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On a sultry mid-July afternoon in the Vikings' indoor practice space in Eden Prairie, Vikings assistant Tom West offers a warning about running back Adrian Peterson's legendary metacarpal-mashing handshake: "It's kind of his trademark," he says. "He's one of those guys that'll look you in the eye and give you a firm shake."
Meanwhile, the second-year phenom is taking part in a promotional youth football clinic. Clad in black shorts, a black tee, and black Nikes—multi-carat diamond earrings glistening in each ear—Peterson shows a gaggle of awestruck middle-schoolers the proper technique for receiving a pitch.
"First, you gotta look it in," he tells them, a hint of Texas in his voice. "Then you take off...like this." An assistant tosses him the pigskin. Peterson expertly looks the ball into his calloused mitts, and he's off. Even at drill speed, his cartoonish velocity is readily apparent. His veiny frog legs don't so much stride as flutter.
"It's fun coming out here and interacting with the kids," he says after the clinic. "Sometimes I feel like a big kid myself."
Peterson's handshake more than lives up to its lore. There's no point in trying to equal this inhuman vise grip. If you do, the sinews of his forearm will pop out as he enhances his clasp, and your smile will twist into a pained grimace.
Peterson's one-upmanship shake is an extension of his unspoken yet obvious personal philosophy: Anything you can do, I can do stronger. Or, for that matter, faster. Or, as a bevy of NFC defensive backs have learned over the past 14 months, both.
Peterson's rookie season was less a coming-out party and more a one-man blitzkrieg assault. He shocked. He awed. He injected the Metrodome with a voltage of electricity not felt since the days of Randy Moss.
But any comparisons to the notoriously brash Moss end there. In fact, the Vikings' current marquee player has been cast by the national media as something of an anti-Moss: a soft-spoken, damn-near-bashful 23-year-old from rural Texas (Palestine, pop: 18,000), a man GQ described this summer as a "shy, sweet, a-little-embarrassed-by-all-the-attention kid."
While there's some truth to this idea, not even Peterson is evasive enough to hide the fact that he knows he's good. You can see this in the way he prowls the sidelines, chin up, shoulders back, and the angry, barreling running technique he employs on the field, a style that gathers no moss, Randy or otherwise.
Last season, a year in which he would have been a senior at Oklahoma had he stayed, the 6'1", 217-pounder set a season franchise record with 5.6 yards per carry. He pranced and bruised for a franchise second-best 1,341 yards and, had he not been sidelined for two games with a bum knee, would almost certainly have broken the record.
"I understand the offense a lot better this season," Peterson says. "I try to keep my tempo high every day."
That tempo earned Peterson his nickname. When he was three, he would scamper about the house like a sugar-crazed hellion, compelling his parents, Bonita and Nelson, to christen him "All Day."
"He's just full-go all the time," says veteran center and six-time Pro Bowler Matt Birk. "I remember last year at the Pro Bowl: Most guys are just trying not to get hurt and look good. You give him the ball and he runs as hard as he can—just as hard as he does in regular games. He knows only one speed."
There was an anticipatory buzz coming into this season. The Vikings' front office had made some big moves during the offseason, picking up defensive end Jared Allen, last year's NFL sack leader, and Bernard Berrian, a speedy deep-threat wideout. Last year's liabilities (pass rushing and receiving corps) were now strong suits. Forget playoffs. The Vikings suddenly found themselves in an unfamiliar position: that of dark-horse Super Bowl contenders.
Peterson entered training camp against this backdrop of understandably ultra-high expectations. Where, just one year prior, he had diligently hauled veteran running back Chester Taylor's shoulder pads to and from practice, he was now the main attraction of a playoff-caliber football team.
Having endured the national media spotlight since his days as a Sooner (he was featured in ESPN The Magazine as a 19-year-old), Peterson is hardly a newbie when it comes to celebrity, but he's still not totally used to it.
"Sometimes it gets a little annoying," he says on a 90-degree afternoon in Mankato, one week deep into training camp. "But I'm blessed to be in this position, so I enjoy it. Some days I'm just like, 'Man, I just want to have my space and live a normal life!' It is what it is. Maybe when I'm 50 and no one's gathering around me anymore, I'll be sitting there wishing they were."
Less than five minutes later, a man with two kids at his side moseys up to the equipment cart on which Peterson sits.
"Hi, sorry to bother you," he says. "But my son and his buddy here are big fans. We just wanted to say hi and good luck this season."
"No problem," says Peterson, turning his attention to the young duo.
"How old are you?" he asks one.
"I'm six," replies the kid, who would be blushing were his cheeks not already sunburned.
Names are exchanged. Peterson extends his hand for a shake.
We're about to witness a disaster.
But no. Peterson relaxes his infamous death grip, and neither youngster grimaces in discomfort, let alone shrieks in pain.
One question surrounding Peterson entering this season was whether he'd be able to pull it back on the field. If there was a criticism to be made, it was that he sometimes showed an addict-like zeal for the big play, trying to take it to the house every time he touched the ball. There were times, especially at the beginning of the season, when he'd try to out-juke defenders in the backfield, or run cross-field, and get tripped up for a loss or no-gain as a result.
"Obviously you never want to tell a guy, 'Don't take it to the house,'" head coach Brad Childress said three days before their September 28 game against the Tennessee Titans. "But we're telling him to stay true to his spot, and allow his eyes and instinct take over from there. Some of those early three- to four-yard gains will get a lot further later on in the game."
In week 13, the Vikings faced the Chicago Bears at the Metrodome. The matchup saw a patient Peterson continue his streak of abusing the Bears (he came in averaging a robust 6.8 yards per carry against Chicago and would eat up 131 yards by game's end). More importantly, the 31-14 victory put the resurgent Vikings at 7-5—8-5 after Sunday's victory over the hapless Detroit Lions—good enough for first place in the NFC North.
In the locker room after the Chicago game, a horde of reporters gathered around Peterson's locker. When somebody asked if he was aware of the success he'd had against the Bears, Peterson's first instinct was to lay on thickly the aw-shucksness.
But he's unable to keep a straight face.