Peterson chasing greatness in 2006

Junior running back Adrian Peterson needs just 1,086 yards to surpass Billy Sims as OU's career rushing leader. See inside as Peterson, Sims and former OU coach Barry Switzer talk about the Palestine, Texas natives' run for the record books.

In watching Adrian Peterson dazzle on a Friday night in the fall of 2003 in east Texas, Billy Sims realized that his career rushing record at Oklahoma could soon be in jeopardy.

"You could tell right then that guys everywhere were going to have a hard time tackling him," Sims said.

That tireless theme has become synonymous in describing Peterson, who enters this season needing just 1,086 yards to supplant Sims as Oklahoma's career rushing leader. The 6-foot-2, 223-pounder ranks sixth on the school's all-time list with 3,033 yards, while Sims has 4,118 yards.

Yet long before the junior tailback's meteoric rise to college football stardom, Sims trekked to Palestine, Texas, to watch Peterson play as a high school senior, a trip forever etched in his mind.

"He was a man amongst boys in high school," Sims said. "Those type of guys come along every once in a while. Adrian, his freshman year, probably could have been playing in the pros."

Having heard from friends in Palestine about Peterson since the youngster was in junior high school, Sims loaded into his pickup truck at his Dallas-area home on a warm afternoon three years ago and drove 110 miles southeast to the railroad town.

A former youth baseball coach in his adopted hometown of Hooks, Texas, he was hardly a stranger to Palestine. Because his teams often traveled there to play in tournaments, Sims had befriended several of its 17,598 residents over the years. But on this night, Sims was alone, intent on focusing his attention on Peterson, a gladiator being touted by some as the state's best-ever tailback.

The same distinction was bestowed on Sims nearly three decades earlier when he rushed for over 7,000 yards in three years at Hooks High School. That hype peaked Sims' interest in Peterson.

"Everybody kept telling me he was the real deal," Sims said. "So I had to go see him myself."

Upon arriving at Palestine High School's Wildcat Stadium, Sims made his way to the top row of the bleachers, his customary position, where he stood quietly against a chain-link fence. There, he waited for his first glimpse of Peterson in action.

Peterson would waste no time in impressing the Heisman Trophy winner. On the game's first play from scrimmage, he reeled off a jaw-dropping run that brought the crowd to their feet and sent the stadium into a frenzy.

"It was probably a 30- to 50-yard gain," Sims said. "He was breaking tacklers. Pulling people. He had a lot of determination not to be stopped. Guys were hitting him and they were bouncing off like bowling pins. You could tell he was a player. A real difference maker."

As the game went on, Peterson's dominance only manifested. With each carry, he seemingly became more lethal, plowing over defenders like a bulldozer.

"He was tearing it up," Sims said.

Long before Peterson finished playing on that memorable night, Sims slipped out of Wildcat Stadium to make the hour-and-a-half trip back to Dallas. He knew then that Peterson had the vision, speed and strength to contend for the Heisman as a true freshman.

"He never knew I was there," Sims said. "But I'll never forget being there."

As Sims pulled out of the stadium's parking lot and onto U.S. 84 on that memorable night, his records at Oklahoma were the last thing on his mind. He was more concerned whether Peterson would be chasing him or Ricky Williams, Texas' all-time leading rusher, for school records in college.

"I remember thinking, ‘If Texas gets this guy, Oklahoma is in trouble,' he said. "There was no doubt about that."

Ever since Peterson's much-ballyhooed arrival in 2004, he boldly predicted he would bring a national championship and Heisman to Norman. Blinded by those pursuits, Peterson told Sooners Illustrated in mid-June that he was unaware that he could best Sims' all-time rushing record this season.

"I didn't realize that, but it's something I look forward to reaching," Peterson said.

But having watched tapes of Sims' brilliance at Oklahoma, Peterson is more than familiar with the two-time All-American.

"Whether he's jumping over a defender or diving over the pile trying to get into the end zone or whatever, he just runs the ball hard," Peterson said. "He kind of reminds me of myself a little bit."

Sims believes that Peterson runs with the same passion, but insists the two are distinctively different running backs.

"With Adrian being so tall and big, he's more of a bruiser type and straight ahead runner," Sims said. "Myself, I was more elusive. I'd give you different things and different angles to hit at."

Whether Peterson or Sims is the greatest running back in OU history is a question that Sooner fans will debate for years to come. The argument is similar to who was the better OU coach, Barry Switzer or Bud Wilkinson?

"Both are very physically gifted and talented players," Switzer said. "They're both great backs."

Switzer, who coached Sims at Oklahoma from 1975-79, is quick to dismiss comparisons of the two players. He believes they share the wealth philosophy of the wishbone attack that Sims played in at OU robbed him of countless rushing yards.

"I always have a problem comparing," Switzer said. "It's so difficult. Both backs played in different systems. Billy's not going to touch the ball as much as Adrian. The only thing you can compare the two with is average per carry. That's not fair to Adrian, because Billy averaged (6.9) yards and Adrian's not going to average that."

Should Peterson become OU's rushing king this season, the feat won't change Switzer's opinion of Sims' accomplishments.

"Don't give me statistics, because he's all of the sudden going to break Billy's rushing record this year and all the sudden he's the greatest back because he rushed for the most yards," Switzer said. "I don't buy that. Those things don't mean nothing to me.

"Will he be the first player picked in the draft? Is he going to go to the NFL and (nearly) lead the league in rushing for the worst team, which Billy did, or is he going to be NFL rookie of the year? So make it on down the road, that's the only way you compare. In college, compare the numbers. What's better? I'd rather have a back that averaged (6.9) yards a carry every time he touched it."

But ask Bob Stoops about Peterson and the Oklahoma coach says, "I can't compare him to anybody else. I haven't seen anything like him. He is a powerful, explosive guy with great speed. He has great style to him. He is a tough, physical runner. I don't know how to compare him to anybody else."

With Peterson in striking distance of his career rushing mark, Sims is pulling for him to shatter his record, which he has held for 28 years.

"Records were made to be broken," Sims said. "I broke somebody else's record. Somebody will come along hopefully and break mine and then they'll break his. That means it's all the better for the university.

"Adrian is most deserving of the record for what he's done and accomplished for the university. It couldn't happen for a better guy. There's no doubt."

Peterson and Sims rarely talk, but when they do, their conversations often center on their east Texas roots.

"He's his own man," Sims said. "He doesn't need too much of me talking."

But during a photo shoot in Norman this summer, Sims used the opportunity to offer advice to Peterson.

"I told him he's got to protect himself a lot better and not worry about trying to run over everybody all the time, because of those injuries and everything," Sims said. "He's got enough speed. If it's not there, get out of bounds and live to run another play."

Sims isn't sure how much Peterson will heed to those words. After all, Peterson's excellence is built on his punishing running style and willingness to take on any defender.

Regardless, Sims expects to welcome Peterson as Oklahoma's fifth Heisman winner in December. His confidence in Peterson is such that he's already practicing his infamous chants of ‘Boomer Sooner' for the ceremony's national television audience.

"I'll be proud, because he's from Texas and he didn't go to Texas," Sims said. "We could have both been there starting at Texas, but we chose OU."

***

The above article was originally published in the August issue of Sooners Illustrated. If you would like to read more in-depth features on Oklahoma athletes and coaches click the link below to get more details on how you can subscribe to Sooners Illustrated.

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