ASHBURN, Va. -- To understand why the Washington Redskins' Adrian Peterson still thinks he can be a top running back, you need to understand his mindset. That, of course, is difficult for most people to do.
Most people haven’t run for more than 12,000 yards in the NFL. Most people haven’t recovered from a torn ACL near the end of one season and run for more than 2,000 the next. Nor have most people accomplished that feat while playing half that season with a sports hernia.
Those who know him understand this mindset. Yes, Peterson is 33 years old, but for them he’s just not someone you question. Peterson says he can still play at a high level; they believe him. In the season opener at Arizona, Peterson -- in a new offense -- rushed for 96 yards.
He makes his regular-season home debut at FedEx Field on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. That is the stadium where Peterson tore his ACL on Christmas Eve in 2011, yet somehow it put him on a path to a near-NFL record season in 2012. And it’s where he once more tries to defy odds.
“Knowing him, I would never doubt anything,” said Redskins left tackle Trent Williams, a close friend and offseason workout companion. “If he says he can do something, very rarely do I say, 'No you can’t.'”
And what Peterson wants to do is prove, once more, that he’s the best running back in the NFL. He has a combined 601 rushing yards over the past two seasons, limited to 13 games because of injuries.
He knows there always will be doubters; he uses that to not just return, but to reach the same level as in the past.
“That's the way that I've always tried to view any situation that I encounter,” he said. “Always coming back to make the best out of it.”
It's not always easy. In 2012, nobody had ever returned from such a serious knee injury to post such a season. Just four players have rushed for more than 1,000 yards at age 33 or older. It’s natural for even Peterson to have doubts.
“I do sometimes,” he said. “But I don’t let it sit there. I don’t let it soak. It goes through my mind, different negative thoughts, but I cast them out.”
There’s a reason, and it’s found in those who have worked with him throughout his career, starting with his dad in pee-wee football. You can even go back to when Peterson was 3 years old. His dad, Nelson, said he’d have him hang on the door in a pullup position. Nelson would leave the room and when he’d return a minute or so later, his son would still be in that same position.
“He would hold himself there, ‘I’m going to hang here until Daddy gets back,’” Nelson said. “We had a saying it was, ‘No pain ... no pain.’ He would fall down and you know how kids fall down, they look for you to pick him up. I wouldn’t do that. I’d say, ‘No pain. No one will feel sorry for you. Get up, let’s go.'"
He was a ball of energy, earning the nickname “All Day.” But when Peterson was around 6 or 7, his father wanted to teach him how to initiate contact as a running back. He had him stand up with full pads on in practice and told him to drop his head. Nelson had another player start 5 yards away, then run over and tackle Adrian. Then Nelson put the ball in his son’s hand and lined up another boy 5 yards away and had them run into each other.
“I asked him which one feels best to you,” Nelson said. “That’s the mental toughness. At an early age, you understand you’ll get hit or they get hit. One of the two. He developed that mental toughness. I didn’t baby him.
“Another thing you can’t overlook is his mom. Oh my god. She’s just as much a competitor as I am. She hates to lose. He has a mom who has that same edge.”
You should also know this: Nelson, at 55, says he can bench-press 365 pounds and lift 225 pounds 25 times. Based on the size of his arms, it’s wise to agree.
Nelson remembers two things from the visitors’ locker room after the 2011 knee injury: His son telling him to make sure a fan in the stands got his jersey signed, a promise made before the game; and Adrian telling him, “I’m playing next year. I’ll be ready.”
Former University of Oklahoma strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt tried to break Peterson, just like he tried to do with every other player. He eventually learned something about Peterson.
“Everybody’s doubting him and saying he’s washed up, and that’s when he can just do things others can’t do and take his mind other places people can’t,” said Schmidt, now the director of sports enhancement at Texas A&M. “He’s a special guy. I’ve been around some good running backs, but nothing like him.”
Schmidt’s workouts are legendary among ex-Sooners. Among other drills, Schmidt said he’d have the players run up ramps at an old stadium in Oklahoma. They’d sprint seven flights in a 15-pound weighted vest, check in at the top, take a two-minute rest, and then run down. And repeat it two more times.
“We had some of the most grueling workouts, almost suicidal to a point,” Williams said. “[Peterson] may have been one of the only individuals I ever heard to make it through every workout.”
Schmidt said he’d watch Peterson hold 70-pound dumbbells in both hands -- and then jump onto a 30-inch box. With no problem.
“The guy’s like a machine,” Schmidt said. “This guy will not fold. You wish you could teach people how to block things out like he does and train at a high level.”
James Cooper understands. He’s worked with Peterson in Houston for most of his career. Cooper sometimes trains, as he says, “official outfits with handling of weapons and hand-to-hand combat.” He’s a black belt in multiple martial arts.
Cooper has been the driving force behind Peterson’s offseason workouts -- and a key to his 2,097-yard season in 2012 after knee surgery.
“Each year I’ll give him things to really poke at him, as I do with all the guys,” Cooper said. “I can get pretty lippy with him. I quickly reminded him, ‘Hey, you’re not on a team. It used to be AD this and AD that. Blah, blah, blah. So what are you doing now? Get up that hill like it matters. They’re already discounting you; that’s why you need to get up this hill quicker than you’ve gotten up before.”
They worked out five hours a day, a nod to Peterson wanting to spend more time with his family. In the past, he’d often go for eight hours. But they’ll do track and weight-room workouts, on-field work, yoga, boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling. And more. Cooper always reminds Peterson to work with a calm purpose and not anger. But he’ll push buttons.
