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The letter came from somewhere in Illinois, addressed to the Minnesota Vikings, ATTENTION: PURPLE JESUS. This was not the usual plea for a signed photo or a sweaty sock but a request for Adrian Peterson to channel his inner Dr. Phil. "I know the season is approaching and everyone is very busy," begins the note from a woman who figured the best way to get her boyfriend of five years to marry her was to have Peterson call him. "I am getting tired of waiting for him, and in this day and age it's OK for the girl to ask, right?" ¶ In his third season as a pro, Peterson has suddenly become everyone's wanted man, running shirtless in a television ad for the NFL, in slow-motion black-and-white for Nike and full tilt out of the backfield for the Vikings. Globally, he is fast becoming the face of football, real and fantasy. Locally, in Eden Prairie, Minn., he remains the neighborhood big brother who plays catch with schoolkids and collects the cookies and doughnuts they leave at his doorstep.
"The kids always bring the best snacks," says Peterson's uncle Chris Smith, who lives part time with the running back in the large suburban house. "I'm like, 'We can't eat that stuff. We're trying to stay sexy.'"
On Sunday, Peterson displayed his own gifts in a 34--20 victory at Cleveland Browns Stadium, tearing up the Browns' defense with the kind of speed and violent running that harks back to the game's greats. With Jim Brown in attendance and Brett Favre making his first start for Minnesota, it was Peterson who displayed the greatest star power, toughing out 180 rushing yards on 25 carries and three touchdowns, including a 64-yard dash down the left sideline that featured five broken tackles and two stiff arms.
He played through dehydration and a bloody gash on his left arm, and spent a portion of halftime vomiting. For Peterson, it was worth it. Cleveland was one of the six teams that passed on drafting him out of Oklahoma in 2007 because of concerns about his durability.
More than Favre or any member of Minnesota's defense, Peterson is the heart of a 48-year-old franchise that's still in pursuit of its first Super Bowl trophy. Is he the best running back in the NFL? "I answer that question this way," Peterson says. "I want people to remember me as the best player to ever play the game. When you think about football, I want my name to pop up in your head."
Three days before the game in Cleveland, Peterson was sitting on his living room couch eating a steak with baked potato and broccoli, prepared by Geji McKinney, who is both the team's and his personal chef. The television was tuned to the NFL opener between the Steelers and the Titans, and Peterson was relishing every hard hit.
"If I could play any other position, it would be safety," he explained. "Sometimes I just want to hit somebody. One of these days you're going to see me as the gunner on special teams. You watch."
At 24, Peterson can't help but exude the confidence of a world-class athlete entering his prime. Last month, after watching Usain Bolt set the world record in the 100 meters, Peterson turned to his uncle and offered this assessment: "Now I'm not saying I'd have beat him, but I'd have been in the race."
Vikings receiver Sidney Rice recalled the day last winter when Peterson tried to play Superman with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's Lexus. The three players were driving on the interstate after dinner when a tire blew.
"He didn't want to call a tow truck," Rice says of Peterson. "He wanted to fix it himself. He gets out, starts lifting the car and going, 'Pull, pull, pull.'"