In the shadow of the roller coasters inside the Mall of America, 20 restaurants have laid out tables overflowing with their best dishes for Taste of the Vikings, the team's annual charity event, held this year on Nov. 19, during Minnesota's bye week. But when the doors open at 7 p.m., the guests, who'd paid $150 apiece, run not for barbecued meats, sliders and cupcakes. They run for Adrian Peterson.
The first 50 people to line up inside and pay an extra $50 can have their photo taken with the running back. Ponder will be in the frame too, but he is under no illusions. "Everyone wants to come see him," Ponder says. "It's fine. It's fun."
Earlier in the day Peterson had asked Anderson how long he had to stay at this mandatory event. But once it got going, he looked like there was nowhere else he would rather be. "I always see the kids, the fans, their faces light up," he says. "You want to spend extra time."
"I'll tell you what: Adrian's a real schmoozer, man," Ponder says. Ticket holders approach timidly, bearing Vikings helmets and jerseys and scraps of paper, and Peterson signs each item with a flourish. He has a compliment for everybody. He tells people with glasses that he likes their frames and asks where he can buy a pair. He admires an older woman's coiffure. "She had some nice, red hair," Peterson says. "You don't really see redheads that much." For each photo he leans in closer and smiles more broadly than he had for the last.
Supremely talented athletes can be selfish with their gifts. They will display them but haughtily make it clear that they are doing so for themselves alone, and off the field or the court they live behind gates and tinted windows and velvet ropes. Peterson is not that way. While his singular gifts are his own—he was born with them (his father, Nelson, and mother, Bonita Jackson, were both decorated amateur athletes), he works to exploit them, he has suffered for them—he wants to share them. He wants to allow people—and not just his parents and siblings and friends, including his girlfriend, Ashley, and their 16-month-old son, Adrian Jr., and his eight-year-old daughter, Adeja, who lives in Texas, but everyone—to make his joy their joy.
The last photo snapped, Peterson walks slowly through the Taste of the Vikings event trailed by a growing crowd. He is wearing a brown plaid dress shirt with a white collar buttoned all the way up. His left cuff is monogrammed with the letters AD. They stand for All Day, the nickname his father gave him when he was a tireless toddler. Peterson stops to talk about the shape of his career, and what the future might hold. He is 27 now—not old for a great running back, but not young, either. Brown retired at 29. Sanders retired at 31. Surely All Day has reached high noon?
"I'm still in the morning," Peterson says. "I feel like I can play 10, 12 more years. You look at Ray Lewis, London Fletcher, Charles Woodson, Antoine Winfield on our team—there are a lot of guys who have played in the league for a long time and are still getting it done."
None of those guys, it is pointed out, is a running back. "Yeah, it's a different beast, with the wear and tear on your body. But I feel good, man." He shrugs.
"If he says he wants to play 10 more years, if there's anybody who can do it, it'll be him," says Leslie Frazier, the Vikings' coach.
Peterson has other plans, too. He has spoken with Magic Johnson to get advice on becoming a socially conscious entrepreneur. And he wants to run the 400 meters for Team USA at the Rio Olympics in 2016. "People look at me crazy," says Peterson, who as a high schooler in East Texas clocked an official (though wind-aided) 10.33 seconds in the 100-meter dash, and who swears his personal best is 10.19. "I just sit back and smile."