Jason Peters: Twilight Before the Hall
Jason Peters sat stoically at his stall in the center of a bustling visitors locker room, still in his game pants and wearing a black sweat-soaked t-shirt with big white letters running from one broad shoulder to the other that simply read, “The Bodyguard.”
The upset win over New England was minutes old and the room around him was humming. A pick six and a pair of special teams touchdowns flipped the script on a predicted Patriots route, pumping life back into a season that was just about out of air.
For a moment, the Eagles were dangerously close to letting it all slip away. Tom Brady led a pair of late touchdown drives to slice the lead to seven, reinvigorating a Gillette Stadium crowd that was in full throat as the Eagles stared down a 3rd-and-11 near midfield with 2:49 remaining.
The play got off to a lousy start. Brent Celek, lined up to Peters’ left, was supposed to get a good chip on defensive end Rob Ninkovich before releasing into the flat, but came up with mostly air. That left Ninkovich with what appeared to be a clear path to Sam Bradford for a would-be blindside hit that, at the very least, would have forced a punt. It took Peters’ best effort of the year to salvage the play and keep the drive alive.
“I should have at least chipped that guy or stayed on him a lot longer than I did. I didn’t really do much to affect him, and Pete turned around and just ran and dove. It was a great play by Pete. I kind of left him out to dry,” said Celek. “I told him [afterwards], ‘I screwed up.'”
“Without him, that’s probably a sack,” added Bradford. “Just incredible effort by J.P. on that play, just to feel that guy and come back and get his hands on him…Without that, we don’t have a play right there.”
That conversion allowed the Eagles to whittle the clock down to just over a minute remaining before fumbling it away to the Patriots, who were unable to mount a final touchdown drive.
As he sat surrounded by a small group of reporters afterwards, not a single muscle in Peters’ body twitched, and his face bore no expression. As is his way, he offered no tells and kept the emotions well underneath the surface.
Peters did allow, though, that he’s been bothered by the way things have gone this season; that he hasn’t been able to man his post with his usual authority — particularly during the team’s recent slide.
“It kind of got to me,” he acknowledged, “because I wasn’t out there to help us like I wanted to. I never lost like that as an Eagle, not in back-to-back weeks like that. Just go out there and bottle it up, take it to practice and try to get better during the week, and pour it on on Sundays.”
The well hasn’t been as giving this time around. A back issue has slowed the 12-year veteran, forcing him out of games and preventing him from showing off what has been an other-worldly skill set. Questions are now being raised about his viability moving forward.
Then he shows flashes, like he did against the Pats, that suggests maybe the run isn’t quite over for the undrafted tight end-turned-All Pro tackle from the little town of Queen City, Texas who appears to have built himself a Hall-of-Fame resume.
Peters lends credence to the argument that elite tackles are born, not made. It’s not just his size (asked to describe Peters as a child, longtime friend Chamon Clark responded, “He was laid back and wide”), but his disposition that long made him perfectly suited for his future profession.
Peters said the instinct to defend came to him early, created out of a desire to protect his sisters (he has two on his mother’s side and two more on his dad’s) and little cousins growing up.
“My sister, somebody was bullying her at school. We got on the bus one day and they started doing it, and I just took up for her. Got in trouble for it,” he said with a prideful smile.
“I was just kinda grabbing him and choking him a little bit. Back then you didn’t really throw no punches, you just kind of put him in a headlock until he started crying. That was the end of that.”
Bernard Jefferson remembers seeing it on the court when they were in high school. Jefferson and Peters were the stars of the Queen City basketball team. During a game against their rival, Atlanta, the opposition set to taunting and roughing Jefferson up to try and throw him off. But that all changed, he said, with one Peters crack.
“In the game, people were just knocking me around. He was like, ‘Don’t worry about them, I got you.’ So he set one of those big hard screens for me and rolled off. I threw him the ball and he dunked it so hard that everybody literally just got scared of him,” said Jefferson. “From that point on, it made the game so much easier for me. He set the screen so hard on the dude – the dude didn’t even know it was coming, he just laid there. People knew right then and there not to mess with me. They’re just like, ‘He’s their enforcer.’ He’s been that all his life.”
And it showed up, of course, on September 21 of last year against Washington when Chris Baker went after his quarterback.
