THEY TALK about his burst, his speed, his tremendous vision, but Adrian Peterson never saw this hit coming. He was waylaid not by a strong safety or a blitzing linebacker, but--this would be funny if it weren't so sad--a boy band. Today he is Oklahoma's freshman tailback sensation. Two summers ago Peterson was 17 and on a bus traveling from his home in Palestine, Texas, to a track meet in Florida. Through his headphones came a song sung by Boyz II Men:
I thought we'd get to see forever,
But forever's gone away.
It's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.
That tune yanked Adrian a decade back in time, to the afternoon when he was seven years old and watched a drunk driver take the life of his brother Brian, then 11. Suddenly, and to the astonishment of his track buddies, the usually stoic Peterson was sobbing inconsolably.
"He told me that he was listening to a song that reminded him of Brian and all the good times they used to have," recalls Adrian's mother, Bonita Jackson (née Brown), who phoned him later that night. "I told him it was good to talk about it, to let it go." She reminded him what Paul told the Philippians: God gives you peace that surpasseth all understanding.
Seven years after he lost his brother, Adrian said goodbye to his father. Nelson Peterson--who'd nicknamed his son AD because, given the chance, the kid would play sports all day--was sentenced to 10 years in prison for laundering money from the sale of crack cocaine. He is scheduled to be released in April 2007.
The human spirit is strong, and the boy who absorbed these blows grew into a happy, well-adjusted young man. People back in Palestine (pronounced Pal-uh-STEEN) are not surprised that Peterson set a Sooners record by rushing for more than 100 yards in each of his first four games as a collegian; they are not surprised to have seen him break tackles against Oregon and Texas Tech the way he broke them on Friday nights against Whitehouse and Nacogdoches.
"I don't want to think that I can hang my head and people will understand because, you know, my dad's not here and my brother's gone," Peterson says. "I'm not going to give in to that. Instead of hanging my head, I make myself do better."
He shared this credo in a hallway of the Barry Switzer Center last Saturday, an hour after No. 2 Oklahoma's 28-13 win over Texas Tech. Earlier, in a rowdy Sooners locker room, coach Bob Stoops had played Santa Claus, giving out game balls, including one to Jason White. The senior quarterback had thrown the 53rd, 54th and 55th touchdown passes of his career, moving him past Josh Heupel into first place on Oklahoma's alltime list, a "remarkable feat," wisecracked offensive coordinator Chuck Long, "considering the short time he's been here." This is White's sixth season in Norman.
The day White set the record was also the day that marked a sea change in Oklahoma's offense. While it was the fourth game in which Peterson had gone over the century mark--he finished with 146 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, and had a 57-yarder called back on a holding penalty--Saturday was his first collegiate start. His coaches made a show of explaining that the freshman got the nod on account of the tender ankles of the erstwhile starter, junior Kejaun Jones, but let there be no doubt: Saturday was the beginning of the AD era at OU. Peterson is the horse Oklahoma intends to ride into December, and beyond.
The Sooners ran him on seven of their first 12 plays. They ran him when Tech loaded the box against the run. They ran him in passing situations. They didn't care. The strategy reflected what Long had told his fellow assistants before the season: "I don't give a damn what [our opponents] are doing and how many people they're putting in the box--we're gonna run it, and just because they stuff it once or twice, we're gonna keep running it." An offense whose best play had been White to wide receiver Mark Clayton looked, all of a sudden, like Nebraska's during the Bob Devaney days.
The change is likely to result in White's putting up more modest numbers than he did in '03, his Heisman season. (His three touchdowns against the Red Raiders, for instance, came on just 24 passes.) It should also help him enjoy better health. Remember White at the end of 2003? So swollen and sore were his surgically reconstructed knees that he couldn't push out from under center. Forced to play White from the shotgun, Oklahoma became overly reliant on the pass. The withering of its ground game killed off the threat of play action. Having lost their offensive balance, the Sooners dropped their last two games, to Kansas State and LSU. Stoops and his staff swore in the off-season: Never again.
