Adrian Peterson walks out the shower and heads toward his locker. The residual excitement from the game hasn't worn off. After his performance in Washington's Week 6 victory over the Carolina Panthers, his disposition is understandable, if admirable, considering the pain his body feels. When the adrenaline wanes, his body will continue to ache. That's what playing through three injuries—shoulder, ankle and knee—can do.
He gets dressed without a hitch. The shoulder he dislocated and popped back into place during the previous game doesn't hamper him much. Throughout the week, his wife Ashley massaged his shoulder in the middle of the night with her knuckles and elbows to keep the muscles loose. He's still in pain, though it was hard to tell watching him on the field earlier.
"Mind over matter," Peterson says.
His comeback has been one of the biggest surprises this season. He's shown glimpses of what he once was, despite having to share the backfield. Peterson is seventh in the NFL with 723 rushing yards, carrying a Washington offense ranked 25th in total yards per game (331.5) and 27th in points per game (19.7).
Sure, Peterson lacks some of the physical attributes that made him All Day, but he still has the toughness, resilience. Determination. In some ways, the new AP looks like the old AP who rushed for 1,000-yard season after 1,000-yard season and an MVP effort in 2012, in which he came eight yards shy of tying Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record a year after reconstructive knee surgery.
He sounds like the old AP, too. He still obsesses over greatness: "What other reason are you doing it? That's the kind of approach I've always had," Peterson says. "If you're not trying to be the best at what you do in your profession—sewing, painting, a doctor—then why are you doing it? You want to be average? Just go through the motions and be OK?" It's this kind of talk that helped him cement himself as a future Hall of Famer. It's also the reason why, at 33, Peterson felt he had more to do. "I've accomplished some great stuff and plan to continue accomplishing great stuff," he says.
But comebacks, by definition, are about coming to terms with history. And Peterson's history is as complicated as it gets in football. His larger-than-life image on the field remains sullied by his actions off it, the result of a high-profile corporal punishment court case involving his son in 2014.
Peterson knows there are lessons in his flaws. But his return has us watching his every move again, wondering how much the man has grown four years later.
"I've also experienced some trials in life as well that your typical athlete probably doesn't go through—especially one having the platform that I have," he says. "It brings some normalcy to people that fantasize over the Peyton Mannings and the different players that they almost worship to a certain degree. It lets them know that, hey, we're human too."
His legend was outsized from the beginning—so much so that Peterson's life became synonymous with his mythical play on the field. He was frequently described as a man among boys. His numbers backed that up: At Palestine High School, he rushed for 2,960 yards his senior year and committed to Oklahoma as the top-ranked prospect in the 2004 class. He broke records with the Sooners, was selected by Minnesota with the seventh overall pick in 2007 and rushed for over 1,200 yards in each of his first four seasons (he rushed for 1,760 yards in his second season). His production was enough to earn him four trips to the Pro Bowl. He quickly became one of the most prominent players in the NFL, and it seemed as if everybody wanted a piece of AP.
Trent Williams, a close friend who played with Peterson at Oklahoma and now plays alongside him in Washington, was there to witness the crowds chanting Peterson's name in public, asking for a picture or an autograph. "He has the face that everybody recognizes," Williams says. "You don't have to know his name." That fans placed Peterson on a pedestal didn't seem to affect his interactions with them in person. Peterson had been thinking about the role of a professional athlete since college and went out of his way to carry on conversations with strangers in just about any setting.
It brings some normalcy to people that fantasize over the Peyton Mannings and the different players that they almost worship to a certain degree. It lets them know that, hey, we’re human too.
—Adrian Peterson on the trials he's faced in life
"It ain't about how big, strong or fast he is or how talented he is when he has the football in his hand. It's not about the time he rushed for over 2,000 yards coming off a blown-out knee," Williams says of Peterson. "It's the ability to wake up every day and treat complete strangers like friends. It's to walk around the facility with a smile on his face."
Peterson was private by nature. The world, however, was fascinated by his personal tragedies. All that he had endured was part of his folklore. Peterson's older brother, Brian, was killed by a drunk driver right in front of him when he was seven. His father Nelson pleaded guilty to money laundering when Peterson was 13 and served eight years. (Nelson's story and subsequent release from prison made national headlines in 2006. During his father's first opportunity to see him play at Oklahoma, Peterson broke his collarbone.) Peterson's half-brother, Chris, was shot and killed the day before his NFL combine workout. "He's probably had more of his fair share of adversity than anybody else just because of who he is," Williams says. "To just keep your sanity in the midst of all that, to me, that's the most incredible thing."
Gossip blogs routinely prodded into his love life, speculating about Peterson's numerous baby mothers and children. Peterson did his best to ignore the noise. Other indiscretions didn't stick, either. In 2011, a night in a hotel room with two relatives and four women resulted in a police investigation where Peterson was accused of rape. Peterson went as far as to provide evidence at police headquarters, take a polygraph test and a drug test to prove his innocence. Hennepin County prosecutors, who reviewed the 38-page police report, ultimately never charged him. The Star Tribune wouldn't publish its investigation into the matter until 2014.
