On a recent Tuesday morning, students and faculty at the Alliance Education Center, a special-ed school in Rosemount, Minn., gathered in their gym-cafeteria for Vikings Pride Day.
First, there was a showing of the viral video "Draft Me Maybe," a parody of the song "Call Me Maybe." Alliance teachers Theresa Bowlen, Tom Betlock and Endre Gunter collaborated on the video, which features Gunter, wearing a No. 28 Vikings jersey and pretending to be running back Adrian Peterson, running inside a mall, on a track and around Mall of America Field as he urges fantasy football players to draft him even though he is coming off knee surgery.
After that, there was a video of Peterson, in which he thanked the teachers and students for their support but apologized for not being able to attend because he was preparing for the upcoming game against Seattle. Then, he said he had one more surprise.
Suddenly, Peterson -- the real one -- walked into the gym through a side door as the students screamed with delight.
Peterson has surprised us -- no, amazed us -- all year. Ever since he underwent reconstructive knee surgery in Gulf Breeze, Fla., last Dec. 30 for a torn ACL and MCL, he has done the improbable. Two weeks after surgery, he walked up steps without crutches. In May, he raced teammate Percy Harvin up a hill during offseason workouts at the team's training facility. He was held back during training camp and didn't play in any preseason games, but when the Vikings opened the regular season against Jacksonville at home on Sept. 9, he started and carried the ball 17 times.
Now -- a little more than 10 months since his surgery -- Peterson leads the league in rushing. In nine games, he has carried 168 times for 957 yards (a 5.7-yard average) and six touchdowns. He is on pace for a 1,700-yard season, which would rank second in his career, trailing only his 1,760-yard season in 2008.
"It goes to show how blessed I am and how good God is," Peterson said during an interview with SI.com. "To lead the league in rushing right now is amazing."
Were it not for Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who is having a terrific season himself after missing all of 2011 because of multiple neck surgeries, Peterson would be a slam dunk choice for NFL comeback player of the year. He still could win the award. And he would be in the conversation for league MVP if the (5-4) Vikings had a better record.
Maybe we shouldn't be surprised by Peterson. He has set high goals for himself ever since he came into the league as a first-round draft pick in 2007, and he usually achieves them. He has gone on record as saying he is driven to be the best to ever play in the NFL.
"The passion has been in me since I was young, when I played sports in general," said Peterson, who began writing his script in Palestine, Texas, before starring at the University of Oklahoma, where he was a Heisman Trophy runner-up as a freshman in 2004. "I always competed to be the best. I always wanted to be the fastest, the strongest, [the guy who] could jump the highest, the best vision, the best hands. Anything that had to do with competing, I wanted to be the best.
"It was something that was instilled in me at a young age, and I've had that same mind-set ever since. That's why I set my bar and my standards so high."
According to conventional wisdom, a running back has a shorter-than-average shelf life in the NFL because of the pounding he takes each game. And once a running back turns 30, he often is considered to be on the downhill side of his career.
Peterson, 27, believes that is so much balderdash. In fact, he intends to poke a big hole -- much like the ones he runs through -- in that perception.
"I will," he said. "That's something I don't even worry about. They have different standards in the league about the quarterback position, the running back position, this, that and another. Some people buy into what people say, but I don't buy into it. Like where somebody can't come back from an injury and be the same. Look at me now."
Yes, just look at him. In addition to leading the league in rushing yards, Peterson leads in explosive runs (10 or more yards). He has 27, including a 64-yard dash for a touchdown against Tampa Bay in Week 8 and a 74-yard burst against Seattle this past Sunday.
"I just respect him," Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant told reporters after Sunday's game. "It's not every day you're on the field with a running back of his caliber. You hear about Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders. Adrian Peterson is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I can't come up with enough adjectives to describe how special of a running back he is."
As the season has reached the halfway point, Peterson has shown no durability issues. If anything, it looks like he's getting stronger by the week. Over the last three games, he averaged 6.7 yards per carry against Arizona (23 rushes for 153 yards), 8.2 against Tampa Bay (15 carries for 123 yards) and 10.7 against Seattle (17 attempts for 182 yards).
The 6-foot-1, 217-pound Peterson is at his best when he runs between the tackles. He loves banging it inside, finding a seam and then accelerating up the field.
"North and South, that's where I love to run," he said. "Everything happens fast, like power plays and lead plays. It's full steam ahead."
As he lay in his hospital bed in Birmingham, Ala., last New Year's Eve, hours after his surgery, Peterson put on a happy face. He wore a party fedora and held up a noisemaker and a pint of ice cream for
Most running backs who suffer torn ACLs need at least a year to recover. And when they do get back on the football field, they find their skills are sometimes diminished. They are a step slower, or unable to cut as quickly as they once did.
At first, Peterson made incremental advances. He measured his progress by the number of calf raises or knee lifts he could do. He can't point to the exact moment when he felt like he had reached a significant plateau, but running up that hill against Harvin was a good sign.
"The first three or four [races], he beat me," Peterson said. "Then when endurance took over, I was able to get him. I was more well-conditioned than he was at that time. Knowing what I could do then, and knowing I still had two and a half months before training camp, that's when I knew -- just feeding off my body and knowing how hard I was working -- that I'd be back."
Sightings of Peterson were rare during the Vikings' training camp at Minnesota State University in Mankato this summer. While the rest of the team practiced, Peterson usually was on a far field, doing drills under the watchful eyes of head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman.
Although Peterson was eager to join his teammates in practice, coach Leslie Frazier took it slow with his running back, giving him plenty of time to work back into game condition. Even after Peterson was activated off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list on Aug. 12, he was held out of contact drills in practice.
Peterson's availability for the season opener was a game-time decision, but after the Vikings won the coin toss and returned the opening kickoff, Peterson ran out on the field with the rest of the offense. On the second snap, he took a handoff from quarterback Christian Ponder and ran for four yards. He finished the game with 84 yards rushing and two touchdowns -- and by then everyone knew Peterson was back.
At least two things about Peterson have stayed the same. He wears a new pair of shoes for every game -- "I like my shoes to be snug and tight," he said -- and he has a craving for sweets.
"What might really surprise people is just how much junk food I eat," he said. "I eat Blue Bell ice cream [four or five times a week]. Brownies are one of my favorites. Just sweets in general. I eat a lot of sweets. I'm conscious of what I eat. I try not to eat too much fast food. But ice cream ... I just have this thirst. I can't deny it."
And it seems like nothing can deny Adrian Peterson -- not even a major knee injury. Everyone who took Gunter's advice and drafted Peterson for their fantasy football team made the right choice. No