MINNEAPOLIS — Dave Winfield knows a thing or two about the obstacle course laid out in front of Adrian Peterson this time two years ago.
More than a decade before the reigning NFL MVP and his seemingly superhuman knee ligaments had the entire sports world gawking, Winfield faced a dire scenario of his own. The Hall of Famer from St. Paul missed the New York Yankees’ entire 1989 season with a back injury that required surgery.
All Winfield did was win the 1990 MLB comeback player of the year award, then spend five more seasons terrorizing American League pitchers, including a World Series victory with Toronto in 1992.
Even so, Peterson’s own journey from the disabled list to the top of his sport still has Winfield shaking his head.
“Football is a minute-to-minute, game-to-game, survival, gladiator sport,” said Winfield, a two-sport star at the University of Minnesota. “He had a devastating injury, and for him to come back as he did — let me put it this way: not everyone could be able to do it, so I marvel at what he’s been able to do.”
So did the entire world of sport as the man they call “All Day” came within a few yards of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record and hauled the Vikings to the playoffs a year after tearing both the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee. With the resurgence have come all the honors, benefits, attention and scrutiny of a national figurehead — the kind that strut down red carpets like the one inside the St. Paul RiverCentre for the Starkey Hearing Foundation’s annual gala Sunday.
A last-minute conflict prevented Peterson from attending himself, but fellow athletes, teammates and other modern-day idols were more than happy to share their perceptions of him.
His skill, work ethic and resolve solidify his celebrity among far-off observers. His humility allows him to carry it as adroitly as he does a football every Sunday during the fall, according to those familiar with him on a more personal level.
The growing legend of Peterson is one of both adoration and appreciation.
“A freak of nature,” former Vikings running back Robert Smith called him.
“Not even human,” actor Sinbad quipped bluntly.
“A humble superstar” was former Minnesota teammate Ben Leber’s societal paradox of a characterization.
“I don’t know how he does it,” the linebacker-turned-FOX college football commentator and part-time sports radio personality said. “I really don’t. Once you get to be around him, you realize he’s a pretty low key guy, anyway.”
Even with his image slapped on mock-ups for the new Vikings Stadium and in Nike ads that circulate throughout the world.
That’s part of the territory when a running back can seemingly do anything with a football in his hands.
“When I see Adrian Peterson, he’s like any great athlete — no, I shouldn’t say great — the greatest of great athletes, who can perform anywhere, any time and just dominate,” said former Yankees player and baseball broadcaster Tony Kubek, a Milwaukee native and admitted Green Bay Packers apologist. “He has such drive, just physically, but the will to just keep going and plowing on and not only knocking over guys but twirling around guys and being such a key player.”
But adulation is often accompanied by suspicion, sometimes outright accusation.
For Peterson, it’s been talk that performance-enhancing drugs — specifically Human Growth Hormone — helped fuel his remarkable return. To label his response an adamant no would be an understatement.
Test me, he told his detractors Friday from training camp in Mankato. I’ve got nothing to hide from you.
For all the outsider knows, Peterson could be the next Ryan Braun or Lance Armstrong, lying through his facemask.
Not a chance, said the man whose Vikings records Peterson has spent the past six seasons shattering.
“I absolutely believe him,” said Smith, who spent all seven of his NFL seasons in Minneapolis. “Knowing what I know about him from the outside and what I’ve heard about him, I just don’t think he’s the kind of guy that would do that, just because I know how hard he works. The guy’s attitude, I think it’s beneath him to do something like that, quite frankly. In hearing his comments about it, I think he takes pride in the fact that he doesn’t need it.”
The same goes for Leber, who played with Peterson for five seasons and made a strong push with the NFL Players Association for more stringent drug testing.
“I’m going to jump on his back, much like the offense did last year, and ride his comments,” Leber said. “I think it’s great for the game, it’s gonna make the game safer, and it’s great to see a guy like Adrian step up, being a superstar that he is, and saying, ‘Listen, guys. I’m doing things the right way, and test me, because I want to lead by example.'”
Assuming Smith and Leber are correct, it’s a simple mixture that allows men like Peterson and Winfield to endure months away from the game they love and intense, often frustrating rehab.
Aggression (Peterson successfully stood next to his hospital bed just hours after surgery to reconstruct his knee) combined with patience (his rehab process took roughly nine months). It’s a tough tightrope to traverse.
“It takes hard work, dedication, belief that you can do it, and take enough time,” said Winfield, a nine-time league MVP. “I took enough time to make sure I healed, but I was working all along.”
Yet, for all the wonder at his recovery and awe at his ability to identify holes and truck would-be tacklers, “Adrian Peterson” and “ego” have yet to become closely associated ideas.
Instead, the image of Peterson is that of a consummate professional, the one that inflicts punishment upon opponents then stops to shake as many fans’ hands as he can on the way out of the stadium.
And even a year after emerging as one of the faces of the NFL, that’s the Peterson that reported for training camp late last week, teammate Kyle Rudolph said.
“He’s handled it like you would expect him to,” said Rudolph, who played in the 2013 Pro Bowl alongside Peterson. “Adrian’s the kind of guy that you love to have on your team, not only because of the kind of player he is, but the kind of person he is. He doesn’t change one bit. He works just as hard now as he did last year coming off the ACL injury.”