By Brenden West
Assistant Sports Editor
MORRISON, Ill. -- Even in Chicago Bears shorts and a warm-up Georgia Southern dri-fit shirt, Adrian Peterson immediately strikes the eye as someone who, if not currently in the NFL, is just a couple of years removed.
The common narrative for the personality of a professional athlete is that, at some point, the dollars, the attention, the scores of fans can change a man, perhaps elevating him to the stratosphere of the gods either through the player’s own choosing or by the swarming influence and hoopla surrounding him daily. But Peterson -- a member of the Bears from 2002-09 -- doesn’t seem to fit that mold.
When the pads are gone, what’s left is a physical specimen who, for eight solid years, played on the biggest of stages in sports. Peterson was drafted out of GSU in the sixth round by Chicago after breaking the school’s all-time rushing record; he went on to a stellar career with the Bears where he assumed starting running back carries in the mid-2000s while composing a respectable resume as a two-way special teams threat.
When he appeared in Morrison, Ill. on Sunday for a promotional event with the Ebenezer Reformed Church, fans were ready to adorn the ex-ball carrier, themselves holding sports memorabilia and creating long lines in pursuit of autographs and pictures. Rather than fitting the athlete’s narrative, Peterson humbly accepted their attention and hospitality.
“I think now that God has a plan for me, and it was more than all-time leading rusher,” he said. “It was more than eight-year career with the Bears. It was to inspire, and I get it.”
His autobiography -- “Don’t Dis My Abilities” -- is a quasi-pun. Removing the first and the third words unlocks the one that has ruled Peterson’s whole life: disabilities.
Even while speaking to the whole congregation of a rural church, Peterson’s perceived flaw can still seemingly get in his way.
“For a guy who stutters, he really held the attention of the entire congregation,” said the Rev. Gerry Norman, pastor at Ebenezer.
The pauses -- termed professionally as “disfluency” or “prolongation” -- are consistent also in quiet, one-on-one interviews. Peterson said he doesn’t know what caused his speech impediment, but he’s also not afraid to share information about his affliction.
“I was born with it,” he said. “There’s no specific knowledge on my end on what caused it.”
The most challenging parts of life, he said, were enduring grade school in Alachua, Fla.
“Just kids mimicking me was real tough,” Peterson said. “But I knew it was only words.”
In fact, donning the pads and gaining celebrity for his talents served as more of an equalizer for Peterson. Instead of catapulting him to Adonis, Peterson said people around him began accepting him as a person, albeit one with great abilities.
“Once I understood it was all me, everything else was irrelevant really,” he said. “Once I was in high school, it was all me then.”
As he told people in the church, “My mom and dad didn’t allow me to use it as an excuse to get in trouble. If you got in trouble, my dad always said, ‘You’ve got to deal with me at home.’ “ Family is something Peterson credits for keeping him on such a great trajectory.
On Sunday, Norman said he created his sermon in light of Peterson’s journey.
“We tried to cater the whole service toward being made in God’s image and being right the way you are. Within that then also is being loved by God just the way we are,” Norman said. “I thought it was great. I appreciated hearing about his family and how strong they were and what an influence they had on him growing up. I was glad to see that the lessons of his youth carried over to his adult life.”
The ex-Bear said he beat stuttering, despite it being a part of his every day life. That’s his reasoning for writing the book.
“I actually started it six years ago,” Peterson said. Around that time, he was the starting Bears’ running back in the 2007 season, compiling his first 100-yard game as a player. “It was just a hobby, something to do. It turned into a book.
“It’s on my speech impediment growing up. How I didn’t allow it to beat me and still was able to reach all my goals to go to college and also to make it to the NFL.”
Now, he said, he’s looking to show others that a speech impediment will never trip him up.
Peterson’s two main jobs in life, for the time being, are as a stay at home dad and as a traveling public speaker. He hopes his next move, though, will be into coaching and hasn’t ruled out the possibilities of working in the NFL. Two summers ago, he interned with Chicago’s running backs coach, working with some of his former teammates.
“What would you do if (ex-Bears’ coach) Lovie Smith gave you a call?” asked one Morrison resident.
“I’m going to go,” Peterson said without hesitation.
“I like the high school level,” he added later. “The kids are so raw and I think I can help with the little things with the game that I didn’t learn until I got into the NFL.”
(On the subject of Smith, Peterson said of the coach’s firing in January: “Was I surprised? Yeah. A 10-win season. You look at Cleveland, Detroit who haven’t seen seven wins, six wins in years.” He believes Smith is looking to be a head coach, a reason he didn’t take an assistant’s position in the NFL off season. He also correctly called the Bears’ win over the Steelers on Sunday.)
On a smaller scale, Peterson was able to demonstrate some of his coaching abilities to the youth of Morrison.
Surrounding the 5-foot, 9 inch back, Peterson captivated an audience of roughly 50 children on the practice field at the Morrison Sports Complex.
Jon Kophamer, an Ebenezer church elder, was the man behind bringing a Chicago Bear to rural Bear country. It happened by chance; the two met randomly during a Chicago Cubs game and exchanged phone numbers when Kophamer heard Peterson does speaking engagements.
As a man of faith, Kophamer said he hopes Peterson will return to Morrison again someday, stating the player left an impression on the town.
“It’s just a good message for a Christian life,” Kophamer said.
For now, the running back will continue to look to inspire.
“That’s why I now share my message, to help others who’re struggling,” Peterson said.