Mike Peterson played in the NFL for 14 seasons, which gives him a valuable weapon when he’s recruiting high school players for South Carolina’s football team, but it also gives him pause these days as the long-term effects of the game on brain health are being studied.
“Do I wish I knew then? Yeah, I probably wish I knew then,” said Peterson, the Gamecocks defensive ends coach. “Would I have changed? I can’t say I would have changed.”
Peterson, a second-round pick in the 1999 NFL draft, played for the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons. He was a second-team All-Pro in 2005 and had 883 tackles and 19 interceptions in his career. He relishes what that career did for him and his family, but understands it may have exposed him to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has been linked in some studies to the kind of repeated head injuries that can be suffered in football.
“I blessed a lot of people over my career. I wouldn’t take it back at all. I blessed a lot of people, you know what I mean? I helped a lot of people along my way. If I’m a guy with CTE or whatever, so be it,” he said. “I do wish I knew then, but would I change anything? I probably wouldn’t. It was an opportunity for me. My mom is comfortable now. My dad is comfortable. My grandma. I wouldn’t change it. My kids are living good. I signed up for it, so it is what it is.”
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Concerns about head trauma have changed the way many coaches, including those at South Carolina, teach tackling.
“A lot of times when I played you could just leave your feet and go for the kill shot. Now it’s keeping your head up,” Peterson said. “I try to tell the guys, ‘Hit with your chest. You duck your head, that guy is going to move.’ There are a lot of moving parts with this game now.”
The NFL made a rules change in the offseason that will now penalize, and possibly eject, players for using the crown of their helmets to tackle.
“I don’t know if they could have played now,” Peterson said. “I don’t know if I would have made it. It’s going to be tough. Just my opinion, I think it’s going to be really difficult. A lot of those hits are bang-bang hits. I’m going in correct form and he ducks his head and now I’m in the wrong?”
Peterson’s comments on CTE were preceded by a question about run-pass option plays and how much he had to face them as a player.
“Not as much,” he said. “I played when it was real football. I think it’s probably why they’ve got this CTE thing. Now they’re playing pretty ball is what I call it.”