This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's August 31 NFL Preview Issue. Subscribe today!
DURING THE HARDEST year of his life, in anticipation of the day he had been dreading most of all, Adrian Peterson decided to throw himself a party. He made a list of about 320 friends and family members. He sent out invitations with an embossed signature logo. He bought his guests first-class plane tickets to Houston and booked them first-class hotel rooms.
He was turning 30, the age that so often marks the decline of great NFL running backs, but his career had been in a different kind of free fall for nearly a year. First came a grand jury indictment on a charge that he abused his 4-year-old son, followed by another allegation of child abuse, followed by his own admissions of marijuana use and promiscuity. The NFL had suspended him for most of the 2014 season and mandated that he seek professional counseling. Most of his corporate endorsers had withdrawn their support. The governor of Minnesota, once an avid fan, had called his actions a "public embarrassment to the state."
And now his birthday on March 21. "Some people are starting to act like this right here is the end for me, like a funeral," Peterson told one friend, and in an effort to prove otherwise, he scheduled a meeting in early March with the event company that had planned his wedding. He told Crystal Sowah, the company's CEO, that he wanted to throw one of the most memorable private parties in the history of Houston.
"I want people to come and forget about everything else," he said. "I want us to create a separate little world."
Peterson has been doing exactly that for most of the past year. He spends the bulk of his time with friends who believe he has done nothing wrong. He asks his relatives not to talk about the allegations of child abuse, not to use that word -- "abuse" -- in his presence, and they willingly play their part. While NFL insiders spent their offseason debating Peterson's actions and any hope for redemption, he acted as if not much had changed. Inside his manufactured community, he remains the victim of a colossal misunderstanding -- an icon with little to prove and nothing to redeem.
There he was this summer back in his Texas hometown, marching at the front of a parade thrown in his honor, the crowd chanting "F--- the haters!" There he was with his children one day riding roller coasters at Disney World, the next rafting the Yellowstone River. There he was celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife, Ashley, sitting at a dining room table covered in rose petals, art-directed by an interior designer. "You're just so sweet to me, baby," she told him, as he filmed the moment he would later post on Instagram. There he was just last month showing off his latest tattoo, a shield of body armor running from his chest to his shoulders -- another layer of protection between himself and the outside world.
It's all part of the strategy by which Peterson has built his record-setting career: The people he trusts are those who enable him. The reality that matters is the one he creates and they help maintain.
For his birthday, what he wanted to create was a no-expense-spared Arabian wonderland in the backyard of his Houston mansion. "The kind of fantasy where every detail is perfectly aligned with the theme," Sowah says.
They found a lemur available for rent and a python that would drape like a scarf over Peterson's shoulders. They imported a troupe of snake charmers out of Dallas and world-renowned belly dancers from New York. There was an elaborate tent city in Peterson's backyard: Moroccan couches, velvet drapes, ice sculptures bearing Peterson's initials, imported trees and a throne on which Peterson alone would be allowed to sit. The cake designer baked a royal palace flanked by a fondant camel and elephant. Wale agreed to perform. Jamie Foxx offered his services as a DJ. In the final hours before the party, more than 100 workers rushed to set up stripper poles, a hookah bar and a cigar humidor in a tent called the Man Cave.
"Even the port-a-potties were over the top, with silver sinks and shiny floors," says Bobby Maze, one of Peterson's closest friends. "You would have thought you were going to the bathroom at Ruth's Chris."
The guests arrived in elaborate Arabian costumes, handed off their rides to valets and walked down a red carpet into a room where waitresses passed out champagne. Then the crowd waited for the man of honor to arrive.
Peterson entered by a path from the front door of his house toward the main tent. Another parade formed in front of him to lead the way: first the fire-breathers, then the sword swallowers, then the snake charmers and the belly dancers and then finally a camel, rented for the night from an Austin zoo. By the camel's side were three men dressed as humble peasants, their eyes glued to the floor, and atop the camel was one man, Peterson, wearing a bejeweled Arabian headdress and a gold sequined jacket.
