With a new season, a new coach and a $1 billion stadium on the way, the Minnesota Vikings turned to their undisputed star last summer to appear on the team’s yearbook cover: Adrian Peterson, standing confidently in a dirty purple jersey.
In an accompanying interview, Peterson said it was easy being the public face of the Vikings because “I don’t really get into a lot of trouble.”
Just a few weeks later, he was indicted in Texas on charges of whipping his child, and now a Hall of Fame career has come to a jarring halt. Peterson is scheduled to make his first court appearance Wednesday, and he remains on a paid suspension from the Vikings until the case is resolved.
On the field, Peterson has been a breathtaking athlete, seeming to relish running over defenders even more than running past them. Raised by a single mother in rural Texas — his father was a felon — he had grown up to sign the richest running-back contract in NFL history. Off the field, his winning smile and modest, gentle demeanor made him one of the NFL’s most bankable players. In one of countless volunteer events recounted by Vikings staff, Peterson took children holiday shopping at Dick’s Sporting Goods last year, spending more than $100 on each child. Some of the most prominent corporate brands in America, such as Nike and General Mills, have linked their image with No. 28.
Sometimes, that has meant looking past incidents of questionable judgment and troubling behavior.
Records examined by the Star Tribune show that Peterson, who was married earlier this year, has fathered at least six children out of wedlock. Two of them, a boy and a girl, were born to different mothers a month apart in May and June 2010, according to birth records.
Peterson also has had several scrapes with the law in Minnesota and Texas, two involving nighttime carousing. In 2011 he was the subject of a six-month police investigation of alleged criminal sexual misconduct during a night of partying at a Twin Cities hotel; no charges were ever filed. And while Peterson is well-known for his generosity to local charities, his own charitable foundation has filed contradictory financial records.
Peterson and his attorney declined to comment for this story.
Yet any contradictions between Peterson’s public image and private life didn’t seem to matter — until the photos of bloody welts on his 4-year-old son surfaced last month, and the public began to ask how well they actually knew the genial young athlete.
A celebrated freshman
Adrian Peterson arrived at the University of Oklahoma in 2004 as one of the most heralded high school players in the country. In his freshman year he finished second in balloting for the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most prestigious honor.
Soon, he was confronting the hazards of sports stardom. While at Oklahoma, Peterson was investigated — but cleared — over the aborted purchase of a Lexus from a local auto dealer. Two teammates, including the Sooners’ starting quarterback, were dismissed from the team after school officials investigated reports they received extra money from the dealership.
Peterson himself had possession of a car for several weeks before returning it. His mother told reporters that the family could not afford the payments. A former dealership owner defended Peterson’s arrangement, saying it was normal to allow potential buyers to drive a car before financing was secured.
After Peterson’s indictment last month, Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops praised his former star, and told the “Dan Patrick Show,” a syndicated sports television program, that Peterson “had a good, strong family around him.” At the same time, Stoops acknowledged that Peterson’s father was in prison while Oklahoma was recruiting the young star.
Peterson, who was drafted after his junior year, recently donated $1 million to the university. It was the largest financial gift from a former football player.
“He’s a beautiful person,’’ Oklahoma athletic department spokesman Pete Moris said in a recent interview.
Night of partying
Once he arrived in Minnesota in 2007, Peterson’s popularity rocketed nearly every time he touched the football. In Sports Illustrated’s annual NFL season preview issue on Sept. 1, Peterson anchored an eight-page ad for the league’s Sunday Ticket and DirecTV.
When Peterson suddenly appeared at the State Capitol one day in 2012, with the Vikings stadium subsidy package hanging in the balance, Vikings representative Lester Bagley made sure that several legislators got a chance to ride in a capitol elevator with the star.
When the Vikings broke ground on their new stadium last December, Peterson was the only player to participate in the ceremony.
But for Peterson and other Vikings, temptation was never far away.
