By Joseph Santoliquito

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (CBS)—Adrian Peterson’s handshake is like a vice grip. Granite strong, imposing, much like the way he plays football.

His career-threatening knee injury seemingly light years behind him, Peterson’s mega-watt smile lit up Harrah’s Resort ballroom at the 76th Annual Maxwell Football Club Awards Friday night.

Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings tailback who returned from major surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee in a game against the Washington Redskins on Dec. 24, 2011, was awarded the Maxwell Club’s 2012 Bert Bell Award as the NFL Player of the Year.

“This makes all of the hard work worth it,” Peterson said after the gala. “You go through challenges and struggles in your life, and what I faced was probably the biggest. But I never doubted I would be back. I love the game of football. It’s been a part of me my whole life. I wasn’t about to give that up.”

After Redskins safety DeJon Gomes took Peterson, there was fear that raced through his mind. He remembers feeling the pain in his lower leg, his face down in the turf, screaming, “Why me, why me!”

“I was tested,” Peterson said. “You have so many things go through your head. I was blessed to have great faith in God, in myself, and I had great people around me. That pushed me.”

It pushed Peterson his greatest season—and one for ages. His 2,097 yards rushing is the second-highest total for rushing yards in a season, just eight yards behind the all-time mark of 2,105 established by Eric Dickerson with the Los Angeles Rams in 1984.

Peterson became the seventh tailback in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, joining Dickerson, Jamal Lewis, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Chris Johnson, and OJ Simpson.

“If I was coming back, I wanted to come back better than I was, stronger, I worked harder than I have my entire life,” said Peterson, the 2008 Bert Bell Award winner. “Nights like tonight make it worth it. You push and push and it really wasn’t that long ago where some may have doubted I’d be able to come back. I know what it’s like being down. It’s why I hope I am an inspiration. I hope people do look at me and see that anything is possible. You have to believe in yourself.”

Peterson, ever gracious to the many there to see him, signed autographs, took pictures with fans, and made sure he gave a few minutes to any kid holding out a picture and Sharpie in their hands.

“The Maxwell club does a great job, it honors football,” Peterson said. “These fans make the game go and it’s why I appreciate them so much. I can’t tell you how many fans supported me when I rehabbing. It’s why I can’t forget them.”

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