"How will the Eagles look with Roderick Russell having graduated?" That was the gist of a question I remember my father asking his old college roommate or possibly the father of one of Georgia Southern's assistant coaches who went to church with us, prior to the 1998 football season. Russell, an All-Southern Conference fullback/B-Back, was the feature back for Georgia Southern in the mid-90s. I well remember the answer as clear as if it were yesterday. "We've got a kid who's gonna make you forget Roderick Russell."*
In 1998, Georgia Southern was in Year 2 of the Paul Johnson regime. Johnson had come in to turn around the fortunes of the juggernaut that Erk Russell built which had been on a bit of decline through the mid-90s. Year 1 ended just short of the playoffs.
Year 2 would feature a freshman running back who would soon take the 1-AA/FCS world by storm. Today, that running back, Adrian Peterson, has been announced as being on the ballot for the 2017 class of the College Football Hall of Fame.
"Rod Russell's absence will be felt, trust me, but we feel pretty confident that either redshirt freshman Adrian Peterson and/or Jevon Sullivan can step up and fill that particular role well." Those are Paul Johnson's words in the 1998 Georgia Southern media guide. Truer words were never spoken. Adrian Peterson took over the role of B-Back as a redshirt freshman and proceeded to set NCAA Division 1 records that still stand.
In his freshman season, AP ran for 2,606 yards and 34 touchdowns. Those numbers include postseason rushing yards through 4 playoff games, something the NCAA did not officially recognize at the time. By the time his freshman campaign was done, he had broken or tied 16 Georgia Southern, 14 NCAA, and 15 Southern Conference records.**
His sophomore season, leading the Eagles to the 1999 FCS National Championship, was even better than his freshman campaign. He finished with 2,704 total yards, including 333 while suffering from the flu in a playoff rematch of the 1998 FCS title game vs UMass. Against Jim Tressel's Youngstown State, he had perhaps the most iconic run in Georgia Southern history:
To top that off, he became the first sophomore to win the Walter Peyton Award, the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy.
His will and determination were unparalleled. With Georgia Southern having given up a big lead and Montana holding all the momentum in the 2000 FCS National Championship game, AP told his line to give him a hole and he'd do the rest. He did. He ran 57 yards straight through the Montana defense over some of the worst field conditions of all time and scored what would be the game-winning touchdown.
By the time he left, Adrian Peterson had rushed for 100+ yards in 48 straight games (counting playoffs). He broke Archie Griffith's regular season record for consecutive 100-yard games with 36.*** He totaled 54 100-yard games in his career. He is credited with 996 career carries for 6,559 yards in the regular season. Counting his playoff games, he carried the ball 1,378 times for 9,145 yards.
If he is chosen for the College Football Hall of Fame, Adrian will join fellow Georgia Southern star Tracy Ham as the only two Eagles enshrined in Atlanta. They are also the only two Georgia Southern football players to have their jersey numbers retired.
Adrian Peterson was a once in a lifetime player at Georgia Southern. He was a joy to watch. When the Eagles were on offense, you never wanted to miss a down, because he could take it to the house on any touch. He's also an unbelievably selfless and wonderful person, having overcome a number of hardships in his life. I can't think of a football player from the FCS level more deserving of being in the College Football Hall of Fame.
*Roderick Russell was no slouch, himself. He was 2nd on Georgia Southern's all-time rushing list prior to Adrian's arrival and is still 6th.