Back in Gainesville, FL over the weekend to be inducted into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame 2011 class as a Gator Great, former Florida Gators linebacker Mike Peterson is enjoying his offseason while he waits for the NFL lockout situation to be settled so he can play football (hopefully) with the Atlanta Falcons next season.
Working out in Jacksonville, FL, Peterson sat down with OGGOA for a wide-ranging, in-depth interview Tuesday afternoon. A first-team All-American in 1998 and second-team All-Pro selection in 2005 who won a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships (1995-96) and a National Championship (1996) with Florida, he discussed at length his decision to play for the Gators, college career, NFL career, hall of fame induction, recent meeting with the team and foundation he began to help underprivileged families in both Gainesville and Atlanta, GA.
ADAM SILVERSTEIN: You were born and grew up in Alachua and Gainesville. How long after Florida offered you a scholarship did it take for you to give them your commitment?
MIKE PETERSON: “Not too long. The thing about it is: I never knew that I would go to Florida. I guess being from that area, you always say you’re going to leave home and go somewhere else. At the time, Coach Ron Zook was the linebacker coach and also the recruiting coordinator, so he convinced me to come on a visit. Once I came on a visit, man, it made no sense for me to go anywhere else. I had everything right there in my backyard. Shortly after they offered me the scholarship, I gave them my commitment.”
AS: Was your goal growing up to play for the Gators? Was there ever a time where you thought that might not happen or you might go somewhere else?
MP: “I was high on Michigan. Growing up, I said I wanted to get away. I went to high school there, elementary school, knew everything there, knew everybody there. I just considered I was going somewhere else. I visited Michigan – I was high on Michigan and Clemson – those were probably my top two. I was a quarterback coming out [of high school] and those were the two Division I schools that were going to give me a shot at quarterback. Once I visited Florida, man, it was hands-down where I needed to be.”
Read the rest of our exclusive interview with Mike Peterson…after the break!
AS: You had a fantastic career at Florida, playing for head coach Steve Spurrier for four years, winning two SEC titles and beating Florida State for the national title in 1996. At what point during that season did the team know it had a shot to win it all?
MP: “We knew going into the season. We knew the offense was fun ‘n gun – we could score on anybody, anytime. We knew that. And then when we looked at it on defense, we were probably the deepest team in college football at the time. The year before that and even that year we was ranked No. 1 or No. 2 on defense. So we knew we had a top offense, a top defense and were the best at the time. We were kind of cocky with it; we told people we were going to beat them and we actually went out and beat them. We knew all along we had a great team; we just had to go out and win the games on Saturdays.”
AS: Looking back on your career as a player in the orange and blue, what is a moment or memory that you will always remember?
MP: “Winning in ’96 was the high note, but an even smaller note was my freshman year before I was even on the field [on defense]. I got a chance to go out on the kickoff team, and I went out and leveled a guy on the kickoff team. For me, that was my high. Not making an interception or a sack, just running down on a kickoff and blowing a guy up. That was my high. That was probably my first time getting my name called in The Swamp, the first time getting a little recognition. For me, that was my high.”
AS: Obviously Florida has a lot of rivals – Florida State, Georgia, Tennessee, Miami. How much did you hate FSU when you were playing?
MP: “Oh man, I hated them with a passion…probably because they was right up the road. When they was winning, they came down to Gainesville and hung out. We always said they came in and took our girls. If we won that year, we always hang out at Tallahassee and take their girls or whatever. It was always a battle, not just on the football field. We had a chance to see those guys a little more than other teams, so we always competed against them.”
AS: I asked [New Orleans defensive end] Alex Brown last year if he was surprised that he was not drafted higher coming out of college. He said it gave him a chip on his shoulder that he still uses for motivation. Were you surprised that you were passed over in the first round and how did you deal with that?
MP: I wasn’t expecting to go in the first round; I wasn’t expecting to go in the second round. I was an afterthought type of guy. To me, I just wanted a shot. If I didn’t get drafted, just bring me in as a free agent. I just wanted a shot. I guess I’m a living testament of what a lot of hard work can do. I always preach that hard work pays off. I just remember playing so hard just trying to hopefully get a shot and a chance to go in somebody’s camp. And then to hear my name called in the second round, it was a shocker to me. It was probably a little shocker to everybody else. I had to live up to the hype rather than go in with a chip on my shoulder.”
AS: You had a great year for Indianapolis in 2002 with over 100 solo tackles and three picks, but they let you sign with Jacksonville as an unrestricted free agent. Were you hoping at the time to spend your whole career there? How did that make you feel?
