is still physically impressive.
Still, he's 32 years old. No one knows if this is the September of his NFL life, or the December.
Time is cruel to all. It is especially cruel to running backs and theoretically crueler still to running backs who run upright and seek out contact. Peterson has endured four knee sprains, an ankle sprain, a foot sprain, a broken foot, a groin tear, a separated shoulder and a broken collarbone.
Running backs aged 32 or older have rushed for 1,000 yards only 12 times in NFL history, according to Pro Football Reference's player finder.
Peterson has seen the statistic and is undeterred. If Frank Gore ran for 1,025 yards last season at 33, Peterson believes he can run for twice as much.
"I try to rewrite history and give people a new perspective," he says. "I don't allow the world to box me in. I look at it as an opportunity to show what God has given me."
His teammates and coaches rave about how exceptional he has looked in workouts and practices.
Regardless of how talented anyone is, at some point it fades or diminishes. I don't think it's happened for him yet. I really don't. And that's exciting. I think he's physically capable of giving us a very, very high, elite-level performance. —Sean Payton
"There are some things I've seen him do that are rare," Payton says. "Regardless of how talented anyone is, at some point it fades or diminishes. I don't think it's happened for him yet. I really don't. And that's exciting. I think he's physically capable of giving us a very, very high, elite-level performance. I feel that way. It's a little different with this player than the norm with age."
The reason has something to do with the hunger to prove himself.
The night before Peterson's scouting combine workout in 2007, his half-brother and roommate, Chris Paris, was murdered. The next day, Peterson wrote Paris' name on his cleats and ran a 4.40 40-yard dash.
After breaking his collarbone his final season at Oklahoma, Peterson went to the Vikings and was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
He responded to tearing his ACL in 2011 by returning in nine months, winning the NFL's Most Valuable Player award and coming within eight yards of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record.
A year after being accused of child abuse and suspended by the NFL for most of the season, Peterson led the NFL in rushing and led his team to an NFC North title at the age of 30.
|Adrian Peterson career stats|
Peterson's pastor, Calvin Simmons of Impact Network, has discussed Proverbs 24:16 with Peterson frequently. "For though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again…"
"When it comes to Adrian Peterson, you will never get to see the level of greatness manifest out of him unless he is being faced with some form of adversity," Simmons says. "With that I think we are getting ready to see a great year of Adrian."
In previous years, Peterson did not participate in Vikings offseason workouts, instead staying in Houston and working out on his own. After signing with the Saints, he missed just one voluntary workout session, according to Payton.
After the Saints' workouts were finished, Peterson returned to O Athletik and vowed to be in his best shape ever when training camp opens.
Physically, he is a generational talent, bigger, stronger and faster than the rest. But what has made him one of the most outstanding running backs ever is his warrior spirit. You can feel it in his famous handshake. You can appreciate it in his runs that crush the wills of proud defenders. You can see it in his intense eyes when he's asked if he's lost anything.
"Yes, the doubt motivates me," Peterson says. "I'd be lying to say it doesn't. You want to do things people say you can't do."
At the age of seven, Peterson saw his nine-year-old brother Brian run over and killed by a drunk driver. At the age of 13, he saw his father, Nelson, sentenced to 10 years of prison for laundering drug money.
This is a hard man. But he's never been more vulnerable.
Peterson acknowledges even he doubts at times. "You might go through a stage when you doubt yourself," he says. "It's an everyday battle mentally. But if you let anything manifest, it can hurt you. So I always try to keep those thoughts down."
A touch of self-doubt is healthy. It keeps Peterson on edge. He said he's able to combat doubt with "consistency of focus." His focus is as sharp as he can remember.
That black duffel bag with the Saints logo? Turns out Clint Ingram had been given the bag on a free-agent visit to the Saints, and he left it with Peterson when he was staying with him in Houston. At some point, Peterson needed to use the duffel but didn't want to be seen with a Saints bag, so he covered up the logo and never gave it another thought.
"I didn't know it," Peterson says, "but I had been riding with the Saints for a long time."
There was a time when Peterson was upset with the Vikings for the way they handled the child abuse charges. He is over that. He enjoyed being a Viking and is not bitter about his departure or what led to it. He speaks of his love for many in the organization. But he was ready for something new.
Logic might have told Peterson to try to win a Super Bowl with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, or to become the workhorse successor to Marshawn Lynch in a run-heavy offense in Seattle. He visited both teams. He said other teams made offers, too. Some of the options looked better on paper than the Saints.
But there is a reason Peterson is here. It has nothing to do with the jazz or gumbo.
"As humans, we like to handle things on our own," he says. "We can get impatient, try to come up with our own solutions. If you trust God, he will provide for you. That is an area I have grown in, not trying to do things my way and let things go the way God's plan wants them to go. I've always had faith in God, knowing he will provide my needs. But I never really in certain cases let him lead. I was always right there beside him trying to do things my way."
Peterson has grown since a challenging time in his life that began in 2013. In October of that year, Peterson's two-year-old son died as a result of injuries sustained from a beating from the boyfriend of the child's mother. Peterson learned the boy was his son a few weeks prior to his death and never met him before he died. Eleven months later came the indictment for reckless or negligent injury to a child after hitting his four-year-old son with a switch. Peterson pleaded no contest to a reckless assault charge and reached a plea deal.
Since then Peterson has tried to be a better father to his children, A'deja Chanel, 12, Anthony, 9, Arianna, 7, Adrian Jr., 5, and Axyl, who will be two in September.
"I always thought I was a loving parent to my kids," he says. "But going through that situation gave me the opportunity to think about it a lot more. Not even the discipline part, but the involvement and the importance of the involvement. I've always given time to my kids, given my situation. But that drew me closer to my kids. I've invested more time with them. It's understanding where they are in life, the transitions they are going through. They need to hear my voice more. In that aspect, it helped me out a lot."
Simmons, who has counseled Peterson three or four times a week for about the past three years, says Peterson has become a father who celebrates his children.
"There was a door that opened to him to learn different ways how to discipline and how to develop and nurture in the realm of being more of a communicator, even when times are tough," Simmons says. "Anyone who is close to him will tell you he's an awesome dad."
New Orleans is a four-and-a-half-hour drive down I-10 to Houston, where Peterson makes his home. United and Spirit have nonstop flights that can get him there in less than an hour. He can spend more time with his family living here.
It is possible, Peterson believes, to mature as a man while staying youthful as a running back. But it might not be possible without the right environment. In New Orleans, he isn't burdened by whatever he once was. On an open-minded team in an open-minded city, he is starting again.
"It's ironic I'm here playing for the Saints with all the things I've been through the past five years of life," Peterson says. "I'm not perfect by any means, but I always had faith in God. They say a saint is just a sinner who got back up. I always got back up, and now I'm here."
The reason Peterson is here isn't to recapture something that was.
It's to create something that's new.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.