At 33, Peter­son needed to wow Red­skins. He did.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY LES CAR­PEN­TER

It was late in July, long be­fore the 166 to­tal yards at Ari­zona, the plunge into the end zone and the game ball be­ing thrust into his hands af­ter a Wash­ing­ton Red­skins vic­tory. Adrian Peter­son was sit­ting in­side his sprawl­ing Hous­ton mega gym, won­der­ing whether his foot­ball ca­reer was over.

He was a free agent, and de­spite be­ing the NFL’s 12th all-time lead­ing rusher with seven Pro Bowls and a league MVP, teams weren’t call­ing. At 33 — con­sid­ered an­cient for a run­ning back — and seven months re­moved from a season ended early by in­jury, he ap­peared to have a “dam­aged” la­bel at­tached to him. Each day, an­other of the play­ers who worked out with him that off­sea­son said good­bye, head­ing to train­ing camp, un­til he was the only one left.

Peo­ple kept ask­ing a ver­sion of the same ques­tion: What are you do­ing now?

At first he would say: “I’ve got a few teams; I’ll

get to a camp.” But as the sum­mer moved on and the phone stayed silent, his an­swer evolved into a wa­ver­ing, “We’ll see.”

“That’s when it got real,” Peter­son’s good friend and long­time trainer James Cooper said. The time had come, Cooper thought, for what he called “putting math on this.”

“I don’t see you get­ting called be­fore train­ing camp,” he told Peter­son. “Let’s give this un­til Week 3 of the season. Then [if still no team calls] we can go to Plan B.”

For al­most a decade they had worked to­gether, the su­per­star run­ning back and the trainer who spent months each off­sea­son mold­ing Peter­son’s body into one of the most ad­mired around the NFL: 6-foot-2 with 220 pounds of mus­cle. To­gether they had built this gym, O Ath­letik, pool­ing their money to erect a work­out fortress.

But Cooper had never be­fore been in this po­si­tion with Peter­son. In the past, they were al­ways work­ing to­ward the start of a season. Even in 2014, when Peter­son was sus­pended by the league fol­low­ing a child abuse charge for dis­ci­plin­ing his 4-year-old son by hit­ting him with a wooden switch, he still had a team in the Vik­ings.

This time there was no team, no season to which they could build, so Cooper said they would re-cre­ate train­ing camp, right there in­side their gym. That way, if the phone call did come, Peter­son could walk into that team’s camp look­ing as if he had been there all along.

“I was ready for my op­por­tu­nity,” Peter­son said af­ter Wash­ing­ton’s season-open­ing 24-6 win over the Car­di­nals, even if it was un­clear back in that Hous­ton gym where or when that chance would be.

Sim­u­lat­ing train­ing camp

The two men met ev­ery morn­ing at 8, start­ing with a warmup, then moved to run­ning, to foot­ball drills, to weightlift­ing, to body work to, even­tu­ally, a cool down. The work­outs ran well into the af­ter­noon, but all around foot­ball, teams were in two-a-day prac­tices, their play­ers sweat­ing un­der sum­mer suns. If that phone buzzed, Peter­son had to feel as if he had been right be­side them, grunt­ing through the swel­ter.

Dur­ing run­ning ses­sions, Cooper had Peter­son wear masks that re­stricted his breath­ing, mak­ing it seem as if he was sprint­ing in the thin air of a dis­tant moun­tain­top. The masks had dials. The higher the dial turned, the harder it was to breathe. Peter­son kept mov­ing his dial up, and even though Cooper warned him to not push too hard, they had worked to­gether long enough for him to know the fu­til­ity of that re­quest. Peter­son liked to hurt, he had learned, us­ing the pain as a barometer for his body — a means to un­der­stand how fast he can mend when the hits come and the bruises start.

“You have to re­al­ize what he’s got left in the tank,” Cooper said. “He’s bet­ter at 33 than 75 per­cent of [play­ers] in the NFL.”

Train­ing camp two-a-days turned into pre­sea­son games. Run­ning backs through­out the league started go­ing down, their in­juries an­nounced on tele­vi­sion scrolls. Re­place­ments were needed. When the list of avail­able play­ers ap­peared on the screen, Peter­son’s al­most al­ways was first. Still, the phone stayed quiet.