Never again would they suffer the indignity of presiding over an offense unable to play smashmouth when it had to. Oklahoma rededicated itself to the run. It helped that the Sooners had all five starting offensive linemen back for the second straight year. And those hogs are more ornery than they were in '03. "It's a mind-set," says right guard Davin Joseph, a 6'4", 312-pound junior. "It's having a certain attitude on third and short."
Another key has been White's return to health. A tailback is more effective taking a handoff from a quarterback who receives the ball from under center. Why? Because the back gets a running start before the ball is in his hands. He is running, as the talking heads like to say, downhill. To get back under center, White needed his knees to heal. They have. With his last surgery two years in his past, White is pain free and playing without the knee braces that he essentially lived in last season. A year ago he was unable to take the lunge-step necessary to make a handoff on a stretch play--a staple of any offense. Not only can he run that play this year, but he also can fake the handoff and take it outside himself.
When you're planning to reemphasize your ground game, it's always nice to have a bead on a once-in-a-generation talent at tailback. Darrell Wyatt coaches wide receivers for the Sooners. His recruiting territory is East Texas. In the fall of 2002 he sent back word of a freakishly talented schoolboy from Palestine, an old railroad town 100 miles southeast of Dallas.
Bonita moved from Dallas to Palestine shortly after the death of Brian, who was hit by a car while riding his bike. "I was a wreck for a long while," says Bonita, who split with Nelson Peterson in 1991 and married Frankie Jackson, a minister, five years later. "That was a hard time for Adrian. [He and Brian] were so close, it was like part of him that we were burying."
When his father was packed off to the Federal Correctional Institute in Texarkana, Adrian "rebelled for a while," says his mother. "Sometimes he was just mad at the world." He hit a rough patch in ninth grade at Westwood High, his mother's alma mater. Adrian tore a ligament in his right knee early in the football season and began drifting academically. His parents thought it best that he transfer across town to Palestine High. As a sophomore he practiced with the football team, but because of his grades he was ineligible to play in games. The Wildcats' coaches still had no inkling of what they had. Jeff Harrell, who coached football and track, caught glimpses that spring. Peterson went out for track and proved a natural sprinter. (In 1983 Bonita won the triple jump, long jump and 100 and 200 meters at the Texas 3A track meet; since then, June 11 has been Bonita Brown Day at Westwood High.) It was as if, between fall and spring, Adrian had crossed the threshold to manhood. He ran 10.6 in the 100 meters and reached the finals of the state 4A meet.
Peterson's first touch in the first football practice of his junior year has become mythical in Wildcats lore. "When he hit the line of scrimmage," says Harrell, "all the coaches just looked at each other as if to say, Did you just see what I just saw?"
Before long, rival coaches were saying the same thing. In the second game of the season Peterson ran for 340 yards against Huntsville. He finished the year with 2,051 yards on 246 carries. As a senior he rushed for 2,960 yards on 252 attempts. He stood 6'2", weighed 210 pounds and was built like Mr. Clean. He ran the 40 in 4.4. He could bowl a defender over on one play and beat him to the corner on the next. Rivals.com rated him the top player in the nation.
On a recent weekday, coaches at Palestine watched a Peterson highlight video during their lunch break. "Look at him run by them!" said offensive coordinator Tom Allison with a giggle as Peterson sliced through Cleveland High's defense. "They're like little-bitty kids!"
"Is this the game where he knocked that linebacker down, stepped on his chest and went 88 yards for the score?"
"This might be the game he had six touchdowns in the first half."
And so on.
Recruiters descended like locusts. Wyatt established a good rapport with Peterson, double-teaming him with running backs coach Cale Gundy. It was Gundy who got the blue chip's attention with a rather unconventional pitch: "We don't need to butter you anymore. You know how much we want you. But I'll tell you this: We've won more games in the last five years than any other school in the country, and we're gonna keep winning whether you come here or not. You can join us or be on the other side."
