Adrian Peterson has been given a piece of paper.
On it, written in black Sharpie, is a number: 18,355.
Peterson easily recognizes it.
"Oh yeah," he says, growing almost giddy. "Emmitt Smith."
Those 18,355 yards measure Smith’s NFL career rushing record, a landmark near the top of Peterson’s "Become The Greatest Of All Time" checklist.
He stares at the total.
"Reachable," he asserts. "It can happen."
With that number, Peterson is also given a date: Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. This is foreign to the Vikings star, prompting a quizzical look.
It’s explained that if he stays on his remarkable career pace of 98.448275 rushing yards per game and doesn’t miss a single contest in the next six-plus seasons, he will be in position to break Smith’s record in Week 4 of 2019.
Peterson looks up with a grin, then shrugs. He’s appreciative of the math but far from accepting of it.
He looks back down at the number, then taps the date.
"Sooner than that," he says. "For real. Sooner."
Are you going to be the one to tell Adrian Peterson he’s being overly ambitious? That his competitive drive is skewing reality? Or after witnessing him make good on so many promises this year, will you simply nod and trust that his word is as firm as his python-grip handshake?
"I’m not sure how fast I can get there," Peterson says. "I have to crunch some numbers myself. But I’ll do some research and get back to you with my date."
It’s little wonder Peterson was the runaway choice as the Star Tribune’s 2012 Sportsperson of the Year. He could have won the award based on contagious optimism alone.
After all, on Jan. 1 Peterson woke up in an Alabama hospital bed and pledged — as so many do when the calendar flips — to attack the new year with so much purpose and so little fear.
Yet unlike most of the world, he found rare mental reserves to sustain his drive.
When everyone else saw a career-threatening ACL injury, Peterson saw a challenge to come back stronger, quicker and more determined.
He now has sprinted to the front of the NFL’s Most Valuable Player race.
And when everyone else saw a rebuilding Vikings team that would be fortunate to win six games, Peterson saw little time to waste and strived to propel a playoff push.
Now, with two games left, the 8-6 Vikings find themselves gripping the NFC’s final wild-card spot — with Peterson on an unprecedented tear, totaling 1,313 yards and nine touchdowns in the past eight games alone.
So why wouldn’t Emmitt Smith’s record seem attainable?
Says Vikings coach Leslie Frazier: "Obviously, 2019 is a long way off. But I know Adrian and the way he thinks. He can’t fathom that it will take him that long. Not him. So, hey …"
That’s the thing about Peterson. He has this persuasive power and a unique way of warping time.
Somehow, at the end of this extraordinary year, he can talk about potential 2019 achievements as if they were just around the corner while in the same conversation make Dec. 24, 2011, seem so far, far, far in the past.
• • •
Adrian Peterson has been given a full tank of positive energy.
It never depletes either.
Last Christmas Eve, an ill-timed hit by Washington’s DeJon Gomes left Peterson with torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee.
In the weeks that followed, all logical Peterson discussions carried a glum theme: whether one of the all-time greats had his brilliance stolen from him in his prime.
Now, one day from the anniversary of that setback, the entire Peterson conversation centers on whether he can complete the greatest rushing season in history, needing 294 yards to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season record of 2,105 yards.
Says left tackle Matt Kalil: "The way he’s going? He’ll blow by that. Easily."
Peterson learned long ago that even seemingly unfathomable goals can be attained with precise mind calibration. Crank the willpower and enthusiasm dials up, turn the hesitance down.
It’s part of what Frazier calls Peterson’s "name it and claim it" achievement system.
"It all starts with faith in God and believing," Peterson says. "And having that confidence that no matter what happens throughout your life, you can bounce back and refocus and continue to have faith that you can accomplish all things."
Peterson realizes it sounds odd. But he’s certain he fortified this mindset as a kid in Texas, just 7 years old when he saw his older brother, Brian, be hit by a drunken driver while riding his bike.
Within a week, Brian died. At age 8.
Peterson was crushed.
Yet even as a 7-year-old, he darted around self-pity and ran right over his grief. Peterson struggled to accept Brian’s death but knew he couldn’t wallow when his mother’s anguish required soothing.
"I had to be so strong during that time," he says. "I had to be positive and constantly reassure my mom everything was going to be OK. Instead of beating myself up and crying the whole year ’round over my brother’s death, I told myself to use it as motivation, use it to be positive."
Then in seventh grade, when his father, Nelson, went to prison on a felony conviction of laundering drug money, Adrian took a similar approach.
"I said, ‘Ya know what? I’m going to make my dad happy,’" Peterson says. "He made a mistake, and his own choices put him in that situation. But I went about looking at it in a different way, like there was a new motivation for me.
"I’ve been doing that my whole life."
• • •
Adrian Peterson has been given unbridled tenacity.
Maybe it’s part stubbornness, too — with a unique combination of anger and persistence mixed in. Whatever it is, Peterson hates accepting defeat.
It’s why, after rushing for 210 yards in a 23-14 loss at Green Bay in Week 13, he stood in front of his locker still insisting he should have done more, asserting that a 6-yard third-quarter run should have easily gone for 94 and lamenting that his 48-yard burst a few possessions earlier hadn’t reached the end zone — which, of course, would have rescued Christian Ponder from subsequently throwing an upset-killing interception in the end zone.
"When things go wrong," Peterson says, "I choose to focus on the things I could be doing better."
To be clear, Peterson’s positivity isn’t unshakable. Frazier absorbed the brunt of the running back’s ire on the first night of training camp when the Vikings made the medically-advised-but-still-tough-to-deliver decision that Peterson would open camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list.
It was a move that would confine Peterson to doing strength and conditioning and additional rehabilitation work on the side.