As the camel entered the main tent, Peterson's guests began to shout, applaud and take photographs. Out in the crowd were several coaches from Peterson's high school, some of his former teammates at Oklahoma, dozens of relatives from rural East Texas and Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Peterson stood up on the camel's back to look down at them, and he seemed in that moment to resemble nothing of the flawed, damaged, disreputable athlete his friends and family members had been hearing about for the past year. He was a king. The crowd rushed toward him. The camel's handler worked to calm its nerves.
"Sometimes the best way to move on is to basically just try to forget the bad stuff, enjoy yourself and pretend like nothing much really happened," says Joe Davis, Peterson's cousin.
A voice came over the loudspeaker.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the man of the hour, your host, the great Adrian Peterson!"
HE ESCAPED INTO his own world the moment his reputation started to unravel. After a Texas grand jury indicted him on Sept. 12, 2014, on a charge of reckless or negligent injury to a child -- after the Vikings suspended him, Nike dropped his contract and his character became a topic debated in loops on the network news -- Peterson turned off the cable at his Minnesota house and headed home to Texas.
His wife and mansion are on the outskirts of Houston, but Peterson went to Palestine, a shrinking town of 18,000 on the vast prairie of East Texas, where he had spent the past 15 years building up a reservoir of goodwill. He had rushed for more than 2,900 yards in his senior season in high school there, becoming one of the nation's top football recruits in a decade. And after committing to Oklahoma, he had returned home to Texas each summer during his college and professional career to organize health fairs for children, distribute back-to-school supplies, sponsor youth sports teams and host barbecues at the town's only three-star hotel. The mayor had rewarded him with a key to the city. The town council had dedicated a day in his honor. He had helped purchase so many homes for friends and family members in a new development on the edge of town that locals had started referring to the neighborhood by Peterson's childhood nickname, "All Day" Way.
"He's been holding all of us up for a long time," says Doris Smith, his grandmother. "He's been the model of generosity for this place. So when things got bad, and when he needed us, you know everybody in this town wanted to help. That's what he's earned."
When Peterson arrived from Minnesota this past June, there were welcome wreaths lining the front doors of "All Day" Way, and the marquee at a bank downtown was flashing his initials. Several hundred people gathered in a local park to attend the ninth annual summer parade in Peterson's honor, organized by his cousin Carol Pegues. If the NFL and the Vikings had failed to meet his standard of loyalty, at least he could still rely on Palestine, where residents stood in line for an hour just to shake his hand. To them he had become more than a professional football player. Now he was something closer to a cultural hero who had taken a hard stand for the values of East Texas.
RAISED TOUGH TO BECOME TOUGH, one banner read.
FREE AP, read another.
What is regarded in so many other places as obvious child abuse is considered by some in Palestine to be the hallmark of good parenting. Whipping a 4-year-old boy with a thorny tree branch as punishment for shoving his brother? "If you spare the rod, you spoil the child," Pegues says. Those photos that showed dozens of red welts and sores covering the boy's back, legs, shoulders, butt and scrotum? "We're from the old school, and we all got it like that coming up," Pegues says. The ensuing reports that Peterson also had hit at least one of his other children with a switch, even though he saw some of those children only once or twice a year?
"As a parent, we learned that you have to draw a hard line and be consistent," Pegues says. "I cannot find one switch mark on my body today, but it is posted in my brain, right from wrong. It's posted on Adrian's brain too. That's how you learn. He just went out and did what he had to do."
This was the way Peterson had grown up and the way he had become an athlete: Tough. Merciless. Physical. When he first told his father, Nelson, that he wanted to start playing football, at age 5, Nelson dressed him up in an old helmet and pads, took him to an empty field, handed him a football and recruited two older cousins to tackle him. Nelson told Peterson to stand still while the cousins ran into him, first from a yard away, then two yards, then three, then 10 -- each collision louder than the last. Peterson kept hold of the ball. He kept standing back up even as he started to cry. Finally, after a dozen or so hits, Nelson agreed to let Peterson sign up for the only kind of football league available to a 5-year-old in small-town Texas: two-hand touch.