MP: “I wasn’t sure. I was young at the time, so I was still trying to learn the business side of it. I knew I could play football, man. I had been in there four years, so I knew I could play football. I knew that wherever I go, they was going to get a good linebacker and a guy that was dedicated.”
AS: What was the best thing for you about the Jacksonville situation – that you were playing close to home or the team was a good fit?
MP: “A combination of both. Coming back home, if I would have planned it, it would have happened that way. The fans, my family, my friends got a chance to see me every Sunday. At the time, Coach [Jack] Del Rio, it was his first year here. So it was a fresh start for him, me, everybody. It was a win-win all-around.”
AS: After five years of coaching you in Jacksonville, Mike Smith got the Atlanta job the same time that you’re a free agent. How fast did that come together – you joining him?
MP: “It was a real easy decision. I was hoping the opportunity was going to present itself to me, and it did. Like I said, when I [left] Jacksonville, I was frustrated. When Smith signed, I was committed with him [because of] the Jacksonville days. The transition to Atlanta was easy.”
AS: You’ve had two very solid years with Atlanta and obviously last year the team had a great opportunity in the playoffs. You guys had been dominant at home but fell to Green Bay in the second round. How much of a punch in the stomach was that?
MP: “We caught Aaron Rodgers when he was on fire. You got to tip your hat to him and give him his dues. The guy was on fire along with the rest of the team. We had a great run. It definitely didn’t end the way we wanted it to end, so it’s just back to work. You tip your hat to them. The good thing about it, if there’s anything good about it, is we got beat by the Super Bowl champs. We’ll hang our hat on that going into the offseason and just get back at it.”
AS: How frustrating is the lockout for all of the players right now?
MP: “Me personally, I just try to stay on the positive about it. I’m not too frustrated about it. As an older guy, I’m trying to take advantage of it – get a little more rest, a little personalized training on my own. I’m going to stay upbeat. [A deal is] going to get done. You don’t know when, but you just feel like a deal is going to be worked out. So you just got to be ready.”
AS: Did Atlanta indicate before the lockout that they plan to bring you back?
MP: “They expressed [that] to me at the end of the year. They asked me how I feel physically. I sat down with Coach Smith, had a long conversation, and they expressed that they do want me back. That was positive going into the offseason even before the lockout. I’m just training, preparing myself for whatever role they want me to be. They did express that they want me back, so I’m ready to go back and get this thing rolling.”
AS: How did you find out that the University of Florida selected you to for Hall of Fame?
MP: “Curtis Head called me from [Gator Boosters] down at Florida. He gave me the call and told me and at first, even now, I’m still in shock and even in awe. I told him it was an honor to receive such a prestigious honor from one of the top universities. Right now, I’m still in shock. To have my name associated with so many Gator Greats…it’s just humbling to me, man. When you know my story and know where I came from, know how much work I put into it, you appreciate things like that probably a little bit more than everybody else.”
AS: Prior to this weekend, have you had the opportunity to come back to Gainesville as much as you would like to visit family and the school?
MP: “I always came back. Probably even more so when I was in Jacksonville. On the bye week, I definitely came back to see a game. Spring game – I came back. Even when the guys had the pro workouts, I’d watch [Brandon] Spikes and all the younger linebackers work out. I’d always come back and try to encourage them. I’m a Gator all the way around. I may be a little biased because I’m from the area, but I’m a Gator all the way around. I’ve always supported them and always will support them.”
AS: What was it like to be back in town around the program? Obviously fans did not have the opportunity to be there to listen, but what did you say when you spoke to the team over the weekend? What messages did you try to get across to the players?
MP: “First of all, I always speak from the heart. I’m a real passionate guy. Anybody who knows me knows I’m a real passionate guy about anything I speak on. I told the guys to take advantage of this opportunity. There are millions of people that would love to be in the position they’re in now. I told them to take the advantage of the opportunity they have. Don’t gripe about the position you’re in now, because the position you’re in now you may not be in that position 10 years down the line.
“I gave them a couple of my experiences. Who knew Mike Peterson coming out of high school? Who knew Mike Peterson coming out of the University of Florida? Even to this day, I’ve been elected to the hall of fame and there’s probably a bunch of people still wondering, ‘Who is Mike Peterson? Who is No. 29?’ I just tried to encourage them and motivate them. Don’t be satisfied with what you’re doing now, take advantage and live one day at a time because once you’re done there, you’re done there. All you’ve got is memories, so enjoy it.”
