While many young Florida Gators football fans may not remember him, linebacker Mike Peterson was perhaps one of the first in a now-long line of great linebackers to come out of the program, especially in the modern era.
Peterson grew up in the Gainesville/Alachua County area, playing his high school ball at Santa Fe High School just 25 minutes northwest of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. In playing for the Gators from 1995-98, Peterson was one of the hallmark players during the team's 1996 championship run during his sophomore season.
It wasn't until his senior season, however, when Peterson would truly take off, leading the team with 127 tackles, second-most in the SEC at the time, along with earning All-American and All-SEC honors during the year.
During the 1990s the Gators made a roaring return to relevancy, and while their 1995 season in which team finished 12-1 was admirable, their 1996 season will likely go down as one of the most memorable. A team packed with talent, the Gators would go on to win the Bowl Alliance national championship, the first of what is now three national titles in its history.
On Monday, Peterson spoke about the '96 championship Gators team on 1010XL Primetime, a local sports radio show based in Jacksonville (Fla.), reminiscing on his time with the Gators, and the various players that took part in such a special season. One thing that came to Peterson's mind absolutely was competitiveness, both offensively and defensively.
"I was a roommate with [wide receiver] [Jac]quez [Green] I was a roommate with [defensive back] Tony George," Peterson recalled. "So, we always had those conversations, you know, Quez and [wide receiver] Reidel [Anthony] would go at it Quez and [wide receiver] Ike [Hillard] would go at it you know, I mean competitively."
That competitive nature extended to his own group within the linebacker corp comprised of himself, and linebackers Johnny Rutledge, Javon Kearse, Keith Kelsey, James Bates and Dwayne Thomas.
"So you know, competition amongst the group always brings out the best in the group," Peterson said about competing against his fellow linebackers. "And I think that's what we had with that team and that's what I remember you know. Practice was actually harder than a game during those times - you didn't want to get embarrassed in practice - not even to mention going into the game and get embarrassed."
Former Gators head coach Steve Spurrier, often referred to simply as the "Head Ball Coach", was one of the most influential coaches in Gators football history, something Peterson noted was due to his competitive nature, stating Spurrier "wanted to win every drill". The competitive nature that was instilled in Spurrier trickled down to the team, creating a bond that ultimately propelled the late 90s Gators to thrive.
"They took it all the way down, you know," Peterson said of the Gators' competitive nature under Spurrier. "Coach loved, he loved to win, he wanted to win at everything, and I guess a lot of the guys that he recruited in there, that was our mindset, you know, we wanted to win. We felt like we were winners."
The Gators were winners, and succeeded during Peterson's time at UF, losing only six times between 1995-98. Peterson was enshrined in the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011 as a Gator Great.
Following his career at Florida, Peterson was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the second round of the 1999 NFL Draft, drafted alongside fellow linebackers, Kearse (first round) and Rutledge (second round).
Peterson would play for the Colts for just four seasons before signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars, making his way back to Florida where he would become a household name for the team, starting at middle linebacker for six seasons, the heart of the Jaguars defense.
Known commonly as "Mike Pete", Peterson was known for his big hits on defense, oftentimes appearing on then-Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio's television program titled, "Jacked Up!". It was in Jacksonville when Peterson accumulated 73 starts, 546 tackles (413 solos), 32 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, 20 forced fumbles and eight interceptions. In 2005, Peterson was named second-team all-pro.
Peterson's vintage line of "Welcome to Duval, Prepare to be hit!" is still played throughout the team's stadium at TIAA Bank Field to this day. He has gone down as a true Jaguars legend and was placed on the team's top-25 all-time list earlier this year at No. 19.
After a falling out with Del Rio during the 2008 season, a disappointing season for the Jaguars following a playoff run in 2007, Peterson would leave the team via free agency, joining the Atlanta Falcons where he would eventually finish his professional career.
In 14 years in the NFL, Peterson would account for 1220 tackles (896 solos), 70 tackles for loss, 21.5 sacks, 55 forced fumbles, and 19 interceptions.
Following his retirement from the NFL in 2013, Peterson went back to Florida in order to finish his degree. During this time, Peterson served on the team's strength and conditioning coaching staff as an undergraduate assistant, becoming its coordinator in 2014. Peterson would remain in that role before leaving to join former Gators head coach Will Muschamp at South Carolina as the team's outside linebackers coach in 2016.
Peterson continues to coach the Gamecocks' outside linebacker position group to this day, leading young men to their journey of becoming as successful as he was in college, along with the NFL.
During his interview with 1010XL on Monday, Peterson spoke about what it meant for him to be a coach, and why he chose this path to begin with. As a "coach" on the gridiron throughout his time with the Jaguars at middle linebacker, Peterson says it was then-Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith - who would eventually become his head coach in Atlanta - who guided Peterson in becoming more involved with the coaching side of things.
"Coach Mike Smith did a great job with me," Peterson began. "[There were] times in the meetings, you know, he would nudge me before we walk in and say, 'hey, you're going to install today', just kind of put me on the spot. And I kind of got into that role and it felt good, I enjoyed it, you know, making sure guys we're on the same page, guys was on this. So at first, I thought I just a little fun thing. And then I kind of got involved in and then you know, I guess 10 to 20 years later, look where I'm at now."
In Peterson's current role at South Carolina, now he has another obstacle in handling the young men during the coronavirus pandemic, making sure the players are taking care of themselves.
"It's probably a little more, you know, when the season is going on," Peterson said of keeping his players on track in this unpredictable climate, "because this is - you know they got a lot of free time, a lot of dead time now.
"So you're kind of like monitoring everything 'Hey man, what time did you wake up', you know finding ways to make conversation and just stay involved in their day to day because it's a lot going on. It's a lot of negative out there and you just trying to keep your guys on that narrow path of greatness or getting better some kind of way."
While Peterson may be coaching for a rival program in South Carolina now, he will forever, and always be a Gator Great, and his legacy will last a lifetime.