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The Sooner The Better

4/15/2009

The wait is almost over. Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson was 13 when his father, Nelson, pleaded guilty to money laundering and entered the federal penal system. Over the next eight years, through countless phone calls and heart-to-hearts across glass partitions and in monitored visiting areas, they nurtured their bond.

Adrian will be nearly six months shy of his 22nd birthday when his dad is set free from an Oklahoma City halfway house on Oct. 5, two days before the Sooners are scheduled to take on Texas in Dallas. The terms of Nelson's probation forbid him from crossing state lines, so he won't be there. But to hear each of the Peterson men recount what they've already been through is to know that it doesn't matter when or where they next share a stadium. Whenever it is, their Saturday reunion will have been worth the wait.

WHEN ADRIAN was born, he already had muscles. He was the Bionic Child. Ever wonder what type of child Michael Jordan and Martina Navratilova would have had? That's what it was like with Bonita and me. Bonita was an outstanding athlete. She scored enough points one year in the Texas state high school track meet to finish third—in the team standings. I played basketball at Idaho State, where I was first-team All-Big Sky Conference in 1985. It was destiny that Adrian would be an athlete.

One day when I was 25, a gun my brother was cleaning went off, and the bullet entered my left
leg. Then I had to battle for three years to save it from a staph infection. After going from hospital to hospital, I finally agreed to an experimental treatment in Galveston. Basically, I was a guinea pig. They saved my leg, but they couldn't save my athletic career. The infection had eaten up the muscles. Adrian was 2.

When he was 6, I felt it was time to get his feet wet in football. I started to teach him the fundamentals—how to take contact, how to dish it out. He had a lot of definition to him, and although he wasn't real tall, he was fast.

I was a lift driver at Wal-Mart back then, making $8 an hour, and I had 10 kids altogether. But that's not why I decided to sell drugs. I think maybe I was still devastated by my injury. Maybe I had a sense of entitlement and thought I should have played professional ball, lived a certain lifestyle. That dream was taken away from me by that shooting accident.

I got to a fork in the road with an opportunity to turn right—to go back to school, finish my degree, go on as a productive person. But instead of making that right, I made a left. And that turn led me to destruction and eight years of prison.

The first time I sold crack was in Palestine, Texas. I think it was for $50. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to sell drugs. It's just supply and demand. The demand was there, and I supplied it. It's not something I was proud of.

There is an image of a drug dealer: all the gold, a ring on every hand, hanging out on the corner, drinking and partying all the time. I wasn't like that. Drugs were being sold, but I still was at Wal-Mart from 7 to 3:30 every day. When I was arrested, I had $1 million, maybe $1.5 million. I had several houses, real estate, accounts in different places. How many cars? More than I needed.

Aug. 7, 1998. I'll never forget the date. The day before, I'd brought Adrian back from a trip we'd taken to Orlando. Bonita and I were separated at the time. The feds came, and when I wasn't at my house, they kicked down the door. My sister paged me to tell me. Man, I think my stomach might have broke my big toe.

Look, I did wrong. And anytime you do something wrong—and I've taught Adrian this—you've got to face it. I turned myself in the following day. Later, I pleaded guilty to money laundering from drug proceeds, which carries a longer sentence than basic money laundering.

Not too long after I turned myself in, Adrian came to visit at the Smith County Jail in Tyler, Texas. One of the most difficult things I ever had to do was tell him and my daughter Nelsha—she was about 5 at the time—what Daddy had done and what I was facing.

You're on one side of the glass, they're on the other. Adrian picked up the phone, and all I could say was "I'm sorry." Adrian and I … we have a special bond. [Nelson begins crying] Even from prison, I kept in contact with him all the time. Wrote twice a week, phoned him every day. Federal institutions allow you to call from 6 in the morning to 11:30 at night.

By his junior year of high school, Adrian was still a little slow getting his act together with football. He visited me, and I said, "Son, you have the God-given ability to be special. But no matter how bad I want it or how bad your mom wants it, it doesn't matter. You have to want it for yourself."

He looked at me and said, "Daddy, I'm ready for you to come home." I said, "It won't be much longer. But I need you to step up. I need you to love the game. Right now, nobody knows who Adrian Peterson is. I know you're the best running back in Palestine, but that won't get it. You have to be the best running back in the whole state. This is your year. Go out and make a name for yourself, son."

And he did. He wasn't only the best in the state, he was the best in the nation. All the schools came after Adrian then. [OU head coach] Bob Stoops showed up at the prison on the first day of recruiting season. But he was the only one. The warden wouldn't allow coaches to visit me after that.

I was fortunate enough that every game OU played was on the TV in Wing 5 at the Texarkana Federal Correctional Institution. Here's a shout-out to the Wing 5 boys at Texarkana! On Saturdays, OU had its own TV on the left side of a common room, and I sat right in front. I couldn't wear an OU jersey—prison rules—but an inmate who made T-shirts for different schools made me one with Adrian's number, 28, on the back.

I think everyone knew I was Adrian's father. I know the sports agents did. I received letters all the while I was incarcerated. Agents, financial advisers, marketing experts—they all tracked me down. I had all types of portfolios sent to me.

I will be released from the Oklahoma Halfway House on Oct. 5. I want to put this all behind me. When you're incarcerated, you learn to appreciate small things. A good night's sleep in a decent bed. I'm tired
of showers—I want to be able to take a bubble bath and relax. Sitting on the porch with nobody bothering you. I haven't had my own room for eight years. Silence will never sound so great.