“Guy said you ain’t got it no more, AD,” Cooper said he told him once. “Some other people are listening and their eyes get big like, ‘Man, this dude is crazy.’ They don’t realize I know the buttons I have to push. He knows where it comes from.”
During workouts, Peterson will run, among other things, 300-meter sprints, perhaps as many as 10 of them, with 90 seconds to two minutes of rest in between. But that “rest” included some form of a core workout. His average time on those sprints: around 41 seconds. That’s only 11 seconds slower than the fastest 300-meter time ever recorded.
He’d swim 50 meters on one breath. Or he’d swim freestyle for 50 meters, then hold his breath underwater between 45 seconds to a minute.
“He wasn’t the best swimmer, so he got fatigued really fast,” Cooper said. “That was a way to tax his body and to get into his mind to calm down his breathing pattern while under that kind of stress.”
Cooper said he recruits “well-trained distance runners” to run against his athletes, including Peterson.
“Not only does he want to win, he doesn’t want you to be close,” Cooper said. “He needs to get better in his mind. He’d get so frustrated if someone was better than him at a specific sprint or drill, and we would have to work this over and over again to get him better.”
Last year, Chargers running back Melvin Gordon beat Peterson in a 30-meter sprint in which they had to jump two hurdles and go under a third. Cooper said Gordon barely edged him on the third sprint.
“Everyone was like, ‘Ohhhh!’ because he beat him,” Cooper said. “I said, ‘Time! That’s it!’ He said, ‘No, no, we got a couple more reps, man.’ I said, ‘Nope, we’re doing something different.’ Sure enough, he convinced me. We got to run it back so I let him go and of course he won, beat him by a body length and a half.”
Some players work with Cooper for an offseason, perhaps leading into a contract year. But oftentimes they don’t return. A handful, such as Peterson and Williams, do. Cooper also sees a difference between Peterson and other players around his age.
“His mindset is unlike a lot of veteran guys,” Cooper said. “They tap out quick. They’re saying, ‘I know my body and I know what I need to do to play.’ He’s not doing that. He’s saying, ‘What do I need to do to compete against this person and that person?’ He feeds off sizing himself with not just another NFL guy, but anyone in the gym or who he’s heard of in the area that’s super fast or super strong or has super endurance.”
Cooper said he noticed a more locked-in Peterson after the surgery. He always worked hard, but Cooper said Peterson was never early to workouts before his injury; now he was coming in extremely early. They worked on smaller muscles to help with flexibility and balance -- like doing simple leg lifts, something he hadn’t really done since high school. He did Pilates and calf raises. They worked on toe and ankle flexion. During the workouts, Cooper would tell him he had to rush for 300 yards in a game (he topped 200 twice) or break Eric Dickerson’s record (he fell eight yards shy of tying him).
“I worked him from his toe to his receding hairline,” Cooper said. “The setback really gave us a chance to sit back and work on all the things he didn’t get a chance to work on because he’d be in OTAs or minicamps.”
Williams remembers Peterson working with Cooper while recovering from his knee surgery.
“Before he got cleared to get back on the field, this guy saw him running and pulled me aside like, ‘Man, he’s got to be on steroids,’” Williams said. “I’m like, bro, he’s literally in this gym every single day doing a workout to every single muscle you can imagine. I remember looking at ESPN and hearing people doubt he would recover, and I’m already in the gym and I turn around and he has seven plates on each side of the leg press. I was like, that answers the question right there. Yeah, he’s different.”
Cooper would blindfold Peterson and run into him with a big ball, testing his balance to make sure he could withstand a hit in a game. Peterson would stand there and Cooper would kick him in the shin bone, or kick his thigh.
“I would blast him to where guys would get a deep thigh bruise,” Cooper said. “I said, 'You’ve got to get used to getting hit on it mentally. Then you won’t run so timid. You’ll be so comfortable with yourself and this is the new you. That way you won’t miss a beat, you’ll be better.'”
Workouts can get crazier, with runs and jogs in the mountains of Nevada. They didn’t run the mountain this year, but Peterson did work with a Hypoxico mask, which simulates training at altitude. They set it so he could train at 12,000 to 15,000 feet. Peterson also ran on an underwater treadmill and swam a lot. When he’d run three miles, they’d try to make it in 22 minutes or less -- and when running at a faster pace, they’d shoot for 18 minutes or less.
“I’ll put him up against anyone that’s out here,” Cooper said. “No disrespect to Melvin or [Joe] Mixon; they grind hard. I’m not saying he’s better than them. I’m saying, ‘Listen, make sure when you’re 33, you do it better than he’s doing it.’”
Peterson said his passion for football still drives him. It’s why he signed a one-year, veterans-minimum deal. He said he wants to play another three or four years.
This summer, Peterson said he asked his kids, “Do you guys want me to play or do you guys want me to retire and be at home more?" The answer: "No, we want you to play, we want you to play."
"So it’s things like that, that motivates me and keeps me going and keeps me feeling young and alive.”
But Peterson said he also knows he’s been blessed with an ability few have possessed. That’s why he pushes himself. That’s why he says he can still accomplish big things in the NFL, regardless of what anyone else thinks. He’s different.
“I know the gift that God has blessed me with and that pretty much sums it up,” he said. “I'm able to put it on display when I'm working out. My mindset has always been to outwork the next person and always push myself, even when I'm working out alone. Hard work outdoes talent when talent don't work hard, so when you have talent and you combine that hard work with it, that's when you reach greatness. That's the only thing. You just have to push yourself and learn through the process and you're gonna unlock what your destiny is.”