AS: What are your initial impressions of new head coach Will Muschamp?
MP: “Man, I’m all for him. I spoke about it when he first signed there. I had all the confidence in Mr. [Jeremy] Foley that he was going to hire the right guy and he was going to do his homework. So I’m all for him. I had a chance to meet him. I love everything about him. I love the passion he brings to the game. Loving that he’s a defensive-minded guy. I’m all for him, man. It’s early. I told the guys, ‘It’s early. Don’t expect to light up the scoreboard or be this top-ranked team now. It’s a process. Just work the process and let it work for itself.”
AS: You may not have known this, but I was sent a mock-up of the billboard posted for you on I-75 and wasn’t allowed to send out a tweet about it for fear you might not be surprised. Did you have any idea it was going to be there when you drove by? What was your reaction when you saw it for the first time?
MP: “[Laughing] I was driving with my wife and my kids. I stay in Tampa in the offseason, so we was all driving up. I looked up after my wife pointed at it, and I was in awe. I stopped the car, got on the side of the road and said, ‘Get out of the car! Get out of the car!’ You got to remember, man, I’m from Alachua. It’s a small town, there ain’t a lot going on. I’m not accustomed to billboards and hall of fames and NFL for 12 years. I didn’t have a lot growing up. I have to sit and let it soak in a little more than to just blow it off and say, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ or brag and bulls*** about it. I just let it settle in a little bit. It was a shocker, and it’s still a shocker to me, man.”
AS: What do you think of the Florida football complex and training facility compared to what you had in college and now the NFL?
MP: “That’s one of the things I spoke to the guys about. I said, ‘Man, this is top-notch.’ I told the guys to take advantage of it because you don’t get that in the NFL. Everybody thinks when you go to the NFL it’s going to be a step up. Coming for Florida, it may be a step down with the facilities, the way you’re treated in the city, the love you get from the city and the way fans rally behind you win or lose. It’s a top-notch program. Right now, to me, it’s the best program in the country. I don’t see why, if you’re a high school kid, why you’d want to go anywhere else.”
AS: There has been an influx of Gators to the NFL recently. If you had to pick one who you think will have a long, successful career in the league, who would that be?
MP: “I’m going to be a little biased because I’m a linebacker and tend to watch the linebackers on every play. Spikes is a guy who is going to develop and probably going to be one of the top linebackers in the league. I told him a couple of days ago that he’s in a great system with a great coach and a great organization. If he keeps his nose clean, stays out of trouble and does what he’s asked to do up there, he’s going to be another great one.”
AS: Talk a little bit about the Mike Peterson Foundation. How have things been going?
MP: “The Mike Peterson Foundation is a foundation I set up legally probably about 6-7 years ago. It’s set up to help underprivileged or underserved families and kids whether through athletics or academics in my hometown of Alachua as well as my NFL city Atlanta. It’s going great. We’ve got a lot of sponsors coming on board. I’ve been doing so many things in the community that go unnoticed, but I started the foundation to let people know that NFL players are out here doing something positive. People read the newspaper and all the bad quotes, but there’s good stuff going on, too.”
AS: The foundation is running this really great 7-on-7 event in Gainesville this June. I heard there are a lot of former Gators and other current and former NFL players stopping by to help you out. How is that coming together?
MP: “It’s the first annual Mike Peterson 7-on-7 Elite Tournament. High school coaches are loving it. It’s a chance for high school teams to register and compete against some of the top high schools in Florida. It’s similar to what we do in the NFL, what we call a ‘fantasy camp.’ It’s a fantasy camp before the season starts. The high school coaches, they’re loving it now. They’ve got a chance to see what they got and match up against some other high school teams. I’ve got a bunch of guys I’ve played with in Jacksonville coming down, I’ve got a lot of Gator Greats coming down, guys I play with in Atlanta are going to come down and just give guys pointers and get that tradition going. I’d just love to try and improve guys’ skills, that’s what I’m all about.”
The Mike Peterson Elite 7-on-7 Championship will take place on Saturday and Sunday, June 18-19, at Jonesville Park in Gainesville, FL. All area Florida and Georgia high school football teams have been invited to participate in the event, which will also feature pro player autograph sessions. The cost to enter the tournament is $450 per team with all profits benefiting the Mike Peterson Foundation. For more information on how to get your team registered, click here, send an e-mail or give MPF a call at (352) 897-0673.
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