But the best part will be being with my family again. It's going to be very, very emotional, a long time coming. I'll finally be able to see Adrian perform in person. And he'll look up into the stands and see his father, the guy who put the football in his arms, the guy who taught him how to keep the ball in his outside hand when he runs.

I owe him for sticking by me. And I'm going to pay him back by being a good parent, a responsible parent. I'm going to be there for him—and for the rest of my kids, too.

WHEN MY mom woke me, she had tears in her eyes. I was like, Aww, no. If my mama has tears in her eyes, something is seriously wrong. I was thinking, What's she gonna say? I found out.

"The FBI busted your daddy's house."

It was like a Mike Tyson punch. I was 13. I just went numb. My mind blanked. Really, just blanked. I sat there a long time. I didn't leave my room. I cried. I wondered what they were going to do to him. I realized my dad was going to be out of my life for quite a while. I'd been with him just a couple of days earlier, having fun down in Orlando at Disney World. He was helping to coach my AAU basketball team at a tournament. Then, just like that, damn, he was gone.

I never was embarrassed. I felt a lot of emotion. I was pissed. Dad had always taken care of me, always showed me the right way. He provided for us. Other people look at him and say, "He did this, he did that." But I look at him like, Hey, this is my father. He made mistakes, but he also taught me how to be a man.

My dad signed me up for my first football league. I'd been excited about playing in pads, but I didn't know he was going to do it. After practices, me and my dad would go outside the house to go through plays. He'd teach me the different steps, the different moves, the different cuts.

He knew I had a chance to be special when I was young. I've never been the type to brag, but I've always been fast. I used to run against his friends. He'd put money on it, and I'd beat them. He pushed me so hard. I think about how excited I used to be when he was out there on the sideline with my other little league football coaches. He'd get me going, get me pumped. But when I did wrong, you better believe he'd dig into my butt.

He never gave me too much praise. And he was always on me about school. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. He held me out of a game once because I failed a class. He was like, "This is how it's going to be if you don't get the grades."

Even before my dad was sent to the penitentiary, our family had to deal with some tough things. When I was about 8, we lived in Dallas. One day, my brother Brian—he was 9 and my best friend—was riding his bike with a buddy by a little field where I was playing football. This dude, a drunken driver, just hit him. I have a hard time talking about it. [a long pause; Adrian's voice grows soft] He kind of flew up in the air a little bit. I saw the whole thing happen, about five feet from where we were. It was crazy, man. Crazy.

I ran to him, got on my knees and kind of picked up his head and put it on my thigh. I said his name, but he didn't respond at all. He was brain-dead. Later, I had a chance to say good-bye. I was there when they took him off life support.

Losing him—actually seeing him get killed right there in front of me—made me a stronger person. My mom cried every night. Every night. Honest to God, she cried for a year. My mom and dad had split up by then, so I had to sit there, comfort her, be strong and not show my tears, even though I was hurting as much as she was.

After Brian died, we moved to Palestine, where my dad lived. I spent a lot of time with him, and we got even closer.

What my dad did was wrong. He'll tell you the same thing. No excuses. Working at the warehouse and with 10 kids to support, he made a bad decision. He'd made all the money he needed by the time they caught him. He just didn't stop. I really didn't know what money laundering was. But I had common sense. Parents don't think kids see stuff, but they see everything. He never sold drugs around us, but I knew something was going on.

The day after he was arrested, he called me from jail. He said, "Make your daddy proud. Stay in the books. Keep trying to be the best in everything you do." I cried the whole time he was saying it.

The first time I visited him, he was in county jail. He'd been there about a month. There was no contact allowed. I talked to him through the glass, over the phone. The first thing I said was, "I love you." Tears dropped from his eyes. I know it was hard for him, sitting there looking at us. But I never felt he let us down.

He spent time in different federal penitentiaries. When he was at Texarkana, we drove about four hours to get there. My Aunt Patsy would wake us at 5 in the morning. She'd already have made snacks so we could just get up and go. Visitation hours started at about 10.

You go to one of those places, and it opens your eyes. Metal detectors. No open-toe shoes. Visitors had to wear long pants and couldn't bring in combs. Couldn't bring in anything, really. Except quarters—that's what the vending machines took.

While I was being recruited, I'd visit my dad and we'd write down lists of positives and negatives for each of the schools I was looking at. It ended up being a tough decision. People don't realize how close I came to going to USC. When it was time to choose, he and I both wrote our picks on a piece of paper and folded them up.

"Okay, let me see yours," he said. I showed him: University of Oklahoma.

"Let me see yours," I said. He handed me his piece of paper. It said, "Whatever decision you make, I'll be happy."

He'd watch my OU games in prison, then call and say stuff like, "That was a pretty nice run, but you cut on your inside foot, and you need to stiff-arm more." He was always trying to make me better. When I first hurt my ankle, he said, "Son, I know you. I know how competitive you are. You're going to try to play. But you can't. Sit out and heal." He was right. Mentally I wanted to get it done, but I couldn't do it physically.

Now here it is, almost time for us to be together again, to catch up on lost time and for him to see me play. With him at the halfway house in Oklahoma City, we get to see each other. I take him to the Fifth Street Baptist Church on Sundays. But I can't wait to see him on a Saturday.

The time he's been gone seems longer than eight years and a month. This is my junior year already. Just thinking about him, finally being able to look over and see his face on the sideline—there's no telling what I'm going to do. I know I'll be pumped up, man. I'll want to run wild.