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IN A DARK and quiet corner of a high school stadium, a few yards from the end zone, two Palestine High booster club members grimace through another evening of woeful football.
Delton Atwood and David Richie sit faithfully in their lawn chairs, their enthusiasm giving way to resignation as the host Chapel Hill Bulldogs rip off a 94-yard touchdown run on the second play of the Oct. 17 contest. By late in the second quarter, with the outcome barely in doubt, the helmet tunnel the two men brought for the players to run through before the game sits in a crumpled heap. Palestine would allow 10 more touchdowns before the final whistle, losing by 40.
Nothing about the outcome surprises the 75 or so Wildcats fans who drove the hour to Tyler. This sort of blowout has become the new normal for the winless team, "and it doesn't look like it's going to get any better for a while," Richie says. The Wildcats' junior varsity team suffered a similar defeat the night before. There are no transcendent talents in the pipeline to reverse the team's fortunes any time soon. A town this size-if it's extremely lucky-gets only one of those in a lifetime.
And Palestine already had him.
The conversation, as it inevitably does around here, turns to that seemingly superhuman teenage boy who once made these nights as electric as anything anyone ever experienced in East Texas. A decade later, Adrian Peterson-now a six-time Pro Bowl running back on indefinite suspension from the Vikings-still has a powerful hold on his hometown. His two years on varsity won't soon be forgotten in Palestine. "Those were some fun times," Atwood says. "The stands were full every game, and we had people coming from out of town to watch him."
Lately, though, out-of-towners have been visiting Palestine (pronounced Pal-uh-steen) not because of Peterson's exploits on the field a dozen years ago but because of what he has done off of it more recently.
There hasn't been a fall this bleak for Peterson or Palestine in quite some time.
PETERSON, 29, WAS indicted by a Houston-area grand jury in September on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child after he allegedly beat his 4-year-old son with a switch-a thin part of a tree branch-at his home outside of Houston. The police report was grim enough. According to it, the boy told officers that "Daddy Peterson hit me on my face" and that he was worried Peterson would punch him if anyone found out. But the incident also came with photos. Taken by his mother four days after the beating, and later published by TMZ, they show the boy's spindly limbs covered in long purple scratches and welts, some of them bleeding.
The charges and images have threatened Peterson's career. After a national debate about corporal punishment, several companies withdrew their sponsorships, and even Minnesota's governor called for Peterson to be suspended. On Nov. 4, Peterson pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of reckless assault and will perform 80 hours of community service in lieu of jail time. As of press time, the Vikings had not announced when-or if-he'll be allowed to return to the team.
Until his plea, Peterson maintained he didn't do anything wrong and disciplined his child only with a "whooping." His attorney called him a "loving father" who relied on the same techniques his parents used on him during his childhood in Palestine, which his mother has confirmed. Indeed, corporal punishment remains sacrosanct in Texas, one of 19 states, mostly Southern, that still allow educators to strike students for misbehavior. When does physical discipline cross over into abuse? That's left up to juries.
The issue was never a matter of debate in Palestine: Peterson is not an abuser. In this surprisingly sprawling town of about 18,600, the switch and the paddle are as much a part of childhood as Sunday school, hunting and fishing; it is the sort of place where people are God-fearing, disarmingly candid and suspicious of outsiders who would suggest they're wrong for supporting corporal punishment or Peterson, their most famous native son. They wouldn't even think of canceling the annual Adrian Peterson Day, held every summer since 2007, when its namesake was drafted by the Vikings. "I supported it," says Vernon Denmon Jr., a city council member since 2001. "And we will have it as long as I'm on council."
Those pictures of the injured 4-year-old might have shocked the rest of the nation, but they were mostly greeted with a shrug in Palestine. "If people think we're backward, that's OK with me," says Daniel Dyer, director of Palestine's Museum for East Texas Culture. "They can go on ahead and leave us alone. But at least our kids don't go running around all wild."
PALESTINE NEVER LIVED up to its settlers' ambitions. All of its booms eventually went bust: first oil, then the railroad companies, which sent most of their jobs to larger cities in the 1980s. Today Palestine ranks significantly below the Texas average in most socioeconomic markers: As of 2012, median household income was $36,368, more than $15,000 less than the state median; a quarter of the town's residents live below the poverty line, compared with 17.4 percent across the state; only 13.7 percent of adult residents have a bachelor's degree, about half the state average.