Peterson's life as a pro didn't come into view until 2013, when he lost his two-year-old son to head injuries stemming from an assault by his mother's then-boyfriend. Peterson, who learned that he was the child's father before, opted not to take time off from the NFL. The decision made headlines. Peterson reasoned at the time, "God wants good to come from it." But it was, he says, one of the most devastating moments in his life. He hadn't been in the child's life because the woman told him the child wasn't his. The woman and her then-boyfriend moved to South Dakota. Peterson never thought to get a paternity test.
"I don't think there would be any guy that would try and track someone down and be like, 'Hey, is that child mine?'" Peterson says. "But when I look back on it, I'm like man. What if I would have? I should have, just to make sure. That was time I could've spent with my child. I could've brought him into my home."
When he spanked his then-four-year-old son with a "switch," a flexible branch used for corporal punishment, he didn't know he would become the face of a national conversation about how to discipline a child. He was just doing what he thought was right. He had grown up in Texas being disciplined in a similar manner. The switch was long with ridges, and Peterson—who was 6'1" and 220 pounds at the time—was a man of tremendous strength. (He once displayed his trademark death-grip handshake on Jimmy Fallon in 2013.) The lashings left numerous cuts and bruises on the child's legs, back, buttocks, ankles and scrotum. (Photos were later released and went viral.) But according to Peterson, the child didn't move or cry during the whupping.
"My kids are different," Peterson says. "They have my blood in them. They have my genes in them." As unbelievable as a child not flinching from being beaten by a professional football player might sound, Peterson says his kids possess extraordinary strength: "It's crazy when you think about it. But for me, it's not. I know my kids. I know what they're capable of, and I know the types of things they do."
Peterson didn't, however, realize how badly he had marked up the child's backside. "When I turned him around and saw it, no one knows how horrible I felt inside because I left marks on my son," Peterson says. He flew the child back up to Minnesota, where his mother lives, for a doctor's appointment on Monday. She warned him how the doctor could raise questions about abuse. "Them people are going to try and press charges on you," Peterson remembers her saying.
Still, he believed in the necessity of what he had done and didn't think much of what others might think. "That was pride," he says. "My pride was telling me I just disciplined my child for what he done wrong." His reasoning wasn't out of step with many Southerners. An ABC News poll published in November, surveying 1,015 adults, found that 62 percent of Southern parents spank their kids compared to 41 percent for the rest of the country. In Texas, corporal punishment is allowed in public schools.
But for a doctor—and mandated reporter—in Minnesota, the injuries to Peterson's son were too ugly to overlook. Local authorities were notified, but the situation fell under the jurisdiction of Montgomery County, Texas. Peterson volunteered to testify before a grand jury—he thought he did nothing wrong—and downplayed the situation to Vikings officials. In September 2014, Peterson was indicted on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child. The Vikings deactivated him soon thereafter.
But the following week, when he was reinstated, a controversy ensued: Peterson's sponsors cut ties with him, Radisson suspended its sponsorship with the Vikings, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, a Democrat, called for Peterson's suspension until the case was resolved, describing his actions as "a public embarrassment to the Vikings organization and the state of Minnesota." One columnist wrote in the Green Bay Press Gazette that Peterson's disciplinary methods were "likely" inherited as a descendent from slaves (a "poorly reasoned and insensitive" reach, the paper later admitted).
The people closest to Peterson—those whom he grew up around and still surrounds himself with—understood where he was coming from.
"That's what keeps you planted," says Williams, who was born and raised in Longview, Texas. "I don't understand how a person can be in so much scrutiny for wanting his child to behave a certain way. If he were to ignore that, and let his child behave in any type of way, and you let the people in the world discipline him and give him consequences for his mistakes, the chances are you could be burying your son prematurely."
Not everyone who knew Peterson was of like mind. Paul Allen, the radio play-by-play voice for the Vikings and sports radio personality in the Twin Cities, was a close friend of Peterson's at the time. The two often hung out on Saturday nights before road games, and Peterson always supported his charities. "It hit me super hard, man," he says. "The fact that the child had to endure what the child had to endure, and Adrian's initial response was that it was how he was raised and that's how things happen in the South."
I don't understand how a person can be in so much scrutiny for wanting his child to behave a certain way. If he were to ignore that, and let his child behave in any type of way, and you let the people in the world discipline him and give him consequences for his mistakes, the chances are you could be burying your son prematurely.
— Washington tackle and longtime friend Trent Williams
Allen, who is a father and grew up receiving spankings with a belt, remembers the difficulty he had accounting for what's best for the team on the field and Peterson's "deplorable" actions off it. "Thousands to tens of thousands of Vikings fans were out on Adrian forever," Allen says.
Something had to be done in response to the blowback. So, the NFL, the Vikings and Peterson agreed to put him on the Commissioner's Exempt List, where he was suspended with pay until the case was resolved. The decision came in the wake of the NFL's other notable national scandal—its botched attempt at meaningfully handling Ray Rice's domestic violence. Peterson's case, violent in nature with criminal consequences, was viewed under a similar microscope.
