By RICH CIRMINIELLO
A.D. Awing Doctors.
On Christmas Eve of 2011, Adrian Peterson sustained a direct hit to the left knee against the Washington Redskins. In a flash of misfortune, the fifth-year star running back of the Minnesota Vikings was jolted into a crossroads moment of a brilliant career. The injury looked bad on film, a hunch confirmed later that night when it was learned that Peterson had torn both his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. In layman’s terms, there was enough damage to prevent an athlete from ever being the same again.
Almost immediately, there were justifiable concerns that Peterson might not be available for the start of the 2012 campaign since the injury occurred so late in the year. It typically takes eight or nine months for an athlete to recover from ACL surgery, and it usually isn’t until the second year following the setback that a player regains all of his confidence and functionality. Good thing for the Vikings that Peterson is anything but typical.
Peterson zeroed in on his recovery shortly after New Year’s Day as if it was a gaping hole in an opposing defense. Right from the outset, his mind was in the right place, and his support staff, led by head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman, was top-notch. Peterson was fueled internally by ambition and the competitive drive to be ready for the start of training camp in July. He’d never been blessed with much patience, which actually wound up being an asset in this endeavor.
“From Day 1, Adrian’s attack was different,” said Sugarman, who has been involved with more than two dozen ACL recoveries during his career. “He was fearless from the first day we started working together until the opening game. He approached the process with the right attitude and frame of mind. And his work ethic and ability to heal are simply unmatched to anything I’ve ever witnessed.”
Peterson committed mind, body and spirit to his rehabilitation, consistently blowing past the timetable for recovery that was established for him by Sugarman. Long before he’d again absorb contact in a game or plant and cut to avoid a defender, it was becoming obvious that No. 28 was redefining what it meant to rebound from a serious injury. The confluence of hard work, steely determination and the genetics to heal in superhuman fashion positioned Peterson to rejoin his teammates in the summer. But there was still the business of getting into football shape, while conquering the mental side of returning to live action.
Although it’s hard to imagine it today, just prior to the start of the season, there was still lingering concern and uncertainty surrounding the condition of Peterson. Sure, he was healthy again and as chiseled as ever, but would he be the same player who’d been named to the Pro Bowl in four of his first five seasons? Would he succumb to the natural tendency to be a little tentative in the early going? Further shrouding the mystery was a predictably cautious Minnesota staff that sat its franchise playmaker for all four preseason games.
Leading up to the opener with Jacksonville, Peterson was listed as questionable to even play in the game. Gamesmanship by head coach Leslie Frazier? Perhaps. Not quite nine months since tearing up his knee, Peterson did make his return against the Jaguars, prompting an enormous exhale from the running back, the coaches and much of the state of Minnesota. He was placed on the equivalent of a baseball pitch count, carrying the ball only 17 times for 84 and two scores in a Vikings’ win. The numbers were irrelevant on Sept. 9. All that mattered was that Peterson was back, the toughest ordeal of his comeback beginning to shrink in the rear view mirror. The new objectives were to shake off some remaining rust and start building on the ground floor.
Oddly enough, Peterson’s start to the 2012 season was rather pedestrian. The first six weeks were essentially his preseason, a chance to get fully comfortable playing for the first time in his career with a surgically-repaired knee. Through Oct. 14, he was averaging fewer than 20 carries a game, and had gone over 100 yards just once. Still, the Vikes had already won more games than they had in all of 2011, and Peterson was moving further and further away from that fateful afternoon at FedEx Field a year earlier. It was on Oct. 21, with Arizona visiting, that everything began to change. Preseason was over. Pre-injury form had been recaptured.
Peterson erupted for 153 yards and a score on 23 carries against a pretty good Cardinals D, once and for all quelling what remained of the trepidation regarding his bionic knee. The Week 7 outburst was the beginning of a special run, a franchise-record eight consecutive games of at least 100 yards on the ground. The curious thing about Peterson was that he wasn’t just back from an injury—he was better, like Steve Austin better. He was as punishing and as quick through the hole as ever, bouncing off tacklers to gobble up more than 1,000 yards after contact for the season. Yet, Peterson was also navigating opposing defenses with more maturity and deftness than at any point in his career. During his rehab, he’d become a better student of the game, trusting his line and waiting for blocks to develop before exploding into daylight.
By the latter stages of the year, it’d become clear that Peterson was entering the rarified air of the NFL history books. This was no longer an inspirational comeback story. It was quickly becoming a season for the ages. The back had fiercely bullied his way to within reach of 2,000 yards on the ground, something achieved by only six other players. And even Eric Dickerson’s standard of 2,105 yards set in 1984 wasn’t safe. A model of consistency throughout his triumphant return, Peterson stood 208 yards from eclipsing the single-season rushing mark, with rival Green Bay visiting in the regular season finale. The Vikings needed a victory to qualify for the playoffs—high drama at its finest. Following another heroic effort, Peterson had lost the battle, but won the war; while he’d fallen seven yards shy of Dickerson’s record, Minnesota was playoff-bound after winning just three games in 2011.
By New Year’s Eve, the number of NFL backs who’d rushed for more than 2,000 yards in a season had risen to seven. The number who’d done it on a reconstructed knee within a year of suffering a potentially career-altering blow? One. Peterson has earned the 54th Bert Bell Award for the Professional Player of the Year with his on-field production, 2,097 yards on the ground and 13 total touchdowns, and for his ability to carry an offense that was light on complementary weapons. By authoring arguably the most inconceivable comeback from a major injury in the annals of athletics, though, he may have earned an even greater distinction. For rewriting the rehab protocol, Peterson will forever be a symbol of what’s possible for those who inevitably suffer a similar fate, regardless of the sport. Sure, he happens to be a freakish modern-day Bo Jackson of an athlete, but just knowing that the impossible is actually achievable will be a very powerful force for the next generation of hobbled stars.
Orthopedic doctors insist that an athlete is much better prepared for competition in his second year removed from ACL surgery. For defenses across the NFL forced to contain Peterson, it’s a chilling medical assertion. The back has already thrown down the gauntlet, suggesting in January that he’ll be shooting for 2,500 rushing yards in 2013. After fearlessly defying the odds, and using hurdles as motivational tools to elevate higher, it’d be foolish to doubt anything to which Peterson sets his mind these days.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story