EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Adrian Peterson has been back on the football field, wearing that familiar purple No. 28 jersey and running through the plays that he ran last year before everything fell apart.
After almost a full season away from the Minnesota Vikings, Peterson at first glance appeared to be restoring some normalcy his life. But after his child abuse case and discussions about his contract thrust fan criticism on him like he had never experienced before, getting back to “normal” may no longer be possible.
“It’s normal, but of course it’s different,” Peterson said Thursday as the Vikings wrapped up a three-day minicamp. “I’m making it as normal as I can. Surrounding myself with people who love me and moving forward.”
For the first seven years of his career, Peterson was the most popular athlete in the Twin Cities and one of the most bankable stars in the NFL. His easygoing demeanor combined with breathtaking skill to make him a marketer’s dream and one of the few running backs remaining with a legitimate shot at challenging Emmitt Smith’s career rushing record.
That all started to unravel in the second week of last season, when allegations first surfaced that Peterson whipped his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch. The charges came in the wake of the NFL’s bungling of the Ray Rice domestic violence situation, and Peterson wound up missing the remaining 15 games while addressing the charges.
Peterson lost his lucrative Nike endorsement deal, and he wore Adidas cleats at practice on Thursday. His representatives tangled with the league over the drawn-out process of disciplining him and then pushed for the Vikings to first trade him and then restructure his deal.
When it became clear to Peterson that the Vikings were not going to trade him, he returned to the team for voluntary practices earlier this month and has spent the last three weeks trying to put things behind him and focus on the only NFL team for which he has played.
He has received a warm welcome and staunch backing from coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who have pledged to put him right back into his role as the featured running back.
“I feel pretty good. It’s been good to just be out here with the fellas and get back in the swing of things, open my mind back to the playbook and what coach Turner is asking us to do,” Peterson said. “It’s been pleasant.”
Zimmer has been in Peterson’s corner from the moment the allegations first surfaced and continues to sing Peterson’s praises both as a person and a player.
“With one of the greatest running backs in the history of the game, it probably should change a lot,” Zimmer said. “I think that people will play us a little bit differently and I think that will help us in a lot of ways. We’re going to continue to do a lot of the things we do offensively, but we’re obviously going to use Adrian in ways that are productive for him, as well.”
Peterson is 30, the age when many running backs start to experience a decline in production. Peterson has defied the odds before, coming back from a horrific knee injury to rush for over 2,000 yards and earn MVP honors in 2012, and he intends to do it again.
“I think it’s all about just how you approach things,” Peterson said. “Of course being healthy is something that helps that as well. Having that luck to have longevity. But ultimately having faith that I can do whatever I put my mind to.”
Peterson and the rest of the Vikings left team headquarters on Thursday for about five weeks off before training camp begins at the end of July.
The further away Peterson gets from the chaos of last year, and the closer he returns to the dynamic game-breaker he was before he left, the easier it will be for him to put all the troubles of the past year behind him.
He said he is putting off a planned trip to Europe and a honeymoon with his new bride to prepare for his return. His life may never be the same as it was before, but he vowed that his play on the field will be.
“Whatever they call me to do,” Peterson said, “I’ll be ready to do it.”