A Mother's Story

Adrian Peterson's mother, Bonita Jackson, talks about the Sooner star's upbringing and future. (Photo/Getty Images)

Bonita Jackson was born to William and Doris Brown and raised in Palestine, Texas, the county seat of Anderson County deep in the heart of the piney woods of east Texas, some 100 miles southeast of Dallas and 150 miles to the north of Houston.

Like so many others, her parents worked at Knox Glass, the town's principal employer at the time.

Jackson recalls, "Most folks either worked at the glass factory or for the (Union Pacific) railroad. The glass plant is now shut down. I guess the railroad is now the biggest employer in town."

Palestine, with a population of 18,000, had two high schools and Bonita attended and graduated from Westwood.

"I was like most of other kids in town; there was really nothing special about me," she said.

Except for the fact that Bonita Brown could run much faster and jump farther than almost any human — male or female — in Anderson County.

The modest and attractive mother of five does not mention that she won the Texas Class 3A state championship in the 100-meters three years in a row, and as a senior was the Class 3A state champion in the 200, long jump and triple jump.

If that were not enough, she once ran a blazing 11.39 in the 100 meters, which was second behind the all-time Texas high school record of 11.38 by Casey Custer of Arlington Martin in 1992, and certainly more than good enough to earn Bonita a track scholarship to the University of Houston.

But Jackson did not stay at Houston very long, as she had met Nelson Peterson, an equally gifted athlete from Florida, who was playing basketball at Lon Morris Junior College in nearby Jacksonville, just 20 miles northeast of Palestine. The two fell in love and started a family with the arrival of two boys, 11 months apart.

However, before long the couple had split up. Lon Morris was a two-year school and at the end of his sophomore year Nelson had an offer to attend Idaho State on a basketball scholarship. But Idaho was just too far away, and Bonita chose to stay close to home in order to raise the two boys — Brian and Adrian Peterson — and in 1985 moved to Dallas to be with her sister Sylvia, who also had two boys almost the same age.

"I was raising children, working at Church's Chicken," said Jackson. "It was pretty much full-time from sunup 'till sundown. It was tough, but we had our little family and we three, together with my sister and her boys, did everything together."

Brian, Adrian and cousins Shannon and Fred were almost inseparable, living in the same apartment complex and playing with one another on a daily basis. And it wasn't long before Jackson knew that both her boys were gifted athletes.

"I guess by the time they were 5 years old it was pretty apparent that the boys could run faster and do just about anything that any of the older kids could do. We'd all go over to my mom's house and the boys and their cousins and uncles would play baseball, football and race and tear around all day long.

"Brian was faster, while Adrian was bigger. It was there, outside of Mommas', that I probably noticed for the first time that they were not only athletic, but both were intensely competitive beyond their years."

As he grew, the youngest brother also began to show an intense curiosity toward any complicated item or appliance. Bonita recollected several instances.

"Adrian liked to take things apart, and then try to reassemble them. At first he was pretty destructive, but in time he got to the point where he could take a radio apart and put it back together in working order. Of course, it may not have looked the same, but it would work."

On April 22, 1992, Bonita received a phone call at work that she only partially remembers.

"They said Brian had been hit by a car, he was at Parkland Hospital and it was serious. As I drove to the hospital, all kinds of thoughts filled my mind. Was he going to be OK? How bad is it? Would I be able to see him? Could I get there fast enough? It was almost like a slow-motion nightmare."

It was serious. As 9-year-old Brian lay in a comma, Bonita stayed by his side until his body gave out four days later.

"I was able to talk to him, and his little hand would squeeze mine, so I knew he heard me. He responded to my voice. I told him I loved him and that I was there for him. And then he was gone."

Brian's death was traumatic and devastating to Bonita and to young brother Adrian, who had seen the accident unfold.

"Adrian was playing football at the school yard across the street from our apartment complex. He saw the car, and he saw Brian attempt to stop his bike, which was without brakes."

The car, driven by a drunk driver, hit Brian and crushed him.

"We both were overwhelmed," said Jackson. "We three were a family. We were one. We each blamed ourselves. I told myself if I only hadn't gone to work that day. What if this and that — anything to erase or change the circumstances. Like me, Adrian thought it was his fault, he did the same thing that I did."

Brian's tragic death spun the young mother and 8-year-old brother into an emotional crisis that would not end. And although each tried to suppress their emotions, they were left alone to deal with them the best they could.

Jackson recalls, "At first we couldn't stand to leave each other. I didn't want to go to work, to get up, to do anything. I think I cried for a solid year. Adrian tried to be strong, but half of him was missing. Brian had been there every day of his life, and now he was gone.

"Some of his emotions were played out in sports. I actually think he inherited Brian's speed at his death. He almost overnight physically became like superman, but inside he remained emotionally fragile."

