Many Nebraska Cornhusker fans describe former defensive tackle Jason Peter as one of their most beloved players for his colorful personality and exploits on the gridiron. In the mid-’90s, he was an All-American, a member of three national championship football teams, and co-captain of the championship team during his senior season.
Jason Peter was a young man who had it all. He was respected for the games he won, records he broke and quarterbacks he sacked. As a result of his success in college, he was selected by the National Football League as a first-round draft pick by the Carolina Panthers. Peter played for five years before injuries forced him to retire. Unfortunately, his life took a dramatic turn after his playing days came to an abrupt end. To cope with the physical pain from his injuries, he became addicted to pain killers and eventually cocaine and heroin. I interviewed Jason Peter on The Big E Sports Show (Fox Sports Radio). We discussed the details of his inspiring story of achievement, redemption and life after addiction.
EWC: Let’s start off by reflecting on some of your favorite memories as an athlete. What was it like playing at Nebraska for Tom Osborne, the legendary coach and Hall of Fame member?
JP: It was just special. You knew that you were paying for someone who would go down as a legend and as a hero. Playing football at Nebraska was like home away from home. My parents had no worries sending my brother, Christian, and me to the middle of the country, 2,000 miles away from home, because they knew coach Osborne and the coaching staff. It was always family first at Nebraska. Everybody knew everybody by their first name. That was especially important to coach Osborne. What also impressed me was the family atmosphere. As a head coach, he set such a strong example. He never cursed or even used the Lord’s name in vain. I remember my freshman year, having a conversation with him and being so nervous to talk to him. It was like I was in the presence of a saint. I would actually start to perspire under my arm pits and on my forehead. Thankfully over time, we developed a relationship and understanding, and I became more comfortable with him.
EWC: I’m sure there are a number of great games to recall, but can you share about the rivalry days with Oklahoma?
JP: The memories I have from the Nebraska-Oklahoma series are good ones. It’s not like lately, where Oklahoma has dominated, not only Nebraska, but everybody. Playing Oklahoma during my time was always a great rivalry. You know today there are a number of great rivalries where you actually hate the opponent, but with Oklahoma and Nebraska there was just a mutual respect.
EWC: The University of Nebraska last year underwent a complete facelift within the athletic department and football program. Tom Osborne was hired as the athletic director. That had to energize the Cornhuskers nation, right?
JP: Yes. Bringing coach Osborne back was a huge win, I think, for the university and for the state of Nebraska. Everyone was down on Nebraska football at the time. You would not believe the amount of negativity that I was getting on my call-in radio show on ESPN Radio. Coach Osborne brought life back into the program. He got people excited.
EWC: Last year was an especially turbulent year for Nebraska. They had a losing record and fired their former head coach, Bill Callahan. Talk about the new leadership with head football coach Bo Pelini and direction of the program since his arrival in Lincoln.
JP: I’ve had an opportunity to get to know head coach Bo Pelini and his staff. And I really like these guys. He has welcomed us former players back and I’ve even had the opportunity to talk with the team on several occasions. Although this year we will not be competing for a BCS game or perhaps even the year after, I am confident about the direction of where the program is going. He is laying the bricks, laying the foundation and building the program from the bottom up. He has his kids playing with passion and heart no matter what it says up on the scoreboard.
EWC: Jason, you had such an outstanding career at Nebraska and in the NFL. But despite all the fame, glory and talent, you almost lost your life to drugs. What happened?
JP: I really don’t know sometimes. I think there are different reasons. One was that I identified with myself as a football player. Even though I started playing the game late in high school, I knew this was all what I wanted to do. I was a football player. And when you go to a school like Nebraska — where as a player everyone puts you up on a pedestal — you’re almost worshipped and you are the biggest show in town. So then imagine becoming a starter as a sophomore, winning three national titles and becoming an All-American. You’re a household name and you get used to that attention. Then I was drafted by the Carolina Panthers and eventually things did not work out. I learned that after all the injuries, how physical of a sport it was and soon became addicted to painkillers to cope with the pain. And that is where the abuse began and the start of my out of control addiction.
EWC: How did you finally get your life turned around and get clean?
JP: I have to be honest, there was no magical formula or religion that I suddenly started to practice. It was truly my father’s words. He asked me, “Why can’t you just stop?” So I came to the point that I’m not going to use drugs today. I’m just going to stop. Did I need help with getting off heroin and all that stuff? Absolutely. That is why I checked myself into a rehab clinic for one year and not just 30 days. Because it I was going to do it. I was going to do it. Because in the end it is pure misery. Whether you’re a football player, house mom and even a grandmother that uses drugs, you will eventually be miserable. I am just lucky to be alive today and can share my story.
EWC: Please share about life after addiction and where you are today.
JP: Life after drugs was still very challenging. For the first four to five months of being clean, I had this constant battle in my head whether to use or not to use drugs again. I was living healthy and feeling great, but I was still missing the biggest piece of the puzzle, which was my purpose. All my life I always felt my sense of purpose or my passion was sports. I figured I couldn’t do anything else than chase quarterbacks. While I was in rehab in California, I spent some time coaching in the high school ranks and then later met my wife. She really got me back on track. Sure, most people would like to consider themselves a good person, but with her I wanted to be a great person. Today, I co-host a live three hour radio show in Lincoln on ESPN radio. To be honest, I was really trying to crack into the coaching ranks, but did not have any luck. So this radio opportunity came along and I took it. I’m glad I did because I absolutely love my job. I’ve also released a new book that recounts my life story. I thought there might be a few people out there who would connect to it. It has exceeded my expectations and ended up being a New York Times best-seller. To think that I was someone four and a half years ago who did not even want to go outside for more than an hour because I had a crack pipe attached to my mouth. I almost think, it can’t be real. Today I have a great job, a great family, and a great wife. Heck, I even have my own Web site now too! (<a target="_blank" href="http://www.jasonpeter.com">http://www.jasonpeter.com</a>). And, I could not have even imagined that five years ago.
Be sure and tune into Elissa Walker Campbell’s weekly sports talk radio magazine program on Fox Sports Radio 1460 AM KCLE from 11 a.m. to noon Saturdays. You can e-mail her at email@example.com or listen online at her new Web site www.eradiosports.com