A natural. Which is why it’s so surprising what it took for Peters to find his home.
He was a standout baseball player (pitcher, mostly) and was so good at hoops that he entertained what seemed like legit NBA aspirations. But once he began playing football his junior year, the path became clear. He was featured on both sides of the ball for the Bulldogs and was the team’s kicker. Earned All-District and All-Area honors as a defensive end, which was the position he was recruited to play for the University of Arkansas.
“I was the number one defensive end coming out going to Arkansas. When I got there, MVP of the Red and White game, I think I had like 14 tackles, 4-5 sacks,” said Peters during his sitdown with Birds 24/7. “And I remember we were playing Alabama and a couple tight ends got hurt. And the coach asked me to go in and he told me what to do. ‘Block this guy.’ And I blocked him and pancaked the guy. He put me back in there, ‘block this guy,’ and I blocked him and we got outside the edge. Then he told me to block him and release to the flat. I caught the ball for a first down. And he just kept me there, and it just went from there.”
Turns out, he was still years away from finding his true calling.
‘He Just Had That Look’
Friends and family made their way to Houston where Peters was training to watch the 2004 NFL Draft.
Coming off a strong showing at the Combine, it was suggested to Peters — who left Arkansas after his junior year — that he would go as early as the second round. A sizable crew gathered together at a sports bar (think Dave & Buster’s) to mark the occasion.
The second round came and went without Peters’ name being called. And then the third. And the fourth…Slowly, the celebration began to take on a much different tone.
Jefferson remembers seeing something come over his longtime friend as the two-day event wore on without a phone call.
“I was there with him through the whole draft process. We sit there, we sit there, we sit there. And I see something in his eyes. He told me, ‘B, they don’t know. They don’t know.’ And he was just so mad. He just had that look.
“If you were there and looking at his eyes, you could bet everything that he was going to be what he is right here today.”
Peters still doesn’t have the answer as to why he went undrafted. Maybe, he says, it had something to do with a low Wonderlic score.
“That’s about the only thing I can think of. Because I killed the Combine. [Former Washington tight end] Chris Cooley was my roommate and he was like, ‘Man you looked good out there today. You didn’t drop nothing.’ That’s the only thing I can think of. I graded out high. But when it came down to the test I don’t think I did well because I didn’t take it serious. You go in there and just put something down. I remember [Vince] Wilfork, he just put his name on his and just walked out. Back then, it wasn’t no big deal, guys in there goofing around, really didn’t take that test seriously.
“After the first day [of the draft], my uncle’s like, ‘Are you OK?’ I’m like, ‘I’m fine.’ After the first round I didn’t want to get drafted because I wanted to choose my team.”
That team ended up being the Bills. About half the league was interested and the likes of Miami, New Orleans and Atlanta offered more, according to Peters, but he chose Buffalo because it had a blue-collar vibe that reminded him of his home town. And looking at the roster of tight ends, he felt like he had a decent shot to stick.
But he was cut, and later signed to the Bills practice squad.
Peters was eventually added back to the active roster that November. It was then that Bobby April, looking to enhance his special teams unit, decided to experiment with the 6-4, 328-pound athletic phenom on special teams. The results were epic.
“I’ll never forget: they put him on kickoff as the ‘R5’, which for people that don’t know, that’s the guy that lines up inside right next to the kicker and runs down the middle of the field, and he just destroyed,” said Jon Dorenbos, who broke into the league with the Bills and was in his second year when Peters came aboard. “And that’s when you could have the old-school wedge where everybody interlocked arms and people were just getting knocked out. He went down there and single-handidly took out like four-five people like bowling pins. The very next kickoff, they kind of just dispersed before he got there because nobody wanted to hit him.
“In practice, I would actually go against him. There were times when I don’t think he realized that I was even there. He literally would just pick me up and throw me. The back of my head blocked a punt in practice one time because he literally picked me up and just threw me, and I was like, ‘What’s going on here?’”
Against Cincinnati that season, Peters broke through the front line, ran over the personal protector, blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown.
“He is a great story and helped usher an unprecedented run of being first in special teams three of four years and second place in the fourth year,” said April, who had a stint as special teams coach with the Eagles under Andy Reid. “He’s a charter member of that group and he was a force to be reckoned with.”
