I’m going to take a pause in my year-end list to acknowledge what I feel very well could be one of the most amazing and inspiring stories of determination in human history. I know big words, but I don’t think an exaggeration. This Sunday Adrian Peterson running back for the Minnesota Vikings came 9 yards short of breaking the single season rushing record of 2,105 yards with a monstrous 199 yards rushing in the final win-or-go-home game of the season against bitter rival Greenbay. By itself this is a super-human feat. Carrying a team with a marginal quarterback and a receiving core whose only impact player was lost to injury is what great runnings backs do. For added perspective there have been six other human beings that have rushed for 2000 yards in a single NFL season. But for those of you adept at reading between the lines, this post in not about football stats.
Sunday was the the one-year anniversary of Adrian’s surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL, an injury that means 12-18 months of recovery and possibly a drastically shortened career. Peterson not only came back from this injury, not only came back in 9 months to start the first game of the season, but got stronger as famously grueling NFL season progressed and in the end of the day his season performance ranked as the second greatest running back performance of all-time - this is the stuff of legends and storybooks. In the time it takes others to finally give their repaired appendages a go and attempt to be even a shadow of their former selves, A.P. had already set a new benchmark for grit, determination and a model for anyone incurring an injury or setback.
I cringed when I saw the horrific way his leg buckled sideways last December - so unnatural and so obvious. Blown ACL, probably worse. Adrian Peterson running style could only be described as, well, violent. Known for being a physical specimen with an unreal work ethic everyone knew this violent style would take years off his playing days. Running backs bodies can only sustain so many hits.
As an athlete, one of my greatest fear is a catastrophic injury that would rob me prematurely of my athleticism. I had my own knee injury in the summer of 2010 and I couldn’t deny its physical or psychological effects. Like most, I hoped that Adrian would be able to come back, but also braced myself for reality - that it would be a long time before he was back, and most likely he (and I) would never be what we were. In December of 2011, like many others I thought to myself that maybe I’d witnessed Peterson’s brief moment in the sun and that decades from now we’d talk about what might have been and how he might have measured up against the greats or could have redefined the game.
Instead, I and the world got a great gift this season. Here’s what A.P. taught me:
1) Greatness exists in the mind. Survival in the Body:
Everything about Adrian Peterson’s recovery was ahead of schedule. He said later that he decided there while laying broken on the training table that he was going to come back, that he was going to come back by the start of the 2012 season, and that he was going to come back better than he ever was. That meant he had to get to surgery as soon as possible and that meant fighting his body. The bodies response to injury is to recoil and cocoon. Swelling and pain are both meant to immobilize. Swelling makes you physically unable to perform by limiting the range of motion - while pain literally exists only in the mind and is the body’s way of exerting control and forcing the brain into submission by jabbing it every time it sends a signal for a damaged body to do something else potentially dangerous. The key to not just survive trama but recover and thrive is to not let your natural instincts to recoil take over, don’t go into defense mode, immediately assess the situation and take decisive action. Remember - the body doesn’t care about returning you to greatness, the body just wants to survive.
Anyone who’s injured a knee will tell you that one of the most counter-intuitive parts of rehab is how much it focuses on the hip and the ankles muscles because they deactivate to protect the injury and subsequently atrophy and destabilize the newly reconstructed joint. Immobilization may be the body’s way of preventing more near term damage but it also cause weakness, instability and is a leading cause of reinjury when you attempt to do something you used to be able to do. Immediately after injury, the faster you elevate and ice and reduce the natural swelling response the faster you’ll be able get into surgery and more range of motion you’ll preserve, the less tenderness you’ll feel and the more effective your rehabilitation will be. The body has a natural sequence but by maintaining a clear mind you can intervene and choose a smarter course of action that not only protects you from further damage but prevents your setback from taking you so many steps backwards. The first step to returning to greatness was when Adrian Peterson decided not to get sad or depressed or allow things like pain or fear to guide his course of action. He exerted his force of will and set the course for not just recovery but greatness.
2) Get up.