Dan Guimont owned Boomtown, a Mankato bar where the Vikings gathered during summer training camp. Guimont said he would hire security guards to make sure the “jersey chasers” — young women seeking out Vikings players — were kept away.
“I don’t know where these dollies came from,” Guimont remarked, but he noted that Peterson was one in a group of Vikings who stayed away from the women who frequented his bar.
Peterson has not, however, always proved so disciplined. He has fathered six children by six women, and the children live in at least three states — Minnesota, Georgia and Texas — according to court records reviewed by the Star Tribune, and according to sources familiar with his family. He met one of those children, a son, shortly before the boy died last year in South Dakota after being beaten by another man.
In an interview with ESPN a year ago, Peterson declined to say how many children he had. “I know the truth,” he said. “I’m comfortable with that knowledge.”
As Peterson’s fame grew, the Vikings always tried to give Minnesota a star that fans could admire. The team highlighted Peterson’s many charity appearances, and he was known around Winter Park for greeting janitors with the same warmth and enthusiasm he extended to Zygi Wilf, the team’s owner. One source described the afternoon that Peterson suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury during a game but, while being carried off the field, he insisted on signing a jersey he had promised to a young fan before the game.
In an interview with the Huffington Post last week, former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe called Peterson “one of the most down-to-earth superstars I have ever met.”
Those images were juxtaposed with more jarring headlines. In one incident, Peterson was accused of resisting arrest during a scuffle at a Texas nightclub, though he was not charged. Back in Minnesota, he was cited in 2009 for driving 109 miles per hour in a 55 mile per hour zone.
In the fall of 2011, by then one of the NFL’s greatest runners, Peterson signed a record-breaking contract, a seven-year agreement that could pay him as much as $100 million.
Three months later, he was at the center of an incident in an Eden Prairie hotel room that resulted in an accusation of rape and triggered a lengthy police investigation.
The 38-page police report details a night of drinking, arguing and sex that involved the running back, two relatives — including Peterson’s brother, a minor — and four women, in various pairs. One of those present, Chris Brown, a Peterson relative who lives with him in Eden Prairie, told police that he paid for the room using a company credit card for Peterson’s All Day, Inc.
As the night wore on, the report says, one woman who said she knew Peterson previously became upset when she saw him having sex with another woman. She started an argument that lasted at least an hour. According to the report, when she told him that she was “emotionally attached to him,” Peterson reminded her that he was engaged to another woman and had a baby.
The next day one of the women filed a police complaint that was investigated for months. Peterson insisted on his innocence and, at one point, arrived to provide evidence at police headquarters through a back door, his face shrouded by the hood of his sweatshirt.
His attorney, Peter Wold, arranged for Peterson to take a polygraph test, and said he quickly passed and that he also tested “clean” for drugs.
“The presumption of guilt is magnified for someone like AP, even when he’s innocent,” said Wold.
Hennepin County prosecutors, after reviewing the file, declined to file charges.
Peterson’s problems came despite NFL programs designed to help players cope with sudden wealth and fame. The NFL holds regular symposiums to help rookies prepare for “their new positions as ambassadors of the league.” In June, the four-day session took place in Canton, Ohio, the site of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Retired Vikings wide receiver and Hall of Famer Cris Carter was among the speakers.
Still, some NFL veterans say the league hasn’t done enough.
Matt Blair, the Vikings’ former All-Pro linebacker, said the league needs to do a better job of spelling out what’s off limits to young athletes who may have had little preparation for riches and stardom.
There still is no concise list, Blair said, adding that the “NFL has to provide [one] — from A to Z.”
Peterson’s indictment has also thrown a spotlight on his charity, Adrian Peterson’s All Day Foundation, which focuses on at-risk children, particularly girls. The charity shut down its website following the September indictment.
The charity’s 2011 financial report showed $247,064 in total revenue, and listed just three organizations that received money. A fourth outlay, entitled simply “clothing for needy families,” listed “unknown” for the number of recipients.
