MANKATO, Minn. -- Adrian Peterson emerged from the locker room, instantly turning a sleepy summer day in this southern Minnesota college town into a full-blown rock concert.
Vikings fans who came from all over the region to watch the team in training camp roared, begging for autographs and hoping to get an up-close glimpse of their team’s frontman.
“I’m sorry, I have to get going,” Peterson said, with a pained look on his face and in his eyes that just can’t be faked. “I’ll get you tomorrow. Tomorrow!”
Learning how to say no has been a difficult lesson for a genuinely gracious and personable 23-year-old entering his second season in the NFL.
He’s been a star almost since he first stepped onto a football field as a youngster in Palestine, Texas. But a dynamic rookie season at one of the glamour positions in the most popular league in the country has boosted Peterson into a new orbit in the superstar universe.
Peterson led the NFC in rushing despite missing two games with a knee injury, broke the single-game rushing record with a breathtaking 296-yard performance against San Diego, and was named MVP of the Pro Bowl last season.
Through it all, the football world got to know him as a humble young man who is quick to smile and generous with his time. That disposition, combined with a catchy nickname and jaw-dropping talent, have solidified “All Day” as one of the league’s marquee attractions.
Endorsement offers, autograph requests and, yes, even marriage proposals have been pouring in ever since. That has made for a challenging learning curve as he tries to balance the increasing demands off the field with his obligations on it.
“I’ve really been pulled in a lot of different directions this off-season and I have to learn to say no better,” Peterson said with a sheepish smile. “I’m too kind.”
From the time he first started breaking long runs in Pop Warner football, through a legendary high school career in football-mad Texas, to his Heisman-contending seasons at Oklahoma, Peterson is one of the poster boys for a new generation of athletes who deal with unprecedented scrutiny at a younger age than ever before.
“You can go on YouTube and see a lot of things on him when he was in peewee football,” Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson said.
That said, the NFL is as big as it gets.
“It’s on a different scale,” Peterson said. “But it comes with the territory. I know there’s a lot of people that would love to be in my position right now. So I’m just enjoying it while the cake is on my plate.”
The icing? The photogenic Peterson’s Q-rating has gone through the roof, with companies lining up to sign him to endorsement deals and charities begging for his help.
“He has come on to the scene as quickly as any athlete I’ve been a part of,” said Bill Henkel, who handles the marketing deals for Peterson.
In the off-season, Peterson shot commercials for Nike, Vitamin Water, Muscle Milk and “SportsCenter.”
“Every time I turn on the TV, he’s on there on a commercial. I was at a movie and he came on doing a commercial on the big screen with an astronaut suit,” Jackson said with a laugh. “It’s crazy to see him on there because he is your teammate.”
Whether sporting an astronaut suit with Dwight Howard, 50 Cent and David Ortiz in a Vitamin Water spot, pulling a parachute during a workout in a Nike ad or working with Special Olympics athletes in a football camp, Peterson has had to make sure he never loses sight of what got him here in the first place.
“Sometimes it can be too much,” he said. “But if you balance everything out and weigh what’s most important, everything should work out fine.”
Peterson has been warned, by coaches, business associates and an attentive family.
“The entertainment world can be sexy and enticing, but at the same time there have been many people that have fallen into the trap and it has hurt many a career,” said Henkel, who worked for powerhouse IMG before starting his own company, 10 Sports Marketing.
So far, Peterson has shown no signs of becoming a prima donna.
“I think fortunately for him he has been one of the best, if not the best, athlete on his team his entire life. ... I think that has prepared him to handle all of that,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said.
Henkel said Peterson has been adamant that the marketing side does not conflict with his football schedule, an idea enforced by his parents, Nelson Peterson and Bonita Jackson.
“He’s as focused a guy as I’ve been around,” Henkel said. “If he’s working, that’s what he’s doing. He’s not multitasking.”
Vikings coaches have shown little concern that he will get caught up in the whirlwind of NFL stardom.
“I think it was a great learning experience for him, knowing that everybody’s going to be pulling at him and then just keeping things in perspective,” running backs coach Eric Bieniemy said. “He’s got to think, ‘I’ve got to keep in mind that what I did on the field helped me to get to where I am right now.’ As long as he can balance the two, I think he’ll be OK.”
There is room for improvement. Peterson managed just 144 yards in his last four games as opposing defenses loaded up against the run. And coaches say he can be a better pass blocker and a more patient runner.
“He’s not going to sneak up on anybody,” Coach Brad Childress said. "(He’s) going to get people’s best shot.”
An individual goal is 2,000 yards -- the Holy Grail for running backs. Whether it’s on the field or on the television, Henkel said there are no bounds for what Peterson can accomplish.
“I’m as excited about his potential as anyone I’ve worked with,” Henkel said. “I’ve seen quite a bit and seen what can happen when the stars align. And I really see that for this kid.”