Once he was removed from the field, Peterson's priority turned to getting back on it. To expedite matters, Peterson pleaded no contest to reduce the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. He believed the ruling would allow him to play again. (Peterson says he had initially received such an offer during the grand jury hearing.) He only needed to pay a $4,000 fine and serve 80 hours of community service. The commissioner kept Peterson on the list, however, and in November suspended him six games without pay, in accordance with the recently enacted "zero tolerance" domestic violence policy.
"You have shown no meaningful remorse for your conduct," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a letter to Peterson after he was notified of his suspension. Peterson says he was "blindsided" by the ruling.
"If I would've known I would be sitting out the whole year, I would've just sat back and said, 'You know what, I'll go to court [to prove innocence],'" Peterson says. "I'll go through the whole process, and we'll do it that way."
Two days after the suspension, he told USA Today: "I won't ever use a switch again."
He played just one game that season.
Peterson rejoined the Vikings on June 2, 2015, for organized team activities (the NFL officially reinstated him on April 17), but it soon became clear that his time in Minnesota was coming to an end. He recorded a league-leading 1,485 rushing yards in 2015, the third-most in his career. In 2016, he suffered a torn lateral meniscus in his knee and was placed on injured reserve after just three games. The Vikings declined to exercise Peterson's $18 million option following the 2016 season; negotiations to renew his deal faltered. Peterson became a free agent for the first time in his professional career.
"For me, I felt like it was time for a change in scenery," Peterson says. "Here I am giving everything I've got, playing through injuries and giving my heart and soul for this organization. I didn't feel like they did that for me during one of the hardest times in my life. But I understand they did it to the best of their ability from a business standpoint."
The Vikings declined to comment.
Allen believes the Vikings went out of their way to support Peterson through a very difficult time, but he hopes for reconciliation on both sides that, at some point, would result in the retirement of Peterson's No. 28 jersey and an induction into the Vikings Ring of Honor.
"He's the greatest running back in the history of a storied franchise," Allen says. "Even though it didn't end the way everyone wanted it to, I still think that honor needs to be recognized."
The next season was an injury-laden blur. After being traded from the Saints, Peterson played just six games with the Cardinals before suffering an annular disk tear in his neck. He tried to fight through it for a few snaps before coming out. He later learned that another hit to his neck could've paralyzed him.
"It could've been worse," Peterson says. "Thank God, because he was covering me while I went back for those couple of plays. Thank God for the body physique that I have to be able to take that type of hit and not crush anything. There's a lot of things I was thankful for, outside of being like, 'Oh, I'm not going to be able to play.' It was bigger than that."
He chose to step back into the limelight in August, when he showed up to fill the huge hole left by rookie running back Derrius Guice, who suffered a torn ACL during the preseason. During his workout, team officials were blown away by his stamina, how effortless his movements looked. "He was not even breathing heavy," Washington coach Jay Gruden said at a press conference. "He's in fantastic shape."
Peterson had been working out at a gym he co-owns with Williams, O Athletik, in Houston. His trainer and longtime friend, James Cooper, designed a "training camp" workout schedule to keep him active. It showed. Washington rewarded him with a one-year deal for the veteran's minimum. In turn, Peterson led the team atop the NFC East heading into Week 12. With six games remaining, he has an opportunity to become the fifth player in NFL history to gain 1,000 rushing yards at age 33 or older (Frank Gore accomplished the feat last season). And he's not going anywhere soon. The team will be relying on him even more after losing Alex Smith for the season on Sunday.
The comeback has given Peterson an opportunity to reflect. After searching for answers for how he ended up in a national scandal, he felt God was exposing his tendency to be prideful. He wanted Peterson to find order in his personal life, which meant reckoning with his promiscuous lifestyle.
"Shoot, I got six kids," Peterson says. "So it's not a secret that women…if anything for me, it's not a drug or anything like that. It was women."
He hopes his situation brought light to the subject of child abuse. But he remains confident that he is not a child abuser. "I understood that, hey, it was a mistake," Peterson says. "It's something that I've regretted. It wasn't my intentions to do that. But it happened."
Four years removed from the trial, he still uses physical forms of punishment to discipline his children—"I had to discipline my son and spank him the other day with a belt," Peterson says—though he employs other techniques as well. He will take away their electronics, place them in different timeouts around the house, have them do wall squats. "There's different ways I discipline my kids," he says. "I didn't let that change me."
There’s different ways I discipline my kids. I didn’t let that change me.
Spankings are sometimes necessary, though, he insists, especially after repeat offenses. (The belt incident came after he gave his son four chances to correct his wrong.) Peterson says he finds comfort in knowing these lessons will help his children make better decisions in the future. Corporal punishment helped him become the man he is today, after all—a man who loves his kids. “I’d die for my kids,” he says. “That’s the type of father I am. My kids love me. ...When they want something, they come ask dad. They enjoy being around me.”
As for his pledge not to use switches? Peterson says he generally avoids using them.
"Nine times out of 10," he says, "that's not the case."
Master Tesfatsion is a senior writer for B/R Mag. He was previously a Washington football beat writer at the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @MasterTes