"This used to be a booming little old town, but now it's slow," says Morris Cook, a 56-year-old native who works for a local beer distributing company. He has a 30-year-old son, a high school teammate of Peterson's, who decided to stay in town after graduation. "I wish he would've moved."
On the edge of the state's Piney Woods region, about 200 miles southeast of Dallas, Palestine isn't an easy place to live. Nonetheless, the town remains the rare place where finding work often doesn't require a high school diploma, much less a college one. Many residents work at one of five prisons in the county, at one of the two Wal-Mart distribution centers, at the Wal-Mart Supercenter or among the reduced workforce at railroad company Union Pacific. There are also dependable public-sector jobs-county government, schools and courthouses-that few people mention in a decidedly conservative-leaning part of the state.
It's a testament to his talent and fame that Peterson managed to bring some of the world to his hometown. At the height of his recruitment in 2003, the local two- and three-star motels were filled with college coaches-"Somebody from Oklahoma was here every day," Atwood says-and reporters and recruiting analysts made regular swings through town. Peterson drove business for the Palestine High booster club too, autographing dozens of footballs for the boosters to raffle off at games. "We'd sell 300 or 400 [tickets] every game," Richie says. "Sometimes we'd do it at away games." Adds Atwood: "If it had Adrian's name on it, it'd sell."
Now, a decade later, his infamy is drawing folks back again.
"If there wasn't an Adrian Peterson," says Mayor Therrell Thomas, politely turning down an interview request, "you wouldn't be here."
INSIDE THE Palestine Avenue Beauty and Barber Shop, no customer could possibly miss the sign on the wall near the TV: "Please ... NO CHILDREN ALLOWED. Unless service is being provided to that child and accompanied by an adult."
On a recent Friday morning, Patricia Boley, known to friends and customers as Ms. Peabody, gives a haircut to Gralyn Crawford, the two discussing the kind of children that make the sign a necessity. "Kids are worse today," says Crawford, who graduated from Palestine Westwood High with Peterson's mother in 1983. "You see them out there going crazy and talking crazy to their parents in Wal-Mart."
"And the parents just don't do nothing about it," Boley adds.
Their suggested remedy? A switch, of course.
"I grew up getting those," Crawford says. "If we had Child Protective Services back then, all of our parents would have gone to jail."
The ties to Peterson are particularly strong in the barbershop today. Boley is a cousin of his mother's. Another customer, Preston A. Brown III, is his great-uncle. But then, it's nearly impossible to meet a black person in Palestine who isn't related to Peterson or close to someone who is; the black community, about 23 percent of the town, mostly lives in a couple of neighborhoods.
Peterson's family made its name through sports. His mother, Bonita Jackson, was a state-champion sprinter who later ran for the Houston Cougars, while father Nelson Peterson went on to star in basketball at Idaho State. An uncle, Ivory Lee Brown, was one of the state's top running backs in the late 1980s and spent three seasons in the NFL. Adrian was always bigger and stronger and faster than his peers. But people who knew him growing up claim he was also mature and well-mannered. "He was almost a perfect child," Preston Brown says.
And when Peterson wasn't, someone was usually around to tell his parents about it. Peterson, who didn't respond to several interview requests, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2007 that sometimes discipline came before he even arrived home. "Everyone knows everybody. They might be close enough to your family that they might put something on you," Peterson said. "It was that kind of town."
It still is. Peterson's family and friends strongly believe this community-based approach to discipline keeps kids away from drugs and out of the nearby prisons. They don't trust research showing that timeouts and taking away privileges are more effective than a switch. They also don't pay mind to federal data showing that Palestine's violent crime rate has been worse than the state average for six of the past seven years.
"Getting those whippings back then, it helped me," says John Taylor, a 53-year-old native who has known Peterson since he was a child. "I know it made me a better person."
Those values put Palestine residents at odds with-and make them feel attacked by-a country in which the use of corporal punishment has been declining for decades. From 1986 to 2012, the percentage of women who said it is sometimes necessary to give a child a "good, hard spanking" dropped from 82 percent to 65 percent, according to one study. For men, the number dropped from 84 percent to 77 percent. But in Palestine, according to the dozens of people interviewed for this story, support for the switch is nearly unanimous, crossing racial and class lines.
Here, timeout is for parents who are more worried about looking bad than about dealing with bad behavior.
