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American Football: Adrian Peterson beats past to become NFL phenomenon

Kevin Garside meets the Vikings back who will light up Wembley despite a childhood scarred by death and drugs

The NFL cameraman was staking out the plot early, taking advantage of a fine autumn morning in the capital’s outer reaches. The entrance to The Grove, the residence since Tuesday of the Minnesota Vikings, is all stately elegance, sweeping drive curving gently through bucolic pastures before rising towards the mansion on the hill. Viewers in the United States tuning in to tomorrow’s Wembley showpiece against the Pittsburgh Steelers will thus be invited to absorb a clash of cultures: gridiron meets Downton.

This is the first of two NFL fixtures in London – the Jacksonville Jaguars meet the San Francisco 49ers a month hence. It is season seven of the NFL’s great British export push. Both games sold out in days, guaranteeing gates in each case of more than 80,000.

The NFL computer was not to know that tomorrow’s protagonists would both arrive 0 and 3 – that’s played three, won zip. A fourth defeat would almost certainly kill any play-off  ambitions, so in a negative sense there is much for which to play.

Irrespective of the team dynamic, the fixture introduces to a British  audience an NFL superstar, Ronaldo in a helmet, the league’s MVP in 2012, the highest-paid running back in the history of the sport. I give you Adrian Peterson.

Peterson is typical of the breed, a Muscle and Fitness poster boy, veins like tow ropes coursing through arms bigger than legs. He has a vertical leap of one metre and covers the industry standard 40 yards in 4.2 seconds. Don’t ask about the handshake. This dispatch was typed one-handed is all you need to know.

His high school stats lit up the tiny town of Palestine in the Texas hinterland between Houston and Dallas. He was so good the coach would remove him at half-time to maintain social relations with rival schools. In his final game before heading off to Oklahoma State, he piled up 350 yards and six touchdowns, all before the interval. In college he broke the NCAA’s freshman rushing record. You won’t be surprised to learn he did not stay the course. He declared for the NFL draft early and was off to Minneapolis St Paul, where the yards and touchdowns would accrue at the same ridiculous rate.

An aura builds around great athletes. Special deeds appear the more miraculous when set before ordinary mortals. But it is not simply the anatomy of a great career that impresses most. It is the narrative of a life that does not resemble yours, that is so at variance with the common experience as to be unrecognisable. Peterson was just seven years old when he witnessed the death of his brother Brian, killed by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle.

When he was 13 his father, Nelson, was imprisoned for eight years for his part in laundering money for a crack cocaine ring. And in 2006 his half-brother Chris died of gunshot wounds in Houston. The very next year he  became the first running back to be picked in the draft. It was his athletic gifts that persuaded Minnesota. They know now that it was the fibre of the man that made his numbers possible. Two years ago he suffered a career-threatening knee injury. This season has not started well, but what is a torn ACL or sporting disappointment compared with the trauma of personal tragedy?

“My passion for the game is such that runs like this are where I feel the most hurt, but to be honest with you there is nothing that comes with football that compares to some of the things I have had to cope with in my life. Those things help me cope when things are not going well on the field. They have helped shape me as a man, made me stronger, wiser, smarter, and able to help others,” he said.

Peterson was talking as he made his way from final practice to the temporary locker room. On the pitch laid out behind the Potting Shed at The Grove it was clear he  occupied regal space.

Don’t be fooled by labels. Pots are no longer planted in this horticultural haven. The area is given over to leisure and a beautifully upholstered swimming pool and bathing area, around which white-robed women parade in tanned, fake or otherwise, splendour. That might be diversion enough but nothing compared to watching 50-odd alpha males rip through well-rehearsed practice routines for the benefit of the watching media. The  detailed choreography took place unobserved by eye or camera but after it, when the doors opened once more, Peterson fell into a huddle with a small cabal of autograph-hunters,  relations or friends mostly, who had made the trip with other members of the team.

This is not unusual for Peterson, who would often sign autographs after games for high school opponents he had just ransacked. And then there was the presentation of a note written by eight-year-old Mia Meschine from Minneapolis. It was entitled “My Hero” and comprised 10 lines of soaring eulogy, a homage to a player who Mia said never gives up, who always tries his best, and encourages others. Like millions of others, she wants to grow up to be just like Peterson.

“It is humbling to read letters like that. I receive a lot from different kinds of people. They tell me their stories and stuff like that. It feels good to be able to touch people in any kind of way. I really appreciate it.” There is genuine warmth in Peterson’s  responses, and an easy way with reporters, even those he is meeting for the first time. This is a universal reflex alien to England’s sporting deities from the Premier League.

Toby Gerhart is the Minnesota running back whose lot it is to shadow Peterson, and when the opportunity is presented try to ram it home. He was submerged in an ice bath in what might loosely be termed a mixed zone immediately outside the locker room. The idea that Wayne Rooney or some other icon of this football age would submit to the tape recorder and camera in the same circumstances is comical, yet here was Gerhart happy to talk through his role as understudy to one of the greatest running backs the NFL has seen.

“He’s the NFL’s MVP, a great player. Sure I’d like to have more field time but I understand the situation. Adrian is some athlete, well put together that’s for sure. I’ll get a run some time on Sunday. It’s up to me to make it count,” he said. Like Peterson, Gerhart was looking forward to some down time in the city. Last night the team moved house to a Park Lane hotel to maximise their exposure to the metropolis.

The issue of NFL fixtures in London was a popular topic among all concerned. Peterson said all the right things: he is happy to be here, loves London, etc. Today he gets to do the sightseeing bit with his girlfriend: “She’s got everything laid out so I’m going to go by her schedule.” Tomorrow it is for him to determine outcomes. “We are in a tough spot but I’m not planning to be 4 and 0 this weekend. I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to anybody who’s played over here, but we have a pretty good game plan to adjust to the time change and be ready to play. It’s just another game on the schedule, but it’s definitely time for us to get a W. This is not a vacation for us. It’s time for us to focus and win a game.”