Thirty-year-old Adrian Peterson has a vision that includes playing football at least seven more years, retiring somewhere beyond 2021 and entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the career rushing leader and greatest player in NFL history.
“Not just the greatest running back,” he points out. “The greatest player.”
It was Tuesday morning in Mankato. Peterson was sitting at a table after the team’s morning walkthrough. In four days, he would be visiting the Hall of Fame, with video camera in hand, as the Vikings took a private tour on the eve of Sunday’s Hall of Fame Game against the Steelers.
Because it’s a preseason game, Peterson won’t play. But he admits a trip to the birthplace of the NFL has him thinking about his place in history when the end finally does arrive.
In Peterson’s opinion, he’s a “no-brainer” Hall of Famer whose legacy will be unshakable. He doesn’t foresee the Hall’s 46-member selection committee stomping on his dream because of the nightmare he lived through while missing all but one game last season.
“Oh, no,” Peterson said. “I’m going to be blunt and honest with you. I feel like if I didn’t play another snap in my life, I got the opportunity to go in the Hall of Fame right now.”
Peterson is a six-time Pro Bowl player, a three-time first-team All-Pro and the 2012 NFL MVP. But football hasn’t fueled the memory-stamping headlines since Peterson was indicted in Texas last September on felony charges of injuring his 4-year-old son while disciplining him with a switch made from a tree branch.
The fallout was ugly, lengthy and very public as Peterson spent the next seven months out of sight as an NFL pariah. He battled the league and butted heads with the Vikings while being shuffled from the commissioner’s exempt list to the suspended list and back before being reinstated.
The focus has returned to football primarily. Peterson has said he made a mistake. He entered a plea of no contest to a misdemeanor, was fined $4,000 and recently had his two-year probation terminated 15 months early by a Texas judge.
Going forward, he says his overall track record, his relationship with his son and how he intends to live the rest of his life will, for the most part, overshadow the one good-intentioned mistake he said he made with his son.
“I don’t think it will have an impact on how I’m remembered because at the end of the day, it’s still the game of football; people looking at what you do on the field,” Peterson said. “I think more so the fans of Minnesota [will remember] because it’s your hometown team. But not to the extent that I think you think it will be. I don’t think it will be too damning.”
On the field, Peterson said his goals are no different than they were last September. He still insists a 2,500-yard season is a possibility. Still says he’s going to get 300 yards in a game and break the record of 296 that he set as a rookie in 2007. Still lists winning a Super Bowl as his ultimate goal.
“And reaching Emmitt Smith,” Peterson said. “Still reaching Emmitt.”
Smith, the Cowboys Hall of Fame running back, holds the career rushing record of 18,355. Peterson ranks 28th with 10,190, meaning he needs another 8,166 yards. If he were to play the minimum seven seasons he thinks he can, Peterson would have to average about 1,167 a year until he’s beyond his 36th birthday.
“I really do think I can play that long,” Peterson said. “Will I? That’s a long shot. I say that because maybe I get tired of it after a while. Physically, I really feel like I can play as long as I want to.”
Peterson considers Hall of Fame cornerback/returner/part-time receiver Deion Sanders the greatest player in NFL history, although Peterson is quick to admit that “my knowledge of NFL history is pretty terrible.”
“It’s Deion and probably Barry Sanders at the top,” Peterson said. “I say Deion because he played offense, defense and special teams. And he was great at everything he did. Well, maybe not so much at receiver.”
Sanders and Walter Payton are Peterson’s favorite running backs.
“I lean more toward Barry because I watched him more,” Peterson said. “But Payton is right up there with him because of his style and how he played. Barry wasn’t a guy who would really hit it up in there like Payton. But Barry’s style was like no other. And if you look at his numbers, they don’t lie. It’s like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Peterson has a lot of ground to make up historically and, well, literally.
“My body is so much fresher, so that’s good,” Peterson said. “And I think not being able to be a part of last year, that alone will just have me eager to play harder and faster and with more passion. That’s just the way I play anyways, but with that on top, I’ll definitely be out there with more energy and more excitement.”
Peterson said he has changed because of the past year and the counseling he has received.
“I think I’m better in a lot of different ways,” he said. “It’s me being comfortable in my own skin and knowing where my heart was and what type of person I am. And then getting that confirmation from my kids, who love me. With that, it kind of makes things easier.
“I was bitter toward a lot of people who had things to say and that didn’t know me or how the situation went down. They were so quick to jump and make their own assumptions and opinions not knowing what happened. I’m looking at it and, yes, it looks bad, but you don’t know exactly what took place so how can you sit there and judge and say this and say that like you were there watching? That’s why I don’t put trust in man. I put my trust in God.”
Peterson said there are some critics he’s still upset with.
“I’ve kind of let it go,” Peterson said. “But I’m not going to lie to you. If I see some people’s faces, it’s going to remind me. Like, ‘Oh, Cris Carter had to say this, had this to say.’ So there are things I’m not going to say here that I’ll be thinking in my head. It’s better left in my mind than saying it about certain people.”
In five weeks, Peterson will return to the field. Fresh from a preseason that’s not expected to include any playing time. Ready to move on with a new contract and a renewed relationship with the Vikings.
“I look at everything and I’m just like, ‘Here I am, still standing,’ ” Peterson said. “I’m stronger than I was before. My son loves me. I’m still blessed at the end of the day.”