Johnson and Patrick Peterson Sr. were high school sweethearts. They weren’t ready to marry but stayed together as a couple determined to raise their son right. They introduced him to football early to keep up with some older cousins who already were making noise on Florida’s youth football circuit.
You might recognize the names Santana Moss. Sinorice Moss. Bryant McFadden and Walter McFadden. All play in the NFL.
“We were fierce competitors,” the younger Peterson said Friday. “From playing PlayStation . . . basketball, someone always wanted to be the best.”
His parents introduced him to Pop Warner football, and in the first game he “scored five or six times,” Peterson Sr. said. “The other coaches were getting upset.”
The coaches thought he was too old to play in the Pee Wee division and demanded to see his birth certificate. It turned out he was too young and was booted off the team anyway. When he finally was eligible, he excelled and seemed a perfect fit for the football program at Blanche Ely High in Pompano Beach, Fla. The year before he started, 2003, the NFL noted that Ely had more graduates in the league that year than any other school.
His father was on the coaching staff, but a promising freshman season wasn’t impressive enough for Peterson Sr. His son’s grades had slipped, and even though Peterson Jr. was eligible as a sophomore, his father made him sit out the whole year.
His son was mad. His dad made him go to every practice and every game so he could explain to curious fans why he wasn’t playing.
Peterson Sr. took heat for the decision.
“I wanted to teach him a lesson about life,” he said. “You tell someone something and do something different, it isn’t right. I think it made him a better person, and he understands now what it takes to be the top player.”
Meanwhile, Patrick Lawlor, a litigation lawyer who lived in the area, caught several of Peterson’s high school games and was blown away. It was enough to make the former sports agent, who had left the business to spend more time with his family, rethink his decision.
After the running back/defensive back posted 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions his junior and senior seasons, he had his pick of colleges and settled on LSU.
In August 2008, just before he started his college career, he changed his last name. He had been known until then as Patrick Johnson, the maiden name of his mother. He did it because his parents finally had married.
“In my family, you’re supposed to marry,” Peterson Sr. said. “It took us a while.”
LSU was a great fit. Peterson Jr. connected with coach Les Miles and soon separated himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the country. After a junior season with four interceptions and the title of Jim Thorpe Award winner, he was ready to turn professional.
Lawlor, the attorney, approached him.
Lawlor told Peterson Jr. that his talents made Lawlor want to be an agent again.
“I said, ‘You’ll be my only client,’ ” Lawlor said.
Peterson, 20, accepted his offer. He blew away scouts in workouts, and many called him the best overall athlete in the draft. One of the few red flags came during the NFL combine, when he scored one of the lower scores on the Wonderlic IQ test among the 330 participants, answering just nine questions right on the 12-minute, 50-question test.
Those close to Peterson said he simply rushed through the test after a busy day of physical workouts and posted one of the higher scores on a football IQ test given by the 49ers.
That didn’t scare away the Cardinals, who were thrilled to take him with the fifth overall pick Thursday night in New York. Thirty-two family members and friends were there, including Miles, who made the trek despite losing his sister to a car accident six days earlier.
Just about everyone affiliated with Peterson cried when his name was announced.
“He’s going to do special things here, he really is,” Lawlor said.
Peterson cut an impressive figure Friday at his news conference. Upbeat. Forthright. Confident but not cocky.
“Some people can have too much confidence,” he said. “But my confidence is always on the field. I’m not a guy who will be bragging about myself. It’s something you’ve got to have to help you play better.”
Peterson’s journey has been a fascinating one that should get only more interesting.