Ice and elevation and getting back a range of motion in a matter of weeks allowed Adrian to have surgery to repair his destroyed ligaments inside of three weeks. Yes it was Christmas, yes he spent New Years in a recovery bed but having the surgery earlier allowed him to capitalize on one of his other greatest assets - the amazing physical shape he was already in. The best way to fix a problem is to avoid compounding it by staying down and letting other former strengths that you’ll depend on atrophy as well. Does it hurt? Oh - yeah. But the day after surgery he was doing leg lifts, three days later he was walking in an immobilizer. Every day is about embracing and working through the pain in the smartest way possible. There are great trainers out there but anyone whose been there will tell you that there comes a point where no one can fix it for you. It’s about your willingness to educate yourself on how to work smarter, then work harder despite the pain and frustration. Only you can feel your body and know what exercise strengthen it where you need it most but it all starts when you GET UP!
3) There’s only one way to run, with abandon.
But there’s another thing that anyone with a knee injury will tell you. You can be smart, you can endure pain, you can show up to rehab every day and do what your told but the hardest thing to do is to get back into the exact same situation where you got hurt and trust that knee again. To run full speed and stick a repaired appendage in the dirt and apply all your pressure to put on the brakes and push off in the other direction is as much a feat of will power and conquering of fear as it is a physical triumph.
I don’t know how A.P. did this. If I had one chance to ask him a question, this is the one that I’d ask because its the trait I respect the most. I know that every NFL story is tainted by the specter of a questionable substance abuse testing policy. But there are no steroids, no growth hormones no substances that can get yo over this hurdle. You have to trust so much in your preparation that when the moment comes you don’t even think about it, just approach it with the same reckless abandon you have the other 10,000 times when you performed in the same situation and didn’t get hurt.
We in the startup world always laugh at those hockey stick projections that shoot up and to the right. But that’s exactly what Adrian Peterson’s yards/month look like as you watch him gain confidence in that knee over the course of the season. He got lots of advice along the way by trainers, coaches and critics and even wise and well-meaning former greats but he never waivered from his plan. Get up, show up every day, practice relentlessly and then don’t change the way that you play the game. Anomalies will happen but greatness only occurs when the mind wins the battle over flesh and fear and foils, fumbles and failures.
4) The great run but never chase.
Adrian Peterson turned in the second greatest running back performance of all-time by the slimmest of margins. 27 feet in a race of 1.2 miles or less than 0.42%. But wining a rushing title was never his goal. He simply wanted to be HIS best. That meant competing, running and winning. It so happens that when you are one of the best, when you are doing something that you were created to do, the simple act of being at your best will put you in the most elite of company. Over the course of the season, Adrian Peterson began to be in the discussion for “Comeback Player of the Year”, “Offensive Player of the Year” and then finally “Most Valuable Player of the Year”. The progression showed a gradually footnoting of the fact that he was returning for injury in recognition of the amazing feats he was accomplishing healthy, unhealthy or otherwise. Adrian Peterson never let anyone else either put limitations on him, or equally importantly define success for him. He didn’t stop when people considered him a shoe-in for comeback player of the year, or offensive player of the year, or even MVP (though he should win, even over a resurgent Payton Manning). He didn’t focus on the rushing record. His 199 yards on Sunday were amazing but following a 20 yard burst that put his team in position for the game winning field goal. A lesser man (aka me as I jumped on my couch in excitement) would have thought of squeezing in one more rushing attempt to pick up the 9 yards in the final 10 seconds or even missing the game winning field goal to send the game in overtime like some buffalo wild wings commercial. But not Adrian. He walked off the field without a thought to let the field goal unit set up for the win. Seconds after the game expired reporters swarmed him and asked of his disappointment at coming so close to the record. He did two things that were amazing. 1) He didn’t even know how close he was. He wasn’t counting. He was too busy giving everything he had towards helping his team win. 2) He shrugged it off and said he was happy with his performance and that his team had won. In a press conference later on he said:
”I don’t let awards identify me,” Peterson said. “I don’t do it. I go out and define myself by what I do on the field. Whether I win it or not, and I’m not saying I don’t want to, just like I wanted to break the record, either way, in my heart I’m the MVP. That’s all that matters.”
He may be robbed by a quarterback loving league that saw Payton Manning return from neck surgery to lead to the Broncos to the best record in the AFC. But Adrian defined success for himself as the greatest coach of all time said “Success is peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable”. Success is NOT winning, but in the never ending quest to succeed it so happens that you’ll win quite often.
