Unbeknownst to practically everybody outside the rural hamlet of Statesboro, Ga., early this summer Georgia Southern, a Division I-AA school, launched its Adrian Peterson for Heisman campaign. Georgia Southern emptied its athletic publicity budget by shelling out $5,500 to establish a website, apforheisman.com, and make and distribute nearly a thousand promotional CD-ROMs to Heisman voters. Then it was up to Peterson, a junior fullback, to run. And run. And run. He ran for 1,361 yards during the regular season and maintained his astounding streak of at least 100 yards rushing in every game of his college career. When the Heisman polls closed, 49 players had received votes. Peterson wasn't one of them. On Dec. 9, when the Heisman was handed to Florida State's Chris Weinke, Peterson was on a bus back to campus from the Savannah airport after the Eagles' semifinal playoff win over Delaware. He'd forgotten it was Heisman night.
The harsh reality is that Heisman campaigns for Division I-AA players have difficulty gaining traction. Assuming that Peterson stays at Georgia Southern for his senior year, he could end up rushing for more yards than any other college football player at any level-he trails career leader Ron Dayne of Wisconsin by 2,025 yards—yet most fans couldn't find A.P. without an APB. The uninformed didn't include the 17,156 spectators at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, who last Saturday watched Georgia Southern defeat Montana 27-25 for its second straight Division I-AA title. Those hardy souls saw the 5'10", 212-pound Peterson rush 23 times for 148 yards and two touchdowns in a storm so nasty that at any moment one might have expected to spot George Clooney on a fishing boat. "It was a swamp out there," said Eagles quarterback J.R. Revere, "but A.P. is so driven to prove himself that he probably didn't notice it was raining."
Peterson acknowledges that the anonymity that comes with playing at a lesser known school such as Georgia Southern is one obstacle he has yet to learn to elude. Consider that two days after rushing for a Division I-AA playoff-record 333 yards against Massachusetts last season, Peterson went to New York City to accept the Walter Payton Award as his division's most valuable player. The emcee, former NFL receiver Charley Taylor, introduced the proud winner as "Antoine Patterson."
Alas, Adrian Peterson isn't even the highest-ranking football player in his own family. For now, anyway, that title rests with his older brother, Mike, a second-year starting linebacker with the Indianapolis Colts. After Adrian rushed for 4,949 yards and 65 touchdowns at Santa Fe High in Alachua, Fla., most recruiters expected him to join Mike at Florida, but the Gators already had future NFL backs Fred Taylor and Terry Jackson and couldn't find room in their backfield for Adrian. Other schools were discouraged by Peterson's lack of height or by the fact that he was a late academic qualifier. Also, his stuttering made it difficult for him to communicate with recruiters over the phone. He didn't receive a Division I-A scholarship offer.
Instead he was wooed by fellow Santa Fe High alumnus and former Georgia Southern quarterback Tracy Ham, an Eagles assistant coach at the time, who initially figured he had no hope of landing Peterson. He was wrong; Peterson had good reason not to look down on Division I-AA because he'd watched his cousin Freddie Solomon parlay a career at South Carolina State, another Division I-AA school, into a stint in the NFL. "I didn't care what level I competed on," Peterson says. "I just wanted a chance to prove I can be the best running back playing on Saturdays."
Peterson has a punishing, Payton-esque running style that allows him to gain most of his yards running between the tackles. In his three seasons at Georgia Southern, including 12 postseason games, he has rushed for 7,366 yards and 93 touchdowns while averaging 6.9 yards per carry. Twelve times in his 43 college games he has had 200 yards rushing, and never has he gained fewer than 102. His streak of 31 consecutive 100-yard regular-season games equals the record for Division I established by Ohio State's two-time Heisman winner, Archie Griffin. In fourteen games against I-A teams or ranked teams in his own division he has averaged 190.2 yards, including 152 in the Eagles' 2000 opener at Georgia.
Peterson has accumulated all his yards as the focal point of a triple-option offense, a simple attack that consists of six basic plays and averaged only 12 passes per game this season. It's no coincidence that Georgia Southern has reached the championship game in all three of Peterson's seasons. "He's the best player I've ever coached or coached against, and the only one who was close was Marshall Faulk," says Eagles coach Paul Johnson, who was an assistant at Navy and Hawaii before coming to Statesboro four years ago. "I've coached a lot of NFL players, and I'm certain that Adrian can succeed in that league."
Last Saturday, Peterson began by proving he can be an effective decoy. Montana, which had Division I-AA's second-ranked rushing defense, keyed on Peterson and held him to 76 yards on 17 carries through three quarters. After the Grizzlies erased a 20-3 halftime deficit by scoring touchdowns on three straight possessions to take a 23-20 lead with 11:53 left, Peterson gave himself a pep talk. "I told myself, This is do-or-die time," he said after the victory. "I felt the game was in my hands, and I had to do something to change the tide."
Peterson called the play that began—and ended—the Eagles' ensuing drive. Georgia Southern had already run one of its option schemes 20 times in the game without Peterson's having carried the ball, and he sensed the defense was set up. He alerted Revere on the sideline, and on the next play Peterson took a handoff up the middle, broke two tackles and sloshed his way 57 yards to the end zone to score the TD that proved to be the dagger. "We had Peterson pretty well bottled-up early," Montana coach Joe Glenn said, "but all you've got to do is miss him once, and the son of a gun breaks free and he's gone. Great players can win a game with one huge play."
With back-to-back national championships and a record six titles in the past 16 years, Georgia Southern is the undisputed gold standard of Division I-AA football. Johnson is particularly proud that these Eagles won with a team that began the season with only three offensive starters returning, was picked to finish third in the Southern Conference and had no players chosen on this year's divisional All-America first team, not even Peterson, who was second team. "Nobody expected us to be the champs this season," Johnson said, "and we made sure to remind our players of that fact every day."