The hits came often in Palestine, and each one was meant to deliver a lesson. Peterson's grandmother whipped him with a rope for talking back. His father used a tree branch. His football coach swung a solid oak paddle that hung on the wall of his office, and even the high school itself sometimes used corporal punishment as a means of discipline. And what all that hitting made Peterson feel, at least when it was finally over, was profoundly grateful. "I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man," he once said, and so he vowed to be the same kind of parent to every one of his own children. He was happy to change a diaper. He would wrestle with them and put them on his shoulders and take them on vacations. "A mama-type daddy, all lovey on them when the kids are being good," Pegues says.
But when they weren't being good, physical discipline was also Peterson's way of delivering a lesson. Many of Peterson's children live with their mothers, so he sometimes explained his parenting style in text messages he reportedly sent to the children's mothers.
"Everybody know daddy got a biggie heart but don't play no games when it comes to acting right," he texted once.
"Be still n take ya whopping," he texted another time.
The parenting ethos in Palestine held that adults deserved respect, and by now Peterson was the most respected adult of all. During his parade in June and afterward when he visited with friends and relatives, his supporters took turns reaffirming his parenting. "The best daddy I know," his grandmother says.
"They might make him apologize, but we are God-oriented people, and we know in our hearts that don't mean he wasn't right," says Davis, one of his cousins.
Once, midway through the summer, Pegues asked Peterson whether so much public pressure would change the way he raised his kids. The NFL had made him issue an apology. His sponsors wanted him to take parenting classes and film a public service announcement about the dangers of abuse.
"They're trying to put that fear into your heart," she remembers telling him. "Don't let all that negativity start hurting you."
"A little hurt don't bother me," Peterson told her.
HE HAS ALWAYS relied on pain as his primary motivator, and in the first days of Peterson's suspension, he vowed to friends that his resolve would only increase. He would run harder, angrier -- just as he believed all those other whippings had shaped him as a man and as an athlete. "A caged animal," one uncle says of him. "He's chomping at the bit." How often had he channeled his own tragedies and humiliations into athletic drive?
When Peterson was in seventh grade, his father was sentenced to 10 years in prison for laundering over $200,000 in drug money. Peterson turned to the weight room, gaining 20 pounds of muscle in a year. In 2007, when his half brother Chris was shot and killed in Houston the night before the NFL combine, Peterson inked his brother's name on his cleats and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.40 seconds.
"What people don't understand about Adrian is that he's actually really sensitive," his friend Bobby Maze says. "He feels all this. It hurts deep, even if he's acting like it doesn't. But instead of sulking, or complaining, he takes all that stuff the world throws at him and converts it into fuel."
By Peterson's own estimation, the origin of his football career is owed to the worst day of his life. It was 1993. Peterson was 7. He was playing football outside an apartment building while his older brother, Brian, rode his bike nearby. A drunken driver swerved into the parking lot and hit Brian. Peterson could do nothing as his brother's brain swelled and he lost consciousness. Peterson slept at the hospital most of those next nights, always assuming that Brian would wake up. It was Brian who had been the better athlete. It was Brian who had loved football because he liked to tackle and hit. When Brian died a week later, Peterson took it upon himself to carry forward his brother's ambitions. "I played for him," Peterson has said. "I take whatever I go through in life and I put it into football."
This summer he reminded friends of the last time people told him his Hall of Fame career was near its end. The ACL and MCL tears in December 2011. Didn't all the NFL insiders call it the kind of injury that meant the beginning of the end? So Peterson started rehab with the goal of not only starting the next season but doing so with increased leg strength as well. "He had a list of his own pretty crazy goals, and I thought I should try to make him a little more realistic," says Russ Paine, the physical therapist who worked with Peterson during his recovery. But eight months later, Peterson was back at his place in the Minnesota backfield, beginning a season that would end with 2,097 yards rushing and the league's MVP award.
