The best part is that he doesn’t even score.
He comes close, tumbling over and landing on his side within 10 yards of the ultimate goal. For more than 50 yards, he’s run roughshod through defenders, eluding flat-footed linebackers and stiff-arming undersized safeties.
And then, well, he just seems to fall down, finally wobbling after a desperate, last-gasp lunge by a defender. If you just glance at it quickly, it almost seems to be a calculated decision on his part, designed to let the defense know that less than one minute later, you’re gonna have to do this all over again.
It’s 20 years later, however, and Adrian Peterson is still wondering if he could have done something different to get in that end zone.
“Every time I watch it, I still try to figure out if there’s a way to put my hand down and gain a couple of more yards, if not score,” he said.
You may know that “The Run” – a 58-yard jaunt through, over and around Youngstown State defenders – is the defining, singular play of Peterson’s illustrious collegiate career. You may also know that, with or without it, he was going to etch his name into college football lore no matter what. You likely also know those 58 yards offered a brief glimpse into Georgia Southern’s dominance during Peterson’s tenure, where the Eagles captured four Southern Conference crowns, reached three Division I-AA (now FCS) title games and won two national championships.
What you may not know is the greatest running back in FCS history has battled stuttering since he was a child, fighting through stammers and verbal lockdowns that can render everyday conversations nearly impossible. And that, over time, he would come to view it as a challenge to be conquered, rigorously preparing for a post-game interview the same way he’d consume game film to get ready for the Eagles’ next opponent.
It hasn’t been easy, but nothing ever is.
By the time the Eagles took on Youngstown State in the 1999 I-AA Championship Game, he had already rushed for more than 3,400 yards in just 21 career games. The recipient of the Walter Payton Trophy, awarded to the best player in I-AA, Peterson was the most feared weapon in Paul Johnson’s vaunted triple option attack.
He was assured to play in the game, though his level of effectiveness was in question. Peterson was battling a turf toe injury sustained earlier in the week. In fact, he didn’t practice at all, spending most of his days on crutches. As the game got underway, ESPN sideline announcer Don McPherson reported Georgia Southern’s staff didn’t “think he can break the long ones.”
Now, before we move further here, you need to understand the triple option is a run-first, run-always offense. It’s a system built on deception, masking the ball through rolling movement and pulling linemen. The plays can swing out wide on pitches to trailing wing backs or they can plow ahead through the middle of the line on dive plays with the running back.
Quarterback Greg Hill always had three primary options, and Peterson was always the first with the ball going into his belly so he could hammer away at the line.
“Probably 90 percent of my plays were A-gap to A-gap,” Peterson said. “We did have a speed option, which was 16 and 17, and I think my senior year, we ran kind of an off-tackle type of play which was 45 and 46. But the majority of the runs I ran were A-gap to A-gap, which was fine, man. Whatever (Coach Paul Johnson) calls, I’m gonna run, and I’m gonna find a way to make it happen.”
The challenge with attacking that A-gap, of course, is that it is tacitly an all-or-nothing approach to football. Its success is heavily reliant on how well those on the perimeter can sell the pre-snap motion, as well as how effective your offensive line, particularly your center, is at beating his man off the line, even if it’s for merely an instant.
More likely than not, the end result is a congested mass of humanity at the line of scrimmage, while the running back, who has only been able to get two, maybe three, steps of motion behind him, smashes into the backside of his lineman. Really, it’s simply a play designed to get a couple of yards to keep everyone honest. Slam the back into the center of the line three or four times in a row to help tighten up the defense, which means you can better attack the perimeter.
Every once in a while, though, you get that moment … a linebacker is out of position; the safety is playing too deep; a lineman flattens a nose tackle; the quarterback does a perfect job selling the keep.
A moment just like that is how “The Run” began.
With a little more than six minutes left in the second quarter and Georgia Southern already up 24-14, the Eagles are once again methodically punishing Youngstown State’s defense. The ball is near midfield.
The play is 33 Trap, calling for Peterson to hit the line on the left. Bob Bellingham and Brian Scott drive their targets off the line with ease, while Mark Williams pulls to his left and flattens a Youngstown State defender who has briefly slipped into the backfield. This miniscule opening, which occurs in less than one second of time, is all Peterson needs.
At this point, two defenders at the second level appear to have an angle on Peterson, but he’s already reached full acceleration and they’re unable to react fast enough. He splits them, barely even registering any resistance to the feeble hand thrown up in desperation by Kawonza Swan.
“As a running back in midfield, it’s like taking 100 snapshots of the defense,” he says. “That’s because your eyes go one way and you have to remember where everybody is coming from when you look the opposite way. And then you take another snapshot and another snapshot.”
We’re barely two seconds into the play, and Peterson already has an open field in front of him. A gain of 20 yards is assured. After that, it’s all on him to extend it further.
Did you know that Peterson had a stutter? That it was easy for him to overwhelm defenders on a 58-yard gallop in the national title game, but a simple conversation with a friend could prove more harrowing?
