Photo by James Parrish
Former Nebraska football star Jason Peter kicked off his weekend in North Platte on Friday by signing autographs for red-clad fans at NebraskaLand National Bank.
Peter, who recently wrote a book titled, Hero of the Underground: My Journey Down To Heroin and Back, which details his experience of overcoming drug addiction, said he is thankful to have the opportunity to help others.
Peter is the keynote speaker for the Prescription Drug Abuse Seminar Saturday presented by Leadership Lincoln County at North Platte High School.
“I am here to tell my story about my problems with addiction and some of the decisions I’ve made in my life,” said Peter. “I am here to just try and help educate people and maybe my story may connect with some people. Now I am able to put a positive spin on (drug abuse) because I am one of the few that have come out on the other side if you can ever really make it to the other side.”
After graduating high school in 1993, Peter came to Nebraska from Locust, N.J. and went on to have a career that most people can only dream about.
In his four years of eligibility from 1994-1997, Nebraska won the National Championship in three of those seasons. After playing as a reserve defensive tackle on the 1994 National Championship team as a freshman, Peter became a starter at defensive tackle alongside his older brother, Christian, his sophomore season in 1995.
With Jason and Christian Peter as the tackles and Grant Wistrom and Jared Tomich at the ends, the star-studded defensive line helped Nebraska win its second consecutive National Title. The 1995 Nebraska team, which finished 12-0 and dominated Florida, 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl, is considered by many to be the best collegiate football team in history.
In 1996, Peter won All-Big 12 First Team honors in the conference’s first year of competition as the Huskers finished 11-2, which was relatively disappointing compared to the two championship seasons before.
But as a senior in 1997, Peter helped Nebraska regain its dominance and win the school’s third National Title in the decade in Coach Tom Osborne’s final season. Peter was named an All-American and was a finalist for the Outland Trophy, which went to teammate Aaron Taylor, and the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Year Award.
“Teamwork and discipline,” Peter said, looking back. “Those were the things that were stressed by Coach Osborne. Coach Osborne taught a lot about respect and to get respect, you have to give it. But you also have to earn it.”
“Those teams were loaded with discipline and not just on the field. You had to go to class and do what was expected of you or you didn’t play. There was a lot of cameraderie on those teams too. You’re only as good as the person next to you. It was kind of the weakest link theory.”
After graduating from Nebraska, Peter was selected as the 14th overall pick by the Carolina Panthers in the 1998 NFL Draft. Peter said the difference between playing for Nebraska and playing for the Panthers was like night and day.
Peter’s tenure with Nebraska was one of the most dominant periods by any one team in college football history. But that culture of winning wasn’t anywhere to be found in Carolina, said Peter, as the Panthers went 4-12 during his rookie year.
“It was a lot different playing in the NFL,” Peter said. “When I was down there, the best record we had was 8-8 and we were 4-12 my first year. Also, Carolina was a business and at Nebraska, it was all about pride and the name on the front of your jersey and not on the back.”
Individually, Peter had a good rookie season, making Football Digest’s NFL All-Rookie team. But that was when the injuries started piling up. After his first year, Peter had to have surgery on both of his shoulders and then following his second season, he had to have his neck operated on. Peter continued to have problems with his shoulders and neck throughout his career, as well as his ankle and back.
Peter tried to do whatever he could to try and get back on the field, which is where his problems with drugs started as he took prescription medication. But after four seasons, the injuries were too much and after the 2001 season, Peter retired from the game.
“It was difficult the way my career played out,” said Peter. “I thought I would go into the NFL and have the same success I did in college. When you’re not healthy in the NFL, it’s a long run (to compete).”
But after retirement, the pain from the injuries still lingered on and Peter not only continued to use prescription pills, but illegal drugs like cocaine, crack and then eventually heroin.
“That’s when I started to dabble with street drugs like cocaine,” Peter said. “When I was playing, (those drugs) was just experimental. But the pain pills just weren’t taking the effect I wanted and it was easier to switch. They were something I didn’t need a doctor to prescribe, I could just get it off the street.”
Peter was an addict for the better part of three years. But in 2004, he decided that enough was enough and he was tired of living for the next high. Peter committed himself to a full year of rehabilitation in July 2004.
“I had many attempts at rehab,” said Peter. “I went to six different facilities. I just came to a point where I didn’t have the energy and I didn’t want to live life like that. That wasn’t how I was raised by my parents.”
After getting clean, Peter moved to California and was an assistant high school football coach for two years before coming back to Lincoln, where he now resides and is the co-host of The Spread on ESPN Radio 1480 AM along with Jeff Wilkerson.
His book, published by St. Martin’s Press and written with Tony O’Neill, was released in the summer of 2008. Peter said he hopes Hero of the Underground sparks more debate and dialogue about drugs and addiction.
“I thought I’d have a chance, with my background in football, to tell my story (with this book),” he said. “Addiction is sometimes a topic that gets brushed under the rug. For some reason, people are ashamed to talk about drugs and I thought if I told my story, someone might read it and see some similarities between my story and theirs.
Peter also tours as a motivational speaker to get his message out to young people.
“It’s good, it’s very rewarding,” Peter said. “When I go out to schools, I know I am not hitting everybody when I tell my story. But if I touch one then I consider it worth it.”