Here, timeout is for parents who are too permissive and let their children roam in Wal-Marts and barbershops.
Here, timeout is a punch line.
"The only timeout we got," Taylor says, "is the timeout when they stopped whipping us."
UNDER THE GLOW of the stadium lights in Tyler, players drop to a knee and gather in a semicircle around Palestine football coach Jay Brown, who's in his first season with the team. "I want to thank you for not giving up," Brown tells the team after the Chapel Hill game, the Wildcats' ninth straight loss by at least 21 points. "It's hard being a work in progress, isn't it?"
In a town where generations of people take pride in not sparing the rod, Brown is trying a softer touch with Palestine's biggest and toughest sons. Will it spoil them? The early results, anyone will tell you, haven't been promising. Palestine hasn't been this bad in nearly a quarter-century. "I didn't have it the easy way," Brown says. "This isn't rebuilding. This is reconstruction."
The Wildcats likely don't have a single major-college-caliber athlete in the locker room: No one was included on Texas Football magazine's list of the top 300 recruits for 2014 or among the top 100 underclassmen in the state. By the time Palestine played in Tyler, most fans realized their best-case scenario was merely avoiding a winless season. "This is as bad as it's been," says superfan John Mullinix, wearing a white Palestine jersey and maroon camo pants. "I got here in 2004, the year Friday Night Lights was in theaters. At the time, it was kind of like that. But that changed pretty quickly."
The catalyst for the change was Peterson's graduation. He went on to star as a freshman at Oklahoma that fall, while his remaining teammates advanced to the state semifinals. Since then, no one has been much of an attendance draw, and the Wildcats have won only one playoff game in the past eight years. Driving around town, it's hard to find evidence Palestine is paying much attention to football season. Few local businesses tout their support. There's no water tower bearing the school colors or mascot, as in many small Texas towns.
"People have given up on us," says Josh Tillis, a junior offensive lineman. "But we're a young team. Next year, I definitely think we'll be better."
Brown too is thinking ahead. He hopes his postgame praise might resonate far beyond a lost night in Tyler. "This is going to make you stronger down the road," he tells his defeated team. "This is what we've got to go through now to get to where we want."
IN THE CAVERNOUS warehouse of a beer distribution facility on the edge of Palestine, about 500 business and community leaders gather on a Saturday night for a kind of pep rally. Hosted by the local chamber of commerce, the evening has an Oktoberfest theme. Men dress in lederhosen, while a number of women wear tight-fitting dirndl dresses with aprons. There is bratwurst for dinner and long coolers full of ice-cold beer. An hour into the mostly mellow affair, it's clear that many people have already had their fill of both.
Municipal pride is the story of the evening. Palestine residents have grown weary of out-of-towners-many of them big-city reporters who come to write unflattering stories about Peterson-painting their home as a town the world has passed by. "We're here because we choose to be here," says the Rev. Roy Duncan of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, established in 1856 and thought to be the second-oldest black church in Texas. "This is what we prefer. So many of the people here are leaders who lived other places and moved back here."
For those who embrace small-town life, Palestine holds a lot of appeal. There are few strangers, and those who are don't stay that way for long. Locals say that's part of what keeps Peterson connected to his hometown. Talk to people long enough and they'll soon show a picture of Peterson they saved in their phone, or tell a story about the last time they saw him in town. "Adrian has never forgotten his roots," says Martha Paxton, a real estate agent whose daughter graduated from Palestine High with Peterson in 2004. "Here, he can be a really regular person."
There is a deep and abiding suspicion in Palestine that Peterson's recent legal troubles are mostly a result of his money and fame. His supporters believe he was singled out, especially given that most parents around town handle their own misbehaving children the same way. If he went too far, they say, he certainly didn't mean to. "He might have made some mistakes," says J.C. Peterson, one of Adrian Peterson's uncles. "But he's a good kid, and I just want him to get all this stuff behind him."
Palestine's tight embrace of Peterson also makes sense for its future. Between beers and brats at the banquet, some say they hope his troubles will deepen his desire to return home and invest in local businesses. Their plans generally go something like this: Peterson gets traded to their beloved Cowboys next offseason, then retires to his hometown at the conclusion of a Hall of Fame career. "He's made an impact, and he put us on the map. This will always be his home," says Andrew Gregory, the chamber's incoming president. "And we're tired of people bringing a good man down."
This fall, he says, can only last so long.