HOUSTON – Perhaps the best story of the NFL season is Adrian Peterson's chase of Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing mark. The story behind that story is Peterson's amazing ability to return from a devastating ACL tear only a year ago.
And there is actually a story behind that story.
Peterson is, like Bo Jackson before him, an incredible and rare blend of power and speed. It almost is an unnatural combination, as someone that large shouldn't be so fast, and someone so fast shouldn't be that large. Peterson was running 4.4 40s at 215 pounds coming out of high school. He's a big target not only for intrepid linebackers, but also for the devious duo of torque and gravity.
Ultimately Jackson's uncanny strength and speed turned out to be his downfall, as he was cut down too soon by a hip that couldn't propel him and harness him at the same time. Peterson's ACL tear proves that crippling injuries can happen at any time, and especially to someone applying that much force to every stride.
Fortunately for the Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson, who needs 208 yards against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday to break Dickerson's record of 2,105 yards, there was someone who realized this long ago.
That person is Jeff Harrell, Peterson's high school coach. A lot of those who have followed Peterson's career already know about Harrell, but put yourself in his shoes for a moment. You coach at Palestine High, two hours outside Houston, and you have a good program but not a powerhouse. Then Adrian Peterson comes along. What could that mean for you?
"Adrian could have played any position," Harrell said last week by phone. "He could have played linebacker."
Imagine the temptation. This young man is unstoppable at the NFL level. He was unstoppable at Oklahoma. So imagine him in high school. Peterson could have blitzed, returned kicks, anything. A lot of high school stars play both ways, but not a lot of high-schoolers can run a 10.33 100 meters, as Peterson could.
He was a would-be weapon wherever he was put on the field and, as we've learned, he had the attitude to make himself useful.
"He wanted to play," Harrell says. "He wanted to play anything. He wanted to practice. If you held him out, he wanted to be in there. He would play offensive guard if you let him. He didn't care. He wanted to play."
So what did Harrell do? He said no. Often.
"I couldn't live with myself if he got hurt and there was no reason for him to be in the game," Harrell explains.
Palestine did very well with the kid they called "A.D." The school won nine games both of his varsity seasons. It probably could have won more.
"I tried to do what I thought was the right thing and what was best for him," Harrell says. "He didn't understand all the time but he does now."
Make no mistake, Harrell ran Peterson hard. He even told him to line up eight yards behind the line of scrimmage because he got so much momentum so quickly. His offensive coordinator, Tommy Allison, remembers giving the ball to Peterson again and again on one drive before trying a couple of pass plays in the red zone. It got to third-and-goal from the 15 and Harrell walked over to his assistant and said, "Tommy, give the big cat the ball."
He did, and Peterson ran it in.
There were games, as you can imagine, when nobody could tackle him. That included his last one as a high-schooler when he ran for 350 yards and six touchdowns … in the first half. Nobody wanted that game to end, so Harrell's decision to sit A.D. for the second half didn't go over too well. Peterson could have hit 3,000 yards for the season with one more long run. Harrell stuck with his gut.
Who knows? Maybe Peterson could have played two ways and ran for 600 yards a game and lasted just as long in college and the pros. But the story of Bo Jackson and Marcus Dupree and even Marcus Lattimore says the old coach did a good deed. He doesn't want any credit for it – he's just happy to be part of this story – but Harrell's decisions are part of this story. A good part of this story.
"The things that he's accomplishing now," Harrell says of Peterson, "could not happen to a better person."
Last weekend, Peterson rented out two suites in Houston's Reliant Stadium for friends and family. Harrell wasn't there. He goes to only one game a year, which happened to be the week before when Peterson broke through the Rams' defense and sprinted more than 80 yards to the end zone. In Waco, where Allison coaches now, the former offensive coordinator saw the run and marveled to his sons, "Just like high school!"
Those Peterson's runs are something Harrell and Allison are used to seeing.
Thanks to A.D., and the restraint shown by his former coaches, they're something we're all now used to seeing, too.
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