For pure theater there isn't much the National Football League will give you this season to equal the spectacle that will play out in Green Bay on Sunday. There, the lovable patriarch named Brett Favre, happily defying the limits of time and battered body, leads his football team against a suddenly emerging young phenomenon named Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings.
Yet, oddly, the largest spotlight may fall this time on the neophyte running back playing in just his ninth game as a professional. In that brief tick in time, some of the most respected voices in pro football have unblushingly compared Peterson to the most acclaimed runners in the game's history.
Said Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, a Super Bowl winner, "That's Jim Brown, really, wearing No. 28." He might just as well have said Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, or Eric Dickerson.
It's taken just that long for Peterson to have acquired a coast-to-coast football celebrity's ultimate iconography: a cryptic set of initials. There is TO as in Terrell Owens and LT for LaDainian Tomlinson and now AD as in Adrian (or All Day) Peterson, suggesting the end-to-end futility he can inflict on defenses.
What's going on here? Isn't all this a little thick, so soon? Maybe.
Advertised epics usually don't deliver the predicted voltage in pro football. The game last Sunday between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts was widely forecast as a sequel to the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, the crowning battle of a new millennium. It was good, but basically inconsequential. The Patriots won and will probably have to do it all over again before the Super Bowl.
But Favre vs. Peterson is a saga of two football generations. At 38, Favre is the face of one of them. He is an authentic hero to millions, an unsinkable risk-taker, yet vulnerable in his unguarded emotions, so intensely human that his personal struggles – death and illness in his family – have genuinely entered the lives of multitudes he will never know. And so, too, have his records as a quarterback, possibly beyond the reach of any to follow.
But when Favre is off the field, the cameras are usually going to lock on Peterson – and after that the action can suddenly become a blur. Peterson in full flight once past the line of scrimmage creates that impression, as he did last Sunday when he gained an astonishing 296 yards against the San Diego Chargers, more than any running back in pro football history, more than Payton, Sanders, Emmitt Smith, O.J. Simpson, and a few thousand others.
He did it in his eighth game, as a rookie in the NFL, at the age of 22. And yet he has played with an unshowy demeanor that aroused no resentments among the clans of rivals whose defenses he is shredding weekly – or at least since the Viking coaching staff decided to discard the fiction that he was the team's No. 2 running back. He was cast in that role for several weeks despite his obvious skills and scoring potential. He occupied the "alternate back" niche temporarily during coach Brad Childress's obvious gesture of respect for the incumbent halfback, Chester Taylor, a hardworking and capable player who gained more than 1,000 yards last year.
But the Vikings were losing this year during that awkward shuttle of running backs, which was aggravated by mediocrity in their passing game. So they unwrapped Peterson, a star at the University of Oklahoma for three seasons before being drafted No. 7 on the first round by the Vikings. And suddenly the shock waves began to register. He ran, someone said, like a man who was angry. He probably wasn't.
What he does is run with absolute commitment: full bore, whether into the line or off tackle or running to the edge. With the classic physique of an all-purpose halfback, at 6-foot-1, 217 pounds, he runs tall and fast and with open-range mobility. He seems not to be looking for five yards or a first down. He is fundamentally looking for six points on every play, and veteran football people are often startled by how quickly the defense seems to vanish once he swings into high gear past the line of scrimmage.
But he doesn't run wildly. His coaches now find him timing his head bobs and sudden thrusts of speed to accommodate the blocking schemes of his linemen, something remarkable in a first-year player.
The results mathematically are numbing. In eight games, he has gained 1,036 yards, an average of 6.6 yards a carry. At that pace he will surpass 2,000 yards by season's end, which would be a record for rookies and nearly everyone else.
There's a bonus in this for football audiences looking for new and attractive heroes. Peterson is not going to be mistaken for a finger-snapping hotshot hustling for attention. He talks modestly, sometimes devoutly. He actually studies game plans. "The veteran players pretty much have respected this guy from Day 1," a Viking insider says. "They liked the way he didn't sulk when Chester Taylor was listed No. 1 on the depth charts early in the season. He understood the reasons. And they like the way he works in practice." Mostly they like what they see on Sundays – a big-time running back who can break any play for the distance and win a game.
Peterson is no football robot. He high-legged it in exuberance at the end of a touchdown run against San Diego and he will leap into the stands to join the celebrating fans. But there is also a certain gravitas in how he looks at his expanding world. He felt a lot of pain growing up in Palestine, Texas. His father, an athlete at Idaho State University, later served eight years in prison for laundering drug money. His 8-year-old brother, riding on a bicycle, was killed by a drunken driver. There were other blows, and his mother, Bonita Jackson, remembers the strength she received from Adrian during the worst of her times.
So this is a substantial young man who understands that for all the prodigality of his physical gifts, it doesn't come as easily as one of those 60-yard runs looks on television. Will he feel pressure Sunday?
"It's easy to handle outside pressure," he says, "because I know God is responsible for everything good in my life." •Born 1985, Palestine, Texas
• Mother, Bonita Jackson, a track star at University of Houston. Father, Nelson Peterson, played basketball at Idaho State University.
• High school: Competes in track and field, basketball, and football. Rushes for 2,960 yards his senior year.
• College: University of Oklahoma. Major: sociology. Sets OU rushing record as a freshman and finishes second in Heisman Trophy voting. Rushes for 4,045 yards in three years, just shy of school record. Forgoes senior year to enter the pros. Drafted as 7th overall pick by Vikings.
• Has one daughter, Adeja.
• Boyhood nickname: AD, able to run "all day."
• 6 ft., 1 in; 217 pounds