A desolate and heartbroken Bonita moved back to Palestine so that her mom could help with Adrian, and also so that Adrian could be with his father Nelson, who had returned as well. Perhaps the proximity of Nelson would allow Adrian a better chance to deal with the death of his brother, she thought.

Nelson indeed helped fill the void left by the death of Brian and the sudden uprooting from cousins Shannon and Fred in Dallas. The two gradually began to form a bond based on athletics, delayed by both years and separated by miles.

Adrian explains, "My dad really helped me develop my skills, always showing me the right way to do things — how to hold the ball, how to dribble and pushing me to do my best."

Eventually, Peterson blossomed and later claimed MVP honors at a little league football tournament in Texarkana, where witnesses say he put on a terrific performance, seldom being tackled the entire tournament.

But as Adrian progressed as an athlete, he became more reclusive emotionally, seldom talking or expressing his thoughts, while a volcano of hurt and fear built up inside of him.

However, any emotional stability that Adrian was clinging to was then kicked out from under him prior to the seventh grade, when Nelson was arrested and sentenced for money laundering.

Jackson admits that a dark cloud hung over both she and Adrian, and that the next few years were rough ones, and that yes, they both made mistakes.

"After that he kinda hit rock bottom," she said. "It was a miserable time in my life too. I'll tell anyone that I love each and every one of my kids as much as life itself. But if I had it do over, I'd still have all of my kids, but by the same man in a secure, married relationship."

Through the turmoil, Bonita had occasionally started seeing Frankie Jackson, a friend she'd known since childhood when both attended the Brown Springs Baptist Church.

But first she had to get her own life back on track.

"At that point in my life I completely turned it over to Jesus Christ," she said. "I had made a mess of things. Brian was gone, and I was still angry at God over it, but now he gave me peace.

"I told Frankie that I couldn't see him any more until he started thinking the way I was thinking, because I had been changed, and was not going to go back."

Meanwhile Adrian was struggling, at first due to a knee injury and then due to grades his freshmen year.

"After he hurt his knee he just lost all motivation," Jackson said. "Adrian's grades were a dismal reflection of an emotionally troubled person, yet one who would seldom express his feelings. As a sophomore, Peterson was ineligible due to grades.

His mother, Bonita Jackson, and now stepfather, Frankie Jackson, tried to help.

"I was trying to do the best I could," said Frankie. "But I had to learn to be more of a father than a stepfather. I wasn't trying to take Nelson's place, but I was trying to meet Adrian's needs.

"I tried discipline, encouragement, and we did make some progress, but there was just a lot of emotional blockage there and I didn't know how to deal with it."

Both Frankie and Bonita credit Palestine head coach Jeff Harrell with helping Adrian get back on track.

"Coach Harrell was wonderful," Jackson said. "He saw more than a football player in Adrian and it really helped him at times when we couldn't get through to him."

Gradually, Peterson's grades improved, as did his stats.

"Sure we were proud of what he was doing on the field, but I would not take a million dollars for the feeling I had the first time Adrian made the 'A' and 'B' honor roll," Jackson said.

By the time Adrian was a junior, his grades were back on track and he was tearing up Texas high school records books and packing stadiums all over east Texas. Yet a void remained that hung over the family's home in Palestine like a thick fog.

"We still were not all on the same page. Adrian was sometimes distant — withdrawn. He and Frankie were doing the best they could, but there was still an emotional barrier there," said Jackson.

"Then, in July of 2003, after his junior year, he and a few teammates were driving down to Florida for a track meet. The phone rang late one night and it was Adrian on the other end.

"I think the boys were driving in the night and some song that he and Brian used to sing — or listen to — came on the radio. Whatever it was, a flood of emotion came out at that moment.

"We were both crying. I told him it was OK to cry and let his emotions out. After all, he was with his best friend.

"I knew I had been waiting for 11 years for that moment. The kids came in here and climbed up on the bed and they were all crying too. I woke Frankie up and said, ‘Here, Frankie, Adrian wants to talk to you.' We all must have been on the phone an hour, maybe more."

Frankie explained what happened, "Some of what he said to me is private. But I can tell you that I told him I loved him for the first time. From that moment on something happened between us. He knows I'm not his real dad, and both of us are OK with that. But I love him like a son and he knows that. I think at that time I had his respect and his love, and it was one of the greatest nights of my life."

"From that moment on this family has been whole. We're totally a unit now, the dark cloud just disappeared."

The rest of the story is well documented. The future is not.

"Twenty years from now I see Adrian as a successful business man, a great father, a strong Christian and a role model," said Jackson.

"I had a brother (Lee Brown) who played in the NFL for the St. Louis Cardinals, so I don't see the NFL as the end all of everything. Sure it would be nice, but I can tell you that it's more important to me that he gets that degree. That's not negotiable, and he knows I feel that way."

The above article was published in the Januaray (2006) edition of Sooners Illustrated.


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