Souhan: If Peterson's season isn't greatest in state history, it's close

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 4, 2013 - 1:56 PM

There have been many outstanding performances by Minnesota sports stars -- Kirby Puckett, Kevin Garnett, Alan Page, to name but a few -- but the Vikings' phenomenal running back is eclipsing them with his 2,000-yard season.

Adrian Peterson entered the Vikings locker room Sunday afternoon later than the rest of his teammates. When he found the offensive linemen in all manner of undress, he offered hugs and handshakes, reserving handshakes for the linemen who were naked.

Nobody wants to hug a naked offensive lineman.

Peterson waded through the crowd to his locker, where Vikings great Carl Eller leaned in and whispered.

"What I said to him, exactly, was, 'What can I say?' " Eller said this week. "Really, what else can you say about him? I just wanted to recognize him for his great achievement, and I certainly honor him. I'm glad he's a Viking."

Eller grew up in North Carolina. He arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1960, the same year the Minneapolis Lakers left for Los Angeles.

The defensive end would become an All-America at the U, and an All-Pro with the Vikings. He is the rare Minnesota resident who has seen every great season by a local athlete since 1960, when Elgin Baylor was scoring like an early-day Michael Jordan, through 2012, when Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards while recovering from knee surgery and facing defenses stacking the line of scrimmage to stop him.

"I was aware of Elgin being in town," Eller said. "I saw him play and met him a couple of times. You've got to put Kirby Puckett's best seasons right up there as some of the best ever in this state. But what Adrian is doing is phenomenal. Vikings fans and sports fans in general are getting an opportunity to watch something that is difficult to describe."

Is Peterson's 2012 season the best ever produced by a Minnesota athlete?

Bronko Nagurski became an All-America at two positions for the Gophers in 1929 while leading the nation in rushing as a fullback. Bruce Smith won the Gophers' only Heisman Trophy in 1941, when that was the most prestigious award in American sports.

George Mikan became the first dominant big man in NBA history for the Minneapolis Lakers. In 1950-51, he averaged a career-best 28.4 points, 14.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists. The shot clock was invented after teams played keep-away from Mikan.

In his last season in Minneapolis, Baylor averaged 29.6 points, 16.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists, then averaged 33.4 points, 14.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists in the playoffs.

In 1969, Harmon Killebrew won the American League MVP award, hitting .276 with 49 homers and 140 RBI.

In 1971, as Eller made one of his five All-Pro teams, fellow Vikings defensive lineman Alan Page became one of two defensive players ever to win the NFL MVP award.

"That was a great season for me, a great season for Alan and a great season for the Purple People Eaters," Eller said.

In 1975, Fran Tarkenton led the league with a career-best completion percentage of 64.2 percent and 25 touchdowns while leading the Vikings to a 12-2 record. In 1977, Rod Carew became AL MVP while hitting .388 with 38 doubles, 16 triples, 14 homers, 100 RBI and 23 steals. In 1988, Frank Viola won the Cy Young Award for the Twins while Puckett hit .356 with 121 RBI.

In 1994 and '95, Cris Carter caught 122 passes each season. In 2003, Randy Moss caught 111 passes for 1,632 yards and 17 touchdowns.

"Randy Moss obviously was a great athlete, but you can't put these two in the same ballpark," Eller said. "Everybody says this, and it's so true: Adrian is doing it with such grace. You bring up a guy like Moss, and it's no comparison."

In 2004, Kevin Garnett won the NBA MVP award. In 2006, Justin Morneau became AL MVP. In both 2004 and '06, Johan Santana won the AL Cy Young.

In 2009, Joe Mauer won the MVP with perhaps the greatest season ever produced by a catcher, and Brett Favre produced the most efficient season of his record-setting career while taking the Vikings to the NFC title game.

"You know me, I'm a baseball guy," said local sports historian Stew Thornley. "I'd love to tell you that a baseball player had the greatest season in Minnesota history. But I can't.

"I can't compare what Peterson is doing in the NFL today to anything that happened in the NBA when it was in its formative stages. Given that it's the NFL, given the way he's come back from that knee injury, and that the offense relies so heavily on him, and that he had the dramatic performance to lift his team into the playoffs, Peterson's performance has to rank as the best ever."

Jim Klobuchar covered Minnesota sports for the Associated Press before moving to the Star Tribune, where he covered the Vikings and wrote columns for three decades. Speaking from Washington, where he was attending daughter Amy's swearing in for her second term as senator from Minnesota, Jim reminisced about Bob McNamara returning a kickoff for a touchdown during his All-America senior season of 1954.

"He ran a kickoff back from his 2 yard-line and Murray Warmath, well, I've never heard a coach talk about an individual achievement the way he did," Klobuchar said. "He said it was the greatest play he's ever seen, one man against 11, in his career."

Before this year, Klobuchar would have ranked Page's MVP season as the best he's seen. "There were games when Alan singlehandedly disrupted the opposing offense," Klobuchar said. "But I don't know that there is anything to compare to what Peterson has done. I've never seen a running back play like that."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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