Like a cartoon character, the smoke blew from Peterson’s ears with a train-whistle shriek.
Recalls Frazier: "Ohhh. He was livid. [It was] ‘You’re holding me back! Why are you doing this to me?’"
"I was hot," Peterson confesses. "Furious. I can’t deny that. It was a lose-lose for me. I no longer had control. It’s not like I was going to refuse going on PUP. But I was angry because I felt I was ready. I knew I was ready."
Still, rather than act out or pout, Peterson lay down that night and figured out a way to win. He was having no luck quelling his urge to be back in practice with the guys.
"So I changed my view of the situation," Peterson says. "It was like, if I’m going to be working out over here on the side, I’ll work way harder than those guys are practicing."
Vikings athletic trainer Eric Sugarman and strength coach Tom Kanavy knew they would have a rodeo bull to tame. But who doesn’t like a challenge to break up the monotony of training camp? So with hopes of channeling Peterson’s intensity in the right direction, Sugarman and Kanavy plotted numerous ways to exhaust the running back.
Instead, it was Peterson exhausting every test, every drill, every apparatus they found for him.
Kanavy says he went through "the whole toy box of extra stuff." Quick foot ladders, speed ladders, kettle bells, battle ropes.
"We got to the point where we started taking the weights on the field," Kanavy says, "because Adrian had already blown through the resistant running and the parachute running and the pushing sleds, pulling sleds.
"If it had gone on any longer, I was going to have to start throwing rocks at him or something. Because we’d used everything else we had."
The Vikings kept waiting for the moment where Peterson would return from the previous day’s grueling workout and acknowledge significant fatigue or soreness or burnout.
It never came.
Says Sugarman: "Sometimes the most fun part of this job is trying to challenge these guys, to try to break them. Adrian’s not breakable."
• • •
Adrian Peterson has been given a golden opportunity this season. And the proper perspective to soak it all in.
On Aug. 12, a few days before training camp broke, Peterson was let out of the chute for his first practice. And even without testing himself in preseason action, he was, as he had always promised he would be, in the starting lineup Sept. 9 for the opener against Jacksonville.
As the Vikings offensive starters were announced, Peterson stood in the tunnel at Mall of America Field and flashed back to the hospital and the surgery and the moments he began envisioning his return.
"It had always seemed so far away," he says.
Now, it had arrived.
"Literally being at the end of that tunnel," Peterson says, "seeing the lights, seeing the fans, hearing it get louder and seeing my guys out there waiting for me to run through, it was like redemption."
Peterson ran for 84 yards and two touchdowns that day, breaking off a 20-yarder in overtime to spark the game-winning drive.
In truth, that could have been a triumphant exclamation point, Peterson’s recovery completed faster than anyone imagined.
A solid 1,000-yard season would have been universally applauded. But a return wasn’t all Peterson promised. He had also vowed to be better than before.
So he kept pushing, kept getting stronger, and before anyone knew it, he had begun a torrid stretch in which he smashed a team record with eight consecutive 100-yard rushing games — and still counting. During the surge, he has averaged 7.5 yards per carry and 164 yards per game, also tying an NFL single-season record with seven runs of longer than 50 yards.
• • •
Adrian Peterson has been given respect.
Teammates and coaches have come to appreciate Peterson’s dominance through different vantage points. Defensive end Jared Allen, for example, has spent five seasons enjoying the show.
"It’s like, ‘When is he going to break the next one? Oh, there he goes,’" Allen says. "I always tell him he needs to rest up. Because if I was the offensive coordinator, he’d carry the ball 75 times a game. I mean, look what he’s doing. It’s amazing. I just want to see it. I’m a fan."
Kalil? He’s been a part of Peterson’s mastery for all of 14 games and could only laugh in the locker room last Sunday after Peterson demoralized the Rams with 212 rushing yards.
"It’s kind of getting old," Kalil says, mostly joking. "He’s so good ... I’m following him downfield. It’s like front row seats for the best movie ever."
And then there’s Frazier, whose impressive ability to stabilize and focus a team would seem so much less significant if he didn’t have the playmaker in the 28 jersey to lean on.
Frazier calls Peterson "a great player who guys gravitate to and love to play with."
"The way our team has stuck together throughout the year, even during bumps in the road, is a direct reflection of Adrian’s approach," Frazier says. "The football part is amazing. We’re all in awe of his accomplishments. But his humility and his style of leadership resonates."
Frazier pauses, searching for the most complete way to express his appreciation.
"It’s rare that a guy of this magnitude is as gracious as Adrian," he says. "Over time, I’ve been around some very good players. And they make it clear in no uncertain terms that it’s about them. All about them. Adrian is not like that."
So now come those three letters: MVP, a title Peterson has every right to claim for the first time this season.
Ask him about it and he insists he has higher goals: reaching the playoffs and making a run at the Super Bowl.
Sure, that sentiment is sincere. But don’t think for a second it means Peterson doesn’t care at all about being named MVP. Remember, he doesn’t respond well to not winning.
You may not recall 2004, when after rushing for 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns as a freshman at Oklahoma, Peterson finished as runner-up to Southern California’s Matt Leinart for the Heisman Trophy. But Peterson does.
"I feel like I got robbed," he says, shaking his head as if the announcement had just come. "Without question. I was robbed. And it still bothers me."
Then, as usual, he shrugs.
"But I guess I can look at it like this. At least Matt Leinart has something he can look back on and say, ‘Bam! I won a Heisman Trophy.’"
Perhaps Peterson soon will have to convince himself to feel similarly pleased for Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. So be it.
"In my mind," he says, "whether I get the MVP or not, I’m a winner. Just look at my story. I don’t really feel like I have to say much."