Using a black marker to decorate an orange pumpkin, Adrian Peterson felt right at home Tuesday at Misericordia Heart of Mercy on the North Side.
The reserve Bears running back and special-teams standout visited the institution with offensive lineman John Tait. Both seemed to wear perpetual smiles as they helped celebrate Halloween, signed autographs and tossed a football with about 40 adults from the home's approximately 550 mentally and physically disabled residents.The ease with which Peterson interacted with everyone contrasts sharply with the difficulty he has talking about it.
Peterson, 26, stutters. This is a communication disorder caused, for him, by not taking enough breath to speak and exacerbated by anxiety. The speech impediment doesn't stop Peterson from being one of the more visible Bears in community service appearances.
"People look up to us," Peterson said. "I feel that if someone who has a similar problem or a real disability sees me interact with people who I don't know, maybe it can encourage them.
"You never know who is in the audience when you go to an elementary school and give a speech. You might have a straight-A student, but he or she might have a speech impediment. Instead of taking that extra step to be an excellent student, he or she might settle for being average because they're embarrassed."
According to the National Stuttering Association, about 3 million Americans suffer from the speech impediment. Peterson has endured the condition for as long as he can remember but clearly remembers the moment, when he was about 7, when he stopped focusing on pity and started focusing on pride.
"Growing up as a kid, I had a hard time," Peterson said. "But my dad, Porter, would always tell me that it could've been worse. I could've not been able to talk at all. If so, then I probably would've had to take a different route and might never have played in the NFL.
"Being able to speak is good. If it takes me 15 minutes to do an interview or two minutes to do an interview, I get my point across without using any other special methods. That means a lot to me."
Peterson's perseverance speaks to the commitment he showed in rising from Alachua, Fla., to a record-setting career at Division I-AA Georgia Southern to making it to his fourth NFL season after being drafted in the sixth round.
Peterson posted a franchise-record 28 special-teams tackles last season and has six this year. His older brother Michael is a linebacker for Jacksonville, and cousin Freddie Solomon previously played for Philadelphia.
"People equate stuttering with not being bright when nothing could be further than the truth," said Bob Love, the former Bulls All-Star who also suffers from the impediment. "Some of the smartest people in the world stutter, and in many ways, they're stronger because of what they've had to overcome."
Love's condition was so bad that he rarely give interviews as a player in the early 1970s. He now makes his living giving speeches as the Bulls' director of community affairs.
"I'd like to meet Adrian," Love said. "The more you get out, the more confidence you get and you feel better about yourself. As a player, my heart would be beating 100 m.p.h. and I couldn't say one word. Now I can get in front of 10,000 people and communicate without missing a beat."
Peterson's audiences are typically much smaller, although he once gave the keynote address at the National Stuttering Association convention. He also conducts a free youth football camp each spring on the campus of his alma mater in Statesboro, Ga.
Peterson said he most enjoys giving speeches at elementary schools and working with children. Asked if he gets nervous before speaking, Peterson smiled.
"I'm sure all speakers still have butterflies just like I do on Sundays for games," he said. "I've played football since I was 7 years old, and I still get butterflies for games. So why shouldn't I have them for a speech?"
Peterson didn't give a speech Tuesday, but he did listen when Misericordia resident Bill White offered him football advice. And he made a friend in another resident, Amy Walsh.
"He's cute," Walsh said.
Peterson worked with a speech pathologist named Sharon Milner at Georgia Southern and said he still considers her a close friend.
But he said he has learned to accept his condition and, between football and his charity work, doesn't have much time for anything else.
"He could go the other way and not choose to participate at all," said Caroline Guip, the Bears' director of community relations. "But he's one of our more active players.
"And I think the fact that he can share his story makes his message more powerful for people. Kids, especially, are drawn to him because he's soft-spoken but genuine."
Peterson shrugs off praise like he would a blocker on kick coverage.
"If I can motivate someone to do what's right, that's great," Peterson said. "I enjoy doing these events. And I just try to do what's right. We're all human, so I wouldn't set myself apart. But I do hope I can help."