Stoops and Wyatt were the only coaches to visit Nelson in prison. Adrian and Nelson have remained close during the father's incarceration. "My dad made a mistake," Adrian says. "Just because he's [in prison] doesn't mean he's a bad person. He's a really great person. He always led me the right way, taught me to be respectful to other people."
With his father's blessing, Adrian was leaning toward the Sooners from the beginning. In spite of the full-page ad taken out by a local fan in the Palestine Herald-Press pleading with him to stay in-state; despite the fact that Bonita's brother Chris Smith, was a defensive end at Texas in the '90s; and even though Adrian kept a poster of Ricky Williams in his room, the Longhorns simply didn't float his boat. Texas didn't help itself by losing for four straight years to the Sooners, including last season's 65-13 debacle, which Peterson watched from the stands.
Peterson announced his decision on live television at halftime of the Army All-Star Game in San Antonio last January. Given the level of attention he had gotten, Oklahoma strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt says there was a presumption among some of the older Sooners that "this guy's gonna come in here and think he's All-Everything." Peterson arrived in June to take part in Schmidt's notorious summer workouts, two-hour sessions in which the players do speed-training for one hour, then lift for another. "It's balls-out," says Schmidt. Is there some upchucking? "Oh, yeah."
Not all incoming Sooners freshmen can finish these sessions, which are brutal "even for the guys who've been in the program for a few years," says Schmidt. "But Adrian, he doesn't get tired. It's amazing." Not only did Peterson complete Schmidt's drills, he also often finished ahead of the older players. "We're out there dying," says Joseph, "and this guy is on skates or something, just leaving us behind."
The Oklahoma running back to whom Peterson is most frequently compared, in terms of ability, is Marcus Dupree, the man-child from Philadelphia, Miss., who played a single season for the Sooners, in 1982, before signing with the USFL. An enormous talent with a correspondingly large appetite, Dupree went home for Christmas break that season, then showed up at the Fiesta Bowl in less than optimal shape. Dupree ran wild against Arizona State, rushing for more than 200 yards in the first half. But he wore down and sat much of the second. The Sooners lost 32-21. "If you'd have been in shape," Barry Switzer, his irate coach, told him afterward, "you'd have rushed for 400 yards, and we'd have won the game." Similar though their styles may be--like Dupree, Peterson is a powerful inside runner with breakaway speed--AD has the superior work ethic.
"Usually a young guy comes in, he's got to go through--how to say this?--a procedure with the veterans," says Long. "Not hazing. But you've got to earn their respect. Usually it takes some time. Like, a year. Here's a guy who earned the respect of the veterans inside a month."
A few of those veterans had to prove themselves last Saturday. Sooner Nation was abuzz all week with the semi-scandalous news: Oklahoma's defense hadn't intercepted a pass in its first three games! How would it fare against a Texas Tech spread offense that had rung up 152 points in four games? On Saturday the Sooners picked off three passes, held Tech to a single touchdown (scored after the game had been decided) and looked sharp--signs that they're ready for next week's Red River Shootout against the undefeated Longhorns.
Peterson, likewise, looked good tuning up for his showdown with the team he spurned. He broke a 61-yard run on his third carry, a gain that wouldn't have been possible, AD took pains to point out, without a thunderous block from Clayton, the wide receiver. Two plays later Peterson basically ran through two defenders to score from a yard out.
After the game a television reporter asked Stoops to talk about what made Peterson so effective. The coach tried to oblige, pointing out how the freshman's toughness and good decisions belied his youth. But the reporter was not satisfied. What makes him so powerful? she asked.
"He's big, he's strong, he's fast, he's got great vision, he's got everything you look for," Stoops said. Another reporter tried to ask a question, but Stoops wasn't finished. "He's got a great attitude about work, and doing things the right way," he added.
His is a talent, in short, that surpasseth all understanding.