"He is probably the most internally motivated guy I've worked with," says Paine, who has rehabbed dozens of pro athletes. "You have to be crazy to bet against him. He can nurse a slight and use it toward a goal."
In the past months, Peterson began to reveal his goals for this latest comeback, and they sound every bit as absurd as his aspirations in 2011. To him, his 15-game absence is now a potential benefit to his long-term performance. His legs are fresh, his joints feel new, and with few sponsorship commitments, his time is his to do nothing but train, he has said. He is in the best shape of his life -- six-pack abs, giant shoulders, a personal low in body fat. And even though Peterson hasn't been tackled for a year, his teammates in Minnesota believe he looks sharper than before he left. He has told friends and teammates he hopes to rush for an absurd 2,500 yards, which would shatter the single-season NFL record of 2,105 yards, held by Eric Dickerson. He also wants to remain the league's best running back for another eight seasons, until he is 37 or 38, long enough for him to gain the 8,166 more yards he needs to break Emmitt Smith's career rushing record.
Here, with the arrival of the NFL season, comes another test of his reality against that of everyone else. He is closing ranks, fortifying his self-belief behind a network of supporters. He's hired a private chef to cook dinners for his family -- light on carbs and sugar -- so they can eat together each night from a menu of his own making. He threw a birthday party for one of his 4-year-old sons at a Houston children's gym, designed custom diamond earrings for his wife and took his daughter to the NBA Finals. "The louder the outside noise, the more he keeps his circle small," says Pegues, his cousin.
And close. When Peterson arranged to travel to Knoxville, Tennessee, to play in a charity basketball game organized by Maze, his assistant mistakenly booked a ticket to Nashville instead, and after she rebooked his flights, he ended up in Detroit with no apparent way to get to the game in time. "Just go home, man," Maze told him. Peterson found a private jet available for rent 30 minutes from DTW. He took a cab to the airfield and arrived in Knoxville 20 minutes before tip-off. "He's the most loyal person," Maze says. "He didn't have to do that. His mindset is that if the world is going to be stacked against you, you better have a bunch of good people standing at your back. People who don't know Adrian Peterson might say they hate him. But the people who know him -- really know him -- show him a ton of love."
Which is why, in late March, Maze found himself searching through stores in South Florida for a royal Arabian costume.
THE PARTY BEGAN with an hour of performances on a red-carpeted stage. Peterson sat in the front row as the fire-breathers and snake charmers danced around him. Caterers circled with fried chicken and pulled pork. Jamie Foxx challenged Peterson to a dance-off. The music shook the tent city. The elaborate lighting strained an industrial-size generator. Peterson was rarely on his throne, instead choosing to walk circles through the tents, talking to friends, dancing, laughing, drinking in their support.
The children stayed inside his mansion under the care of a nanny as the party continued to build momentum past 10 p.m., then midnight, then 1 a.m. The Man Cave finally opened at a little past 2:30 a.m., and men played video games on a PS4 while a group of women who referred to themselves as "pole magicians" danced in lingerie at the center of the tent. The caterers brought out milk, cookies and then cereal. Sometime during the night, before the first guests began to trickle out at sunrise, before Peterson left with a handful of friends to continue their party elsewhere, Peterson and wife Ashley took a microphone and stepped onto the stage.
"The last year has been rough, you know," Peterson told the crowd, before saying that their attendance was a reminder of his network of support. "We wouldn't have celebrated this any other way." Then he informed the room he had one more announcement. They had great news to share, he said -- one more sign that a fresh start was inevitable.
His reality was about to get a little bit bigger. Ashley was pregnant with another child, he said, due in October at the midpoint of the NFL season. It would be Peterson's sixth child, Ashley said, although some in the room believed the number to be higher.
"We're having another baby," Peterson told the crowd, simply, and if that announcement seemed to the wider world like a complicated piece of news, it elicited only one reaction in this world. Under the artificial lights of his Arabian wonderland, his supporters cheered.