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Most of the stories concern his body, and the remarkable things he can do with it. The day after games Peterson likes to squat 405 pounds, but he can lift much more. Once, he walked up to a squat rack that had just been used by a few offensive linemen and was loaded with nearly 600 pounds. "Do you know how much is on that?" Kanavy asked. Peterson shrugged and started his reps.
This past October, Peterson attended the team's annual Halloween party dressed as the Incredible Hulk. People who do not normally see him out of pads asked where he'd gotten those extraordinary prosthetics for his upper body. There were no prosthetics—just a few coats of green paint. "Looked way better than Lou Ferrigno did," says Greenway.
The true source of Peterson's power, however, is his legs, which force you to expand your conception of what a human being's legs can look like. "They're like a horse's," says Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder of Peterson's lower limbs, which are impossibly muscled and so riddled with popping veins that it looks as if they've been vacuum-packed into his skin. They're also crosshatched with dozens of scars, which, like those on a great chef's fingers, indicate the nature of his life's work. "It's from constantly just churning through people," says Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. "Being a rough kid, too," Peterson adds.
Peterson's most prominent scars are on his left knee, and he acquired those from the scalpel of famed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews in Birmingham just six days after the injury. There are two scars, because Peterson also ruptured his MCL on that afternoon against the Redskins. Most ACL patients wait several weeks for surgery, so that the swelling can subside, but Peterson, with Week 1 in mind, insisted on going under the knife as soon as possible. Andrews operated on the morning of Dec. 30. That afternoon he explained to Peterson that he most likely wouldn't be able to even lift his damaged leg from a seated position for two weeks. "Like this?" Peterson asked, as he lifted the leg. "Like that," Andrews said.
One of the most important parts of rehabilitation, Sugarman explains, is managing the athlete's expectations so that he doesn't get discouraged during the painful and grueling process. "Some mornings I might have been like, I'm not sure how he's going to do," Sugarman says, of Peterson. "By the end of the day there was never a doubt. He blew away every landmark, every goal we had."
By April, four months after his surgery, Peterson had grown weary of competing just against his own healing body. One day he wistfully watched as his teammates ran a set of 16 gassers—sprints from sideline to sideline and back, each of which must be completed in under 16 seconds—as part of their off-season conditioning program. He asked Sugarman if he could join them. "I say, 'Adrian, that's not a good idea,'" Sugarman recalls. "He says, 'Listen, I'm not foolish, I'll be under control. Let me get two reps with those guys.' He did it, and he blew everyone away."
Peterson did not play a down during the preseason, and he was officially listed as questionable for the season opener, at home against Jacksonville. But he started, and soon Toby Gerhart, his backup since 2010, knew that he and the bench were destined to spend another season together. "Going into the year, everybody was talking about how I'm going to be splitting carries with him, how I'm a big fantasy sleeper," Gerhart says. "The first game, it was obvious—he was ready."
Peterson ran for 84 yards on 17 carries against the Jaguars, but, as the Vikings expected, he has improved as he has continued to get stronger. Over the season's first four games Peterson averaged 83 rushing yards. The next four, he averaged 111. In his last six he has averaged an astounding 173, putting nearly a quarter mile between him and Marshawn Lynch, the NFL's second-leading rusher, with only history ahead of him.
Peterson is back to doing what only he can do, making Tecmo Bowl runs that are unpredictable even to opponents who think they might have discovered a hint of a tendency on game film. "When you see him run live, and he makes some crazy cut—in a situation that might have come up in the past, just a different cut—you go, Is that humanly possible?" says Vikings running backs coach James Saxon. Remarkably, those closest to him can see that he is still not entirely right. "You can tell he's not 100 percent," says Antoine Winfield, a 35-year-old cornerback who has been with the Vikings since 2004, three years before Peterson's rookie season. "He's not as explosive coming in and out of his cuts as I've seen him. That'll come."
In fact, when Peterson examines his legs—those rippling, scarred-up legs—he's not happy with what he sees. "I'm looking at my legs all the time, and I can see how much more defined my right one is," he says. "Knowing my body, knowing how much stronger it's going to become, that's how I know I'm going to continue to get better." This seems like a good time for a reminder that Peterson, in his current form, needs to average 147 yards in the next two games to break the 28-year-old single-season rushing record and is on pace to become just the fourth man in history, after O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, to average more than 120 yards per game and 6.0 per carry. What would "better" even look like?