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First there was the physical pain. It turns out that the experience of having a 201-pound man dive into your planted left leg from the side, forcing your knee to bend in a way knees are not made to bend, is excruciating. "I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy," says Adrian Peterson, the owner of the knee in question.
Worse, though, was the psychological pain. Even as he fell to the turf against the Redskins at FedEx Field last Dec. 24, Peterson—who was 26 and had been at the peak of his physical ability a second before—began to understand what had just happened to him in the penultimate game of a desultory 3--13 season. "I knew my ACL was outta there," he says, a diagnosis that would be confirmed on the field by a test called the Lachman maneuver, administered by Vikings team doctor Joel Boyd. A tear of the anterior cruciate ligament is among the cruelest injuries any athlete can suffer. It takes most running backs a full calendar year to return to the field and another year to regain their previous form. Even in an age in which surgical and rehabilitation techniques have seen major advances, many backs are never the same, and Peterson knew it. "Why me?" he said repeatedly as he gripped the arm of the team's athletic trainer, Eric Sugarman.
As Peterson sat with both legs propped up on a padded table in the visitors' training room, straining to follow the events of the game through the distant roars of the crowd, with his left knee burning and throbbing and entombed in a brace, he thought about two things. The first was a boy he had noticed in the stands when he ran out onto the field two hours earlier. The fan was wearing a replica of Peterson's purple number 28 jersey and held a sign saying that what he wanted for Christmas was the running back's autograph. "I get a good feel on people when I see their face, their expression, the energy they have," Peterson says. "He was full of joy and happy."
"I'll get you after the game," Peterson had called out to the boy. "I promise. I'll get you."
He would not be on the field after the game, of course, so Peterson asked Jeff Anderson, the Vikings' VP of communications, to get the jersey from the boy and bring it to him. MERRY CHRISTMAS 2011, he wrote on the 2, and signed his name, careful not to twist too much while he wrote as to disturb his destroyed knee. On the white 8 he inscribed ALL DAY/GOD BLESS.
Peterson's second thought was that he would not just return to being the best running back in the world, which he'd been less than an hour before; he'd be even better, and he'd do it not in two years, or in one, but in 263 days—in time for the Vikings' 2012 season opener. "It was remarkable to see how quickly he was able to digest it, get his mind around it and move forward," says Sugarman. "I don't remember anyone ever looking forward that quickly."
"My mind just clicked over," Peterson explains. "I'll come back. I'll bounce back better."
Now that Peterson is 14 games into one of the most stunning comebacks any NFL player has ever made, now that, after a phenomenal 212 yards on 24 carries in a 36--22 win at St. Louis, he is just 188 yards from becoming the seventh man to rush for 2,000 in a season and has a realistic chance of breaking Eric Dickerson's NFL single-season record of 2,105, the world knows what that young boy learned last Christmas Eve: If Adrian Peterson says he's going to do something, he will do it.
The stories Peterson's teammates like to swap about him make it sound as if the Vikings' locker room is home to some sort of benevolent superalien. He is one of them—Peterson is extremely well-liked, even though he is the big star on a humble, small-market team—but he will often do things to remind them that he is different from them, too.
There are, for instance, stories about his diet. He is one of the world's fittest athletes. His body fat is 5.3%, meaning that 208 of the 220 pounds on his 6'1" frame are lean mass, the same, says Vikings strength coach Tom Kanavy, as an average 250-pound linebacker. But Peterson does not just have a sweet tooth—he has a mouth full of them. There was the Bible study session a few years ago to which Peterson brought a tube of raw cookie dough. He proceeded to peel back the wrapper like a candy bar and eat it all. Then there was the legendary snack he consumed on the evening of Oct. 13, 2007, at the team hotel in Chicago. Peterson filled a large Styrofoam takeout container with scoops of ice cream and slices of cheesecake. "He just hammered the whole thing," reports linebacker Chad Greenway. The following afternoon Peterson ran for 224 yards against the Bears. "It's like in Back to the Future when they're dumping garbage into the DeLorean for fuel," says Kanavy, who makes certain to note that these were anomalies and that Peterson's diet is typically very nutritious.