Adrian Peterson was on his knees, arms fully outstretched, eyes pointed heavenward. He was in the end zone. It had been a while.
A simple two-yard run had gotten him there, only it wasn’t so simple at all. To score the Minnesota Vikings’ first touchdown in a 31-14 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, Peterson had to run through the arms of two defenders before meeting a third, linebacker Manti Te’o, at the goal line. He arrived like a man who hadn’t hit NFL pay dirt in over 22 months.
As Peterson lingered on the purple-painted end-zone turf, he was surrounded by happy teammates and enveloped by adoring cheers from the TCF Bank Stadium stands. Number 28 is beloved in Minneapolis, to be sure, but not everywhere; not since he became known as a child abuser. Those words – “child abuser” – are harsh and heavy, but they fit a man who in 2014 pleaded no contest to a charge of reckless assault for beating his 4-year-old son’s lower body with a tree branch.
Peterson, 30, played one game in 2014 before being suspended by the NFL for the duration of the season, but he’s back in his old starring role for the 2-1 Vikings. He carried 20 times for 126 yards – his second straight 100-yard game – and two touchdowns against the Chargers. A 43-yard scamper for his second score was vintage Peterson: It included a cartoonishly effective stiff-arm of safety Jimmy Wilson, a dazzling cutback and a five-axle trucking of safety Eric Weddle.
“My legs felt lighter today,” Peterson told reporters afterward. “I felt good, the body felt good, the mind was in a great place and, yeah, I think I’m back.”
Somehow we’ve gone this far without mentioning what else happened in Peterson’s life on Sunday: Before the game, his wife, Ashley, gave birth to the couple’s second child, a boy named Axyl. A most wonderful thing, of course.
And yet …
There’s no kind way to transition from the blessing of a new child to the awkwardness – and sadness – that surrounds any discussion of Peterson and his children. There is crass speculation over how many he’s fathered, and this week, a South Dakota man, Joseph Patterson, is on trial for second-degree murder in the 2013 death of a 2-year-old son of Peterson’s.
There was a far less conflicted view of Peterson when he eclipsed the magical 2,000-yard mark in rushing in 2012. He was simply the best, as he’d been since entering the league as the Vikings’ first-round pick in the 2007 draft. A six-time Pro Bowler, Peterson first led the NFL in rushing in 2008. As a rookie, he had his first indelible performance against the Chargers, setting the league’s single-game rushing record with 296 yards.
That happened on November 4, 2007. Days later, another of the game’s most visible stars, Michael Vick, began an 18-month stint in prison for financing and participating in an illegal interstate dogfighting ring conducted on the quarterback’s property in Virginia.
Vick, now 35 and with his fourth NFL team, joined Peterson in the headlines on Sunday after replacing Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a sprained MCL and bone bruise in his left leg during a 12-6 victory in St. Louis. With Big Ben expected to miss four to six weeks at minimum, Vick finds himself in the unlikely position of leading a potential Super Bowl contender.
The Twitter hate kicked in immediately, but public scorn is old hat to Vick by now.
Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger are on the same team now? Guess I know who I’m rooting for to lose every single game.
— OhNoSheTwitnt (@OhNoSheTwitnt) September 27, 2015
“I’ve got plenty of confidence,” he said. “I feel like this is what I was born to do. I’m not a young guy anymore. I’m a seasoned veteran.”
If all goes well for the Steelers, Vick will be a dependable caretaker of the offense before dutifully returning to the bench upon Roethlisberger’s return. If all goes well for the Vikings, Peterson will fully grow back into his role as the bell cow, capable of wearing down opponents with explosive power and speed and maybe, just maybe, chasing another MVP award.
But there will be doubts about Peterson’s ability to do so. It has long been accepted as fact in the NFL that running backs are living on borrowed time even before they reach the age of 30. Even if Peterson rediscovers his prime, there will be an airtight window on that; not since John Riggins in 1984 has the league seen a 1,000-yard rusher over the age of 32.
Is Peterson really back? Over the summer, Sports Illustrated ranked the game’s top 10 running backs. Peterson wasn’t Number One on the list; that spot went to Seattle’s 29-year-old Marshawn Lynch. He wasn’t second (Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell, 23) or third (Philadelphia’s DeMarco Murray, 27) or fifth (Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill, 22) or eighth (Baltimore’s Justin Forsett, 29).
The great Adrian Peterson was ranked tenth, the story referring to him as “the great unknown.”
That was about age and presumed rustiness; not image or knowability. But Peterson’s image – like Vick’s – is largely shot, and most football fans are well past the point of getting to know a guy who keeps his personal life as private as he can, for damn good reason.
The question is: Can Adrian Peterson write a better football story? Three weeks in, he’s just beginning to work on that. Once more, the goal line is his muse.