In 2009, the charity said its largest gift, $70,000, went to Straight From the Heart Ministries in Laurel, Md. But Donna Farley, president and founder of the Maryland organization, said it never received any money from Peterson’s foundation. “There have been no outside [contributions] other than people in my own circle,” said Farley. “Adrian Peterson — definitely not.”
The East Texas Food Bank, based in Tyler, said it received money from Peterson’s foundation in 2009, although the foundation’s tax filing for the year listed just one donation to a food bank — the North Texas Food Bank, based in Dallas.
Colleen Brinkmann, the chief philanthropy officer for the North Texas Food Bank, said that while her agency partnered with Dallas Cowboys players, she could not recall ever getting money from the All Day Foundation. “Was he with the Cowboys before?” she asked of Peterson. “I’m not a football fan.”
Peterson insisted that he never intended to injure his son, that he was merely disciplining him the same way he’d been disciplined as a child. But the child abuse indictment has left Vikings fans reeling — a recent Star Tribune poll found that 57 percent of adult Minnesotans found his behavior abusive — and has stunned Peterson’s corporate and charitable partners.
Seventy-two hours before he was indicted Sept. 12, Peterson hosted 100 people for a Special Olympics fundraiser at his home. Special Olympics Minnesota said the event “celebrated the power of sport and how it transforms, unites and reveals the champion within.”
Barely a week later, with Peterson’s career in free fall, Special Olympics joined other corporate partners in abandoning the running back. “In light of the information,” spokeswoman Lynn Shelander said in a two-sentence e-mail, “we are abstaining from any engagement with Adrian Peterson at this time.”
Minnesota-based General Mills, which last year featured Peterson on three limited-edition cereal boxes and called him “an inspiration both on and off the football field,” pointed out that their arrangement had ended five months before his indictment — and that most of the Wheaties boxes featuring Peterson were probably off store shelves by now.
At Winter Park, the Vikings headquarters, team officials scrambled to contain the fallout. The team, which knew that Peterson had appeared before a Texas grand jury during the summer, had believed the assertions of their upbeat star player and his Texas attorney, who insisted that nothing would come of the case.
Now they were dealing with widespread outrage over their Sept. 15 decision to allow Peterson to play in the next game.
Target and other retailers were pulling Peterson jerseys from their shelves. Carlson Cos., owner of the Radisson Hotel brand, informed the Vikings that it was planning to release a video in which Trudy Rautio, the company’s chief executive, would expand on the decision to suspend its corporate partnership with the team.
U.S. Bank, a leading candidate for the naming rights on the Vikings’ new stadium, was also pressuring the Vikings to reverse course. The bank’s CEO, Richard Davis, and former Carlson Cos. board chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson had headed a group that successfully convinced the NFL in May to hold the 2018 Super Bowl in Minnesota.
Now top Vikings executives huddled again, holding a nine-hour conference call with Peterson’s agent, the NFL Players Association and other parties, running late into the evening. The decision to bench Peterson appeared on the Vikings website early the next day — at 12:47 a.m., with Wilf insisting that the news be announced as quickly as possible.
Adrian Peterson will turn 30 next year, an age when many NFL running backs begin to slow down. With his case still pending, it’s unclear whether he will ever take the field in a Vikings uniform again. Even before his indictment, the Vikings’ fickle fans had begun to move on to the next rising star, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whose jersey sales were surpassing Peterson’s by midsummer.
Peterson’s mother, Bonita Jackson, has come to his defense, noting that she and his father used corporal punishment on their children. But in an interview with the Houston Chronicle, she captured the complexity of his case: “My son is not a perfect man, by no means, but in the end I’m proud to be his mom.’’
Yet sports marketing professionals say his career might not be over.
The alleged abuse “does pretty much wipe out everything he’s done off the field,” said Larry Chiagouris, a marketing professor at New York’s Pace University. But a comeback is not out of the question, Chiagouris said, if Peterson were to admit he was wrong in the way he punished his son, pay his dues and get back to work.
“There will be a team next year that needs a running back,” he said.