Com­ments drifted in from the out­side, words such as “washed up” and “fin­ished.” His name was glued to his age, that 33 flash­ing to the world like a siren. In­side the gym, he grabbed the dial on those masks and inched them higher.

“I won’t be de­fined by a num­ber,” he kept telling Cooper. “Don’t put me in a box.”

Cooper added yoga to the work­outs — both in hot stu­dios and also on the sand. He said he was do­ing this to in­crease Peter­son’s flex­i­bil­ity, but there was an­other mo­tive. He wanted to calm Peter­son’s mind, to smother slightly the fire of de­fi­ance be­fore it burned too much.

They imag­ined the team vis­its that would come should the phone ring.

“Don’t just go in and sign a pa­per if they of­fer you a job,” Cooper said he told Peter­son. “Make sure you do a work­out for them even if they don’t ask you. Let them see what you can do.”

Then, on Aug. 20, 8 a.m. came and Peter­son didn’t show up at O Ath­letik. Cooper’s phone buzzed. The Wash­ing­ton Red­skins had called, Peter­son said in a text. They might need a run­ning back. He was get­ting on a plane.

“You’re fine. You’re ready,” Cooper texted back. “We do what we do.”

A work­out works out

Later that day, Red­skins run­ning backs coach Randy Jor­dan was stunned when Peter­son walked into the prac­tice bub­ble at the team’s prac­tice fa­cil­ity and said: “I want to work out.” Work out? “A.P. wants to work out?” Jor­dan re­cently re­called think­ing, sit­ting on a couch out­side the team’s weight room. “A.P., you just sign him, like in­stant credit.”

The Red­skins had brought in sev­eral run­ning backs, younger men than Peter­son but just like him: des­per­ate for one last chance. Team of­fi­cials kept say­ing they weren’t sure they wanted to sign some­one. Their pre­sumed starter, rookie Der­rius Guice, had torn his an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment in the first pre­sea­son game, and two other play­ers were nurs­ing in­juries. The day be­fore, Coach Jay Gru­den said the or­ga­ni­za­tion wanted to give phys­i­cals to a few of the avail­able run­ning backs in case they needed to sign one in an emer­gency.

But Peter­son hadn’t spent the pre­vi­ous five weeks repli­cat­ing train­ing camp just to fly to Wash­ing­ton and take a phys­i­cal. In­side the bub­ble, Jor­dan sensed a chal­lenge.

“I wanted to see if he was in shape,” he said with a laugh.

Jor­dan gath­ered the backs and started with a few light drills, quickly build­ing the pace. He had them hit bags, run and change di­rec­tion, prac­tice block­ing and skip around cones.

The younger play­ers asked for wa­ter. Jor­dan asked whether Peter­son needed some, too. “You want a squeeze?” the coach shouted.

“Nah, I’m good, Coach,” Peter­son replied, ac­cord­ing to Jor­dan. “What’s the next drill?”

An hour later, Cooper’s phone buzzed. “I killed it,” Peter­son texted. Sit­ting on a couch out­side the Red­skins’ locker room this week, Gru­den shook his head.

“If he had not worked out [that day], he would not be here, to be hon­est with you,” Gru­den said.

The team was not plan­ning on sign­ing a run­ning back that af­ter­noon. The hope was the other backs’ in­juries would not keep them out long. “But af­ter that work­out it was a no-brainer,” Gru­den said. “The shape he was in, the power, the burst that he still had. Like, ‘What the hell are we think­ing? Let’s just grab this guy.’ ”

“Grind­ing” is what Peter­son would later call those days alone with Cooper. “You get out what you put in . . . . Dar­rell Green ran a 4.4 [40-yard dash] at 50 years old. You know, stuff like that mo­ti­vates you and tells you that, ‘Hey, any­thing is pos­si­ble.’ So that’s how I’ve viewed any sit­u­a­tion that I’ve been in, and that’s how I view the doubters as well. ‘Well, all right, what­ever. It is what it is.’ ”

Back in Hous­ton, the O Ath­letik fit­ness cen­ter is qui­eter th­ese days. The breath­ing masks hang still, their dials turned back to low re­sis­tance. Au­gust has turned to Septem­ber. Train­ing camps closed long ago, foot­ball season has started, and, fi­nally, all of James Cooper’s foot­ball play­ers have left for their teams.

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