Unbeknownst to practically everybody outside the rural hamlet of
Statesboro, Ga., early this summer Georgia Southern, a Division
I-AA school, launched its Adrian Peterson for Heisman campaign.
Georgia Southern emptied its athletic publicity budget by
shelling out $5,500 to establish a website, apforheisman.com, and
make and distribute nearly a thousand promotional CD-ROMs to
Heisman voters. Then it was up to Peterson, a junior fullback, to
run. And run. And run. He ran for 1,361 yards during the regular
season and maintained his astounding streak of at least 100 yards
rushing in every game of his college career. When the Heisman
polls closed, 49 players had received votes. Peterson wasn't one
of them. On Dec. 9, when the Heisman was handed to Florida
State's Chris Weinke, Peterson was on a bus back to campus from
the Savannah airport after the Eagles' semifinal playoff win over
Delaware. He'd forgotten it was Heisman night.
The harsh reality is that Heisman campaigns for Division I-AA
players have difficulty gaining traction. Assuming that Peterson
stays at Georgia Southern for his senior year, he could end up
rushing for more yards than any other college football player at
any level--he trails career leader Ron Dayne of Wisconsin by
2,025 yards--yet most fans couldn't find A.P. without an APB.
The uninformed didn't include the 17,156 spectators at Finley
Stadium in Chattanooga, who last Saturday watched Georgia
Southern defeat Montana 27-25 for its second straight Division
I-AA title. Those hardy souls saw the 5'10", 212-pound Peterson
rush 23 times for 148 yards and two touchdowns in a storm so
nasty that at any moment one might have expected to spot George
Clooney on a fishing boat. "It was a swamp out there," said
Eagles quarterback J.R. Revere, "but A.P. is so driven to prove
himself that he probably didn't notice it was raining."
Peterson acknowledges that the anonymity that comes with playing
at a lesser known school such as Georgia Southern is one
obstacle he has yet to learn to elude. Consider that two days
after rushing for a Division I-AA playoff-record 333 yards
against Massachusetts last season, Peterson went to New York
City to accept the Walter Payton Award as his division's most
valuable player. The emcee, former NFL receiver Charley Taylor,
introduced the proud winner as "Antoine Patterson."
Alas, Adrian Peterson isn't even the highest-ranking football
player in his own family. For now, anyway, that title rests with
his older brother, Mike, a second-year starting linebacker with
the Indianapolis Colts. After Adrian rushed for 4,949 yards and
65 touchdowns at Santa Fe High in Alachua, Fla., most recruiters
expected him to join Mike at Florida, but the Gators already had
future NFL backs Fred Taylor and Terry Jackson and couldn't find
room in their backfield for Adrian. Other schools were
discouraged by Peterson's lack of height or by the fact that he
was a late academic qualifier. Also, his stuttering made it
difficult for him to communicate with recruiters over the phone.
He didn't receive a Division I-A scholarship offer.
Instead he was wooed by fellow Santa Fe High alumnus and former
Georgia Southern quarterback Tracy Ham, an Eagles assistant coach
at the time, who initially figured he had no hope of landing
Peterson. He was wrong; Peterson had good reason not to look down
on Division I-AA because he'd watched his cousin Freddie Solomon
parlay a career at South Carolina State, another Division I-AA
school, into a stint in the NFL. "I didn't care what level I
competed on," Peterson says. "I just wanted a chance to prove I
can be the best running back playing on Saturdays."
Peterson has a punishing, Payton-esque running style that allows
him to gain most of his yards running between the tackles. In his
three seasons at Georgia Southern, including 12 postseason games,
he has rushed for 7,366 yards and 93 touchdowns while averaging
6.9 yards per carry. Twelve times in his 43 college games he has
had 200 yards rushing, and never has he gained fewer than 102.
His streak of 31 consecutive 100-yard regular-season games equals
the record for Division I established by Ohio State's two-time
Heisman winner, Archie Griffin. In fourteen games against I-A
teams or ranked teams in his own division he has averaged 190.2
yards, including 152 in the Eagles' 2000 opener at Georgia.
Peterson has accumulated all his yards as the focal point of a
triple-option offense, a simple attack that consists of six basic
plays and averaged only 12 passes per game this season. It's no
coincidence that Georgia Southern has reached the championship
game in all three of Peterson's seasons. "He's the best player
I've ever coached or coached against, and the only one who was
close was Marshall Faulk," says Eagles coach Paul Johnson, who
was an assistant at Navy and Hawaii before coming to Statesboro
four years ago. "I've coached a lot of NFL players, and I'm
certain that Adrian can succeed in that league."
Last Saturday, Peterson began by proving he can be an effective
decoy. Montana, which had Division I-AA's second-ranked rushing
defense, keyed on Peterson and held him to 76 yards on 17
carries through three quarters. After the Grizzlies erased a
20-3 halftime deficit by scoring touchdowns on three straight
possessions to take a 23-20 lead with 11:53 left, Peterson gave
himself a pep talk. "I told myself, This is do-or-die time," he
said after the victory. "I felt the game was in my hands, and I
had to do something to change the tide."
Peterson called the play that began--and ended--the Eagles'
ensuing drive. Georgia Southern had already run one of its
option schemes 20 times in the game without Peterson's having
carried the ball, and he sensed the defense was set up. He
alerted Revere on the sideline, and on the next play Peterson
took a handoff up the middle, broke two tackles and sloshed his
way 57 yards to the end zone to score the TD that proved to be
the dagger. "We had Peterson pretty well bottled-up early,"
Montana coach Joe Glenn said, "but all you've got to do is miss
him once, and the son of a gun breaks free and he's gone. Great
players can win a game with one huge play."
With back-to-back national championships and a record six titles
in the past 16 years, Georgia Southern is the undisputed gold
standard of Division I-AA football. Johnson is particularly
proud that these Eagles won with a team that began the season
with only three offensive starters returning, was picked to
finish third in the Southern Conference and had no players
chosen on this year's divisional All-America first team, not
even Peterson, who was second team. "Nobody expected us to be
the champs this season," Johnson said, "and we made sure to
remind our players of that fact every day."
Johnson, 43, understands how it feels to be overlooked. He has
won 50 games in his first four seasons as a head man--a feat
accomplished by only three others in Division I history--and his
name has been linked to recent coaching vacancies at Georgia,
North Carolina, Virginia and Wake Forest. Yet he says that none
of the schools has contacted him about those positions.
Johnson and Peterson have enjoyed a running joke in which one
walks up to the other and asks, "Are you staying?" Peterson
insists he's having too much fun to leave college early for the
NFL, so Georgia Southern's undaunted publicity staff is already
plotting his 2001 Heisman campaign. Just as Peterson was being
asked about that prospect in the Eagles' postgame locker room on
Saturday, one of his teammates strolled by carrying the new
national championship hardware. Peterson nodded in that
direction and said, "Right now, that's the only trophy I need."
sloshed 57 yards to score the decisive TD.