5) Greatness in the first, heroes in the second, but legends are written in the third act.
One of the reasons I think Adrian was so content to let the record stand is that the great need to continually find their own motivation. If he could come that close to the record in the process of recovering from catastrophic knee surgery what do you think he will do with a full season of offseason conditioning and strength training on his entire game?
Act 1 comes from talent: No one denies that Adrian is a physical specimen. 208 lbs, 4.5% body fat, 10.3 100-meter speed, 4.3 football field speed and incredible upper and lower body strength are all the stuff of greatness. But just as many who’ve had these skillets have ended up as late night “Where are they now” biographies as are enshrined in the hall of fame.
Act 2 comes from work ethic: Those truly great that are held up as heroes are just as infamous for their drive. The intensity with which they approach preseason workouts and midseason practices sets them apart. Jerry Rice was famous for his San Francisco hill running workouts, Kobe Bryant for his relentless preparation and studies of the game. Tiger Woods for his fanaticism about golf. Those two things may get you to greatness but not legend.
Act 3 come from adversity: Hollywood knows well that the an action hero’s journey is defined not by the heroic acts of the hero but by the depth of the villain and the adversity overcome. Legend requires adversity. How you respond to adversity is what inspires others to greatness. You can be given talent by the genetic lottery, you can earn respect by honing that talent through long hours of practice but no one can deny the character and determination that is revealed when you respond to adversity with determination. Those that are legend, those that are the greatest were not just talented, or determined to point of being willing to die but legends inspire us with their response to adversity. Michael Jordan left basketball running from media, crushed by his father’s murder and returned triumphantly to win another three-peat at an age when people doubted if he could still muster the ability. Muhammed Ali was stripped of his title for objecting to an unjust war and returned to reclaim it not once but twice. The Tour de France still hasn’t figured out why no-one cares about their relentless hunt for Lance Amstrong’s smoking gun, because he is legend. He wasn’t racing against other cyclist - he was racing against cancer and no one cares HOW he won just that he did. People need inspiration and inspiration only comes from how you face adversity because not everyone is born with world class talent and it may be too late for some to hone whatever skills they have to elite levels but everyone faces adversity and can summon within them to strength to face it with determination.
What it means to me?
One year ago as I write this. Adrian Peterson was taking his first ginger steps from a hospital bed. A man of potential to be the greatest of all-time staring at catastrophe that could have been the end and he made a decision. He would do whatever it took, he would work as hard as humanly possible, he would overcome both the physical pain and psychological doubt and hurt of the injury to not just return, but to be better than he’d ever been. He would use this injury, not as a setback, but as a setup, as a definitive moment in his life. In retrospect, when he looked back over his life, he wouldn’t undo the pain of that moment, he wouldn’t undo that catastrophe even if he could. Just like Michael Jordan wouldn’t take back those years away from basketball, or Ali wouldn’t undo the loss to Frazier because it was there in failure that they found the motivation and opportunity to be legend.
Every once in a while sports are not a game. Adrian Peterson’s season in which he gained strength as the season progressed and turned in absolutely inhuman performances to carry his team to the postseason (literally) is the stuff of storybooks.
For me? I’ve had a knee injury which after this very moment I am officially never going to mention again. But more so - I was unexpectedly and unceremoniously fired from a organization that I’d dedicated a year of my life to building. I thought I’d found the right place and the right system where I could do something that would change the world. I was well on my way, having completed a film, having built brand recognition and strong group of supporters, having carved a niche in the most vital area of the ecosystem suddenly my legs were cut from underneath me. This setback could very well be career ending if I let it, i could cry about all the work that I’d put it and how its wasted or will be misused or abused. But I also look up and see opportunity. I see that it’s going to be hard, and painful and scary, but I know that if I work hard enough I can come back from this better than I’ve ever been. I can make this a definitive moment in my career so when I look back on it a year from now I’ll be able to see how this set me up for history. I’ll be able to see how, as painful as it is right now, I’ll be at a point soon enough where I wouldn’t undo the pain and loss even if I could because it was that fuel that propelled me to what was next. There’s a formula to be an inspiration for masses and to seize your place in history.
Thanks Adrian Peterson.