But his abilities just weren’t being tapped into at tight end, so it was welcomed news when he was told the Bills were going to try him at tackle.
“When we first started, he knew football but he didn’t really know much about the position,” said then-offensive line coach Jim McNally. “Guys would slant in on him and he would just pass them off (thinking he would have help) picking up stunts and twists in pass protection.
“Once he figured it out, he was just as dominating as he is today.”
It took a full offseason for Peters to get the position down. He took over at right tackle for the final nine games of the 2005 season and was flipped to left tackle midway through the ’06 campaign, and went to the first of five straight Pro Bowls in 2007.
“You knew that when he got in there and he started playing that he was going to dominate instantly, pretty much,” said McNally.
“When I tell people the greatest player I ever coached was Anthony Munoz – I had him with the Bengals for 13 years – and the next greatest player was Jason Peters.”
A Preacher, A Cowboy, And A Car Collector
When Jason goes back to his hometown, he’ll often stop by the local church to listen to his father, Bishop J. Peters, preach.
Queen City, Texas spans just a touch over three square miles and has a population of about 1,800. It’s a place where “everybody’s like family even if you’re not family. You can eat, sleep, get a drink of water, go to anybody’s house and just hang out all day,” according to Jefferson. “Everybody knows everybody.”
Such is the small fish bowl that Peters swam in growing up, and some of those laps included experiences with his dad, who is a man of the cloth in his hometown. He’d sleep over at his father’s from time-to-time and the like, but most of his parental sustenance came from his mother, Teledeo Simington, and her husband Ivory — Jason’s stepdad.
“I don’t know if it’s been a fuel. When I was younger, I used to go up to his house and stay and spend the night with my brothers and stuff,” said Peters of the relationship with his father. “But as I got older, he promised this and promised that and didn’t come through on it so it kind of separated me from him.
“The main deal was that he promised me that if I made good grades in high school and got a scholarship to go to college that he would at least give me a car to drive. So that was my goal, that’s what I did. When I graduated, he said he’s going to have it for me for graduation night, and then didn’t ever show up. I didn’t really get mad, it’s just like, you know…it’s just hard.”
Peters went to Arkansas with no car, but managed as he had a cousin at the university that drove him around, he said.
“It is, but it ain’t,” Peters responded, when asked if this is a soft spot for him. “Because we never had that kind of relationship if that makes any sense. If we’d have just built that relationship, maybe, but not having that relationship with him it’s just like OK, whatever.”
He calls his mom — who used to work at a plant boxing metal parts to help care for her children — his hero, and says that his relationship with his stepdad means “everything.”
“He’s a Cowboy,” Peters said of Ivory. “He used to ride bulls…kept getting all his teeth knocked out and injuries and stuff like that, so he just retired.
“He means everything. Pretty much is my dad.”
Peters typically forgoes fancy vacations and heads back to Queen City when his job permits. Has a house there just a couple miles from his mom’s. Rides a bicycle to and from when he visits her. They spend a lot of time at his grandma’s house. Dominoes is the game of choice, and Jason will play it long into the night.
It’s family, and just a select few friends that Peters allows into his inner-circle. Those chosen few get a peak at a side to him that is shut off to most of the world.
“Hell no, he doesn’t let everyone in,” said Vinny Curry, one of the few on the inside.
“He’s a jack of all trades, whether it’s making beats, playing an instrument, singing, rapping to horse-back riding. It will blow your mind all the things he can do. You see him up here and you forget that he’s a country boy that actually likes to fish and do all the back-trail dirt stuff. ‘Bro, my man. You’re about to do what?’ I ain’t doing that.'”
An amateur DJ, Peters will throw parties at the local club back home and spins for the guests. And he’s an automobile fanatic. Inspired by his grandfather, Dallas, who used to drive him around all the time when he was a kid, Peters collects and restores cars.
Once left without a set of wheels because of a promise unfulfilled, Peters now has his pick of 10-15 cars to drive at any given time.
‘I said, ‘s*&t, you need to change it to ‘The G.O.A.T’’
Five of Peters’ seven Pro Bowl appearances have been in an Eagles uniform. He was dealt to Philly in April of ’09 for a first, a fourth and a conditional late-round pick, and has since served as the anchor to this offensive front while picking up four All-Pro nods.
