It started, as everything does these days, on the Internet. A Vikings fan who calls himself Big Daddy Drew caught a clip of Adrian Peterson running over a few defenders in the preseason. Writing for the acclaimed blog "Kissing Suzy Kolber," Big D.D. intoned: "His name is not Adrian Peterson. It's Purple Jesus."
The designation percolated. Blasphemy aside, it gained steam. T-shirts were printed. Websites were created. Someone representing Jews for Purple Jesus began commenting on message boards.
A modern-day star was born.
Yes, at a time of darkness in the Twin Cities sports scene, Adrian Peterson has given us hope. Today, the Star Tribune honors him as its Sportsperson of the Year for making us relevant and giving the Vikings playoff potential with a record-setting rookie season.
Peterson's athletic prowess and smooth personality have elevated him to national stardom -- and, in the process, kept our wobbling sports market on the map even as the Twins dismantle, the Timberwolves crumble and several University of Minnesota teams rebuild.
"It's a little weird for someone to call you Purple Jesus," Peterson said. "I am a religious guy. I know that no one can be compared to Jesus or anything like that. But I look at it like this: I know what they're saying. They're not saying I'm the messiah. They're just saying that I've come in here and kept hope alive. In that aspect, it's pretty cool."
• • •
Our own F. Scott Fitzgerald offered to write a tragedy any time we showed him a hero. In that respect, it was a sad year for our sporting men and women.
The Twins, after missing the playoffs for only the second time in six years, bid farewell to popular center fielder Torii Hunter and are doing their best to trade pitching ace Johan Santana. The Timberwolves traded The Franchise, literally and figuratively, when they shipped Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics for a pile of players we've still never heard of.
The Wild flopped in a brief playoff appearance last spring. Gophers football was a field goal away from a winless season. The school's men's basketball program bottomed out with 22 losses in 31 games, and the women missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years. Even men's hockey -- a longtime source of civic pride -- is hovering uncharacteristically near .500.
Where was a Minnesotan to turn?
We approached Peterson with caution. He was injured all the time at the University of Oklahoma. He ran too upright and would get obliterated by an NFL linebacker. He couldn't catch.
But Big Daddy Drew was one of the first to catch on, concocting Purple Jesus after watching Peterson bowl over the New York Jets in August. For his part, Peterson captured his first 100-yard game in the Vikings' season opener. He pummeled the Chicago Bears for 224 yards on Oct. 14 and set the NFL record with 296 yards Nov. 4 against San Diego.
He was a national star by the middle of October, but he was ours first. Semi-apocryphal stories began to circulate around town.
Someone saw him at Valleyfair with his daughter, Adeja. An autograph session at a Minnetonka sporting goods store drew so many people that a line snaked around the building. Twice. After a rowdy group ran out on its late-night bill at a local restaurant, Peterson quietly hugged the frazzled waitress and paid the bill.
(Asked about that later charge, Peterson smiled and said, "I don't recall that.")
We needed Adrian Peterson. In 2007, he was our quick fix. Like the best drugs, he went straight to our bloodstream.
At least, that's the way one young man felt last week at the Mall of America. During a charity event for the African-American Adoption Agency, Peterson said, "It really dawned on me what has happened."
"One kid, he was maybe 13 or 14 years old," he said. "I went over to shake his hand, and he was speechless. He couldn't say anything. He put his hand out, and he was just shaking. I was like, 'Dang, this is the kind of impact I've had.' That's really rewarding.
"Everyone has just shown me so much support. People are always coming up to me, congratulating me and telling me how much they appreciate me bringing new twists to the Vikings and giving them a star athlete here in town."
• • •
Earlier this year, Peterson announced a modest career goal: "To be the best player to ever play this game." And yet, that statement does not fully encompass The Plan. Adrian Peterson wants to be a star -- and when he uses that word, it's clear he is not just talking about big turnouts at suburban autograph signings.
He's talking Michael Jordan big. Tiger Woods huge.
"Growing up in a small town [Palestine, Texas]," he said, "I always had a dream of playing in the NFL and being a star. I wanted to be a star like Michael Jordan and the guys that you see on television all the time. That's who I want to be. They're awfully good at their profession on the field, and off the field as well."
Suffice it to say, he's got all the makings.
In Green mythology, heroes always came from tragedy. Peterson's own story of heartbreak has been well-told. At 8, he watched as his 9-year-old brother, Brian, was struck and killed by a drunken driver. A stepbrother, Chris Paris, was shot and killed last February.
Yet like all stars, Peterson has a flair for the dramatic. The day after his stepbrother's death, Peterson ran a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL rookie scouting combine, solidifying his status as the draft's best running back.
Eight months later, when the Vikings were in danger of blowing a big lead in Chicago, he returned a kickoff 53 yards to put them in position for the game-winning field goal. Just last week, he turned a busted play -- he ran the wrong way and bumped into the quarterback -- into a highlight-reel, game-winning touchdown on "Monday Night Football."
Even without the pads, we have felt the heat of his shine.
Peterson has an easy and genuine smile, one that doesn't change when the cameras comes on. He's got the looks. Let's face it, a Minnesotan's hero doesn't have dreadlocks or a mullet, and he doesn't have tattoos up and down his arms.
Peterson keeps his hair tight and his tattoos to himself, and his eyebrows have the suspicious look of a wax job. (Hey Adrian, don't be embarrassed; Cris Carter was a regular at local manicurists.)
Not surprisingly, he soon will be starring in a national advertisement for Nike. His purple No. 28 is the top-selling jersey in the country.
All of which puts Minnesotans in quite a pickle. We've been through this before. KG left us. Torii got his big money elsewhere. Johan wants to play on a bigger stage. As much fun as Purple Jesus has been, isn't it just a matter of time before he leaves us?
After all, he plays the NFL's most grueling position. Running backs don't last long. He's already wearing a knee brace to protect a torn ligament.
Just last week, in fact, Big Daddy Drew wrote in an e-mail: "He's a supernova who's destined to burn bright and burn quick."
But for 2007, at least, he was a white light. And he was ours.