Stuttering afflicts more than 70 million people across the world, and it’s four times more likely to impact men than women. Like Peterson, I’ve battled stuttering since I was a child. Primarily, I struggled with what are known as “hard sounds” – words that begin with an “r” or an “m” – and those struggles would only be exacerbated in times of stress or anxiety.
What’s stuttering like? Well, imagine your brain is a race car engine being revved over and over again, but the car is stuck in neutral. Your head gets hot. Your jaw tightens. Your chest is pushing and squeezing and fighting, all in a desperate effort to just make a sound … any sound.
Peterson struggled with what he referred to as blockages, which parallel the challenges I had in articulating those “hard sounds.” He first noticed it as a second-grader, and his parents put him in speech therapy classes that provided support through high school.
It was during his time at Georgia Southern where he found the help of Sharon Milner, a speech therapist who took the time to explain the mechanics behind Peterson’s stuttering. She helped him understand what was causing those blockages, both physically and mentally, and gave him the guidance he needed to tackle the problem.
“For myself, growing up as a kid and even now, I could sing and not stutter,” Peterson said. “That was because your vocal cords never stop when you’re singing. There’s consistent vibration. Whereas when I would speak, I would stop that vibration and instead of relaxing my vocal cords, I would tense them up, and when you tense them up, nothing flows.”
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Milner put Peterson in front of a mirror and pointed out what happened when those blockages would occur. His lips would tighten, a sign of the tension wracking his vocal cords and limiting his ability to speak. He practiced working through that tension through repetition – tensing and releasing, tensing and releasing.
“What I had to relearn was when I would tense up, I had to release it and try it again,” he said. “That was amazing. That’s where I saw the biggest improvement in my speaking.”
At midfield, he’s run so fast he’s caught up to Dedric Parham, one of his downfield blockers hoping to seal off a pathway to keep the play going. The problem is that Peterson, moving with a full head of steam, is going to easily blow by Parham who now is unsure how to move Youngstown State’s LaVar Greene out of the way.
Greene has guessed that Peterson will continue leaning toward the interior of the field, so he’s looking for the chance to possibly nudge him and send the big back tumbling down. This is a terrible decision on Greene’s part.
Peterson abruptly cuts into him, lowering his shoulder and sending the smaller defensive back tumbling out of the way. This has slowed him enough for Bruce Hightower to catch up and wrap both hands around the burly back. This is like a tricycle trying to slow down an 18-wheeler. Peterson drags him for a solid 10 yards before casually flinging him off.
Five yards later, Dwyte Smiley has slipped by to get in front of Peterson and attempts to grapple with him.
“I felt him overrunning the play, meaning his speed was going so fast that I knew there was no way he was going to be able to stop,” Peterson says. “As an offensive player carrying the ball, we have the advantage; we control the defender. So I knew he was running extremely too fast, so I slammed on brakes and then swiped him by.”
Like Hightower before him, it’s not a fair fight. Peterson tosses the defensive back to the ground like a wet towel using only his right hand. It isn’t until 10 yards later that Tim Johnson bangs against his body just hard enough to cause Peterson to tumble to the ground, finally.
With Peterson as the featured weapon, the end result was a one-dimensional, yet absolutely unstoppable offensive juggernaut. Against Youngstown State, Georgia Southern ran 61 times for a jaw-dropping 639 yards and seven touchdowns, with the sophomore tallying 254 of that total. The Eagles cruised to a 59-24 victory.
It’s some 20 years after “The Run” and Adrian Peterson is still making a difference for Georgia Southern. After a collegiate career that culminated in six rings – just rewards for four conference titles and two national championships – he was selected by the Chicago Bears in the 2002 NFL Draft, one of four Eagles from those title teams drafted. He played for the Bears for eight years before brief stints with the Seattle Seahawks and the UFL’s Virginia Destroyers.
Today, Peterson serves as the Director of Student-Athlete Development at Georgia Southern, mentoring players and making sure they stay on top of their studies. The fact that these players get to interact with one of the school’s living legends isn’t lost on them, and they take to heart the lessons he learned throughout his journey.
Peterson said he was fortunate enough to have his older brother, Mike Peterson, who played for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, to guide his move to the NFL, but others lack that type of support system. As such, he believes it’s important for colleges to put the infrastructure in place to provide guidance, resources and direction for student-athletes as they first get acclimated to campus life and, upon graduation, for what comes next.
“There’s a lot of information these kids don’t have, and I’m somebody who’s been through it and experienced it, and who can give them a little feedback on the dos and don’ts,” he said.
And while he hasn’t fully conquered his stutter, because one never truly does, he knows how to navigate his way around those blockages. He regularly does public speaking appearances at schools and youth camps where he shares his story.
“I don’t get nervous, and, in fact, it’s kind of exciting,” said Peterson. “It’s kind of like game day all over again.”