Jason Kelce remembers being blown away the first time he saw Peters up close as a rookie.
“He’s a guy that is big, powerful, strong, fast, all that stuff. But he’s a guy that at all times is under control. He has unbelievable coordination and ability. There is not a lot of wasted movements. And that was the first time I had seen an offensive lineman pass-block that way at that size. And to see the athleticism, it was eye-opening for me. I was like, ‘Is this the way everybody is in the NFL?’ And then I was like, ‘Thank God everybody is not like this, otherwise I would have been out on my ass a long time ago,'” he said.
“The first week of watching Jason Peters do one-on-one pass pro against Trent Cole it was almost like I was watching a ballet or something. Everything was coordinated and there was no time where he was off-balance or out of control. Everything was so smooth that it was eye-opening.”
“His nickname is ‘The Franchise.’ I said, s*&t, ‘You need to change it to ‘The G.O.A.T’,” added Curry. “You have to ask yourself, who’s the best tackle to play arguably? Munoz, Orlando Pace maybe? Twelve seasons, seven Pro Bowls. Two years at tight end, two years hurt.
“He’s automatically first-ballot Hall of Fame. There’s no argument about that. And he’s still out here working.”
And teaching. Part of the reason why he has garnered so much respect from the coaching staff is his willingness to put time in with both offensive linemen, defensive linemen and outside linebackers alike on this team to pass down his knowledge, from his eventual successor at left tackle Lane Johnson to those at the bottom of the roster.
“How many elite players, whether it be in baseball, hockey…how many of the top, top guys actually take time out of their day to stay with a young player? On his own?” asked offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland. “He says to the guy. ‘Hey, come here. Hey, [Malcolm] Bunche, come here. Hey [Brett] Boyko, come here.’ How many guys do that?’ I can’t say enough about him. I’m so blessed to have a chance to coach a guy like Jason Peters. Trust me.”
His body has let him down this season. A pinched nerve in his back has forced him to the sideline at various times and sent him crumpling to the ground in a scary scene in Carolina in Week 7.
“Do I need to fly out of here tonight or what?” his mother remembers thinking while watching on TV from Queen City as her boy lay on the turf. “When my kid gets hurt like that…I didn’t know what was going on. But I was glad he was alright, though.”
It turned out to be less serious than it looked, but Peters was out for the next two weeks. He pulled himself early in his return against Tampa and left with an ankle injury against Detroit before finally making it through the Patriots game.
His back condition is reportedly degenerative. Given that he’s 33, he has struggled to stay on the field this year and is due to make a base salary of $7.55 million next season. Some are questioning whether Peters will be back and if he is, how much he has left in the tank.
“I ain’t going to put a number of years on myself,” said Peters, speaking the week before he went down against Carolina. “I feel good. Looking at some of these guys, I move better than those guys and they’re 23, 24. So I don’t want to put a number on it…God gave me the ability to do this. People ask me like, ‘When are you going to retire?’ Can’t put a time limit on God’s gifts, so I just go.”
“His thing is, guys like me, he wants to kick my ass,” said Curry. “I’m his boy but you’re getting these new rushes, new type of talent, new get-offs. I mean, think about the eras he’s been through. He’s been through the Jared Allen’s, he’s been the Julius Peppers’, he’s been through the Osi Umenyiora’s. He’s been through all the eras, the top guys. Last year, J.J. Watt had to come inside. Yeah, get out of here. That’s him. That fuels him. Those [joint] practices against the Ravens? You guys weren’t able to see it but damn, the way he throws people and that type of stuff? He takes pride in his work.”
Peters contends that he hasn’t spent much time contemplating how much time he has left or his Hall of Fame prospects, but it does sounds like he has thought about the legacy that he is hoping to leave behind.
“When I get done, my teammates, if you ask somebody about me, is to be like, ‘Man, he’s a beast. He’s a good teammate.’ That’s why I go out there and work hard, practice hard. You practice like you play,” said Peters. “That’s what I try to tell these young guys now. They go out there and mess around and then they get in the game and wonder why they’re getting beat. You’ve gotta take the practice to the game.”