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Vikings’ Adrian Peterson was relentless during recovery from major knee surgery

The MinnesotVikings Adrian Petersties run around Bears Chris Conte during their game Soldier Field Chicago Sunday November 25 2012. |

The Minnesota Vikings Adrian Peterson ties to run around the Bears Chris Conte during their game at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday, November 25, 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 10, 2013 6:37AM

With four games left, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is threatening to crack 2,000 rushing yards and, in classic fashion, is pounding his way into the MVP conversation.

Q: Did he expect such a season?

A: Why not?

Because less than a year ago at Washington at the end of a three-yard gain, Peterson’s left knee awkwardly turned when Redskins safety DeJon Gomes slammed into him. Because Peterson remembered feeling three pops and immediately enduring ‘‘terrible’’ pain.

Q: What did he think then?

A: ‘‘Why me? Why me?’’

‘‘But I was able to refocus fast,’’ Peterson told the Sun-Times, ‘‘and get my mind back right.’’

The legend of Adrian Peterson started early in Palestine, Texas, where he rushed for 2,960 yards as a senior. It continued at Oklahoma, where he was a Heisman runner-up, and in Minneapolis, where he has been a four-time All-Pro.

But Peterson is in uncharted territory with his remarkable recovery from major knee surgery, which has ended the careers of numerous NFL players, including Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson and even his coach, Leslie Frazier. On the famed 1985 Bears, Frazier had a team-high six interceptions but tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Super Bowl XX and never played another down.

‘‘I know things are a lot different now from a surgery standpoint and in rehab, but eight months?’’ Frazier said. ‘‘That still seemed like we were pushing it a little bit. But when you saw him in training camp and against Jacksonville [in the season opener], you say, ‘It’s possible. It’s Adrian Peterson.’ ”

The Bulls and the Bears are hopeful that point guard Derrick Rose and offensive guard Lance Louis, respectively, can follow Peterson’s lead and return to form after torn ACLs. Peterson hasn’t connected with Rose but insisted he would encourage the Bulls star.

‘‘I’m definitely pulling for him,’’ Peterson said. ‘‘He’s got a good spirit about him. Good guy, genuine. I didn’t have any doubt that he would bounce back.’’

Road to recovery

Injuries are inevitable in football, but the combination of three letters — ACL — is among the most dreaded.

Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman, who also has worked for the Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, has assisted in about 30 players’ rehabilitations from torn ACLs. Peterson is his 12th on the Vikings.

A Lachman test at FedEx Field immediately confirmed Peterson tore his left ACL, but the Vikings’ medical officials needed an MRI exam to see the full damage. When they landed in the Twin Cities after 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Peterson, Sugarman, a team doctor and general manager Rick Spielman rode directly to the MRI center, where they also learned there was medial collateral ligament damage.

On Christmas morning, Peterson headed to Vikings headquarters for treatment to control the swelling.

‘‘His whole thing was, ‘I got to be ready for training camp,’ ” Sugarman recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s do the surgery first.’ ”

Peterson is blessed with many things, but patience isn’t among them. After surgery on New Year’s Day, there were 209 days until training camp opened at Minnesota State University in Mankato. Sugarman explained to Peterson that there were six phases to recovery and that the timetable was eight months.

‘‘To think that it’ll happen before that timeframe is unrealistic and probably not safe,” Sugarman said.

Knowing Peterson, Sugarman said he repeatedly reminded him to follow their plan.

‘‘We beat him over the head with it ad nauseam,” Sugarman said.

In the 10th week, they headed to the leg press to gauge strength. Sugarman and the strength coach loaded 200 pounds on the machine. Peterson wanted more.

‘‘I was like, ‘This is too light,’ ” Peterson said. “ ‘I’m not getting any work done. I need you to bump this weight up.’ ”

Said Sugarman: ‘‘I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.’’

Grind it out

Peterson said the key for him was to focus on the early part of rehab — the tedious phases and exercises. He has seen other athletes overlook that period, and he wasn’t going to make the same mistake.

‘‘If you’re unfortunate to have that injury, don’t talk about what you’re going to do, be about it and grind like you’ve never grinded before,’’ Peterson said. ‘‘If you have to be able to come back and be better than before, you can’t take it lightly.’’

Once he was cleared to do some running and bike riding, Peterson admitted he didn’t follow the Vikings’ plan, adding some jogging and moderate cutting at home.

‘‘Little stuff,’’ he quietly said.

Some players favor the recovering leg, but Peterson said that’s dangerous and can often lead to other injuries.

‘‘I knew the ligament was strong and secure,’’ he said, ‘‘so it was just about having that confidence and really just attacking it.’’

By training camp in late July, Peterson felt like he was ready to rejoin his teammates at practice. But he was only allowed to do some running while wearing a red non-contact jersey. Training camp closed in Mankato on Aug. 15, and Peterson didn’t appear in any preseason games.

Despite his frustration, Peterson understood that the Vikings had a huge investment in him, as he is league’s highest-paid running back.

But patience paid off.

He debuted in the season opener against the Jaguars, gaining 84 yards on 17 carries and scoring two touchdowns. He topped 100 rushing yards for the first time on Sept. 30. He has averaged 157.8 rushing yards over the last six games.

‘‘I’ve never seen anything like it, and I probably won’t ever again,” Sugarman sad. ‘‘I feel badly for others who suffer the same injury because they’re going to have to get compared to the same result. But no two injuries are the same; no two athletes are the same. It’s not fair.’’

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