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Tuesday August 13, 2013 Mike Peterson lends voice of Gators, NFL experience

Updated: 6:03pm, August 13

Mike Peterson

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Mike Peterson hasn’t quite given up on his pro football career, but at 37 the former Florida star and 14-year NFL veteran still has a wide-open future and all kinds of dreams to chase.

Peterson, a standout middle linebacker for Steve Spurrier and the Gators during the 1990s, is back in school and plans to get his degree in sociology come December.

He’s also helping out on the UF coaching staff, with a goal of using his time as undergraduate student assistant as a springboard into the profession.

“Playing the game so long has probably led me in [this] direction a littler quicker,” Peterson said Tuesday. “When you love the game you want to stay around the game in some kind of way.”

Why not? Peterson has basically been on a football field -- somewhere -- since his days as a young boy growing up in nearby Alachua, Fla.

Peterson interview He was an All-State player at Santa Fe High. He won a national championship with the Gators in 1996 and became a first-team All-American in ’98. The following spring, Peterson was a second-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts and over the next 14 seasons made 950 tackles, 21 1/2 sacks and intercepted 19 passes for the Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons.

If his cell phone rang tomorrow with an NFL offer -- as preseason injuries continue to mount across the league -- Peterson said he would have to think hard about a team looking for a veteran to step in.

But the more time he spends on the field with these young Gator linebackers, the more at peace Peterson becomes with the idea his life is headed down a new path.

“The hardest part was letting go of playing,” said Peterson, who was encouraged to pursue a coaching track by his former UF academic advisor, Tim Aydt, in the Office of Student Life. “It’s something I thought about, but never took the initiative.”

All it took was a meeting with Coach Will Muschamp, who obviously knew of Peterson’s background. The guy’s name and image is plastered in a lot of places inside the football offices and Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, including the UF Athletic Hall of Fame, where Peterson was inducted as a “Gator Great” in 2011.

“I think it’s always valuable when you have any person that played at Florida,” said Muschamp, who also has former Gators and Peterson teammates Terry Jackson (player development) and Mark Campbell (strength and conditioning coordinator), plus graduate assistants Chris Leak and Duke Lemmens on staff. “Talk to anybody who coached Mike, we all talk about a coach on the field and obviously a really good player. He was a guy that had a cerebral approach and understanding why we did things, not just how to do it. ... He’s doing a fabulous job and has a huge future in this profession.”

Peterson, who still runs a youth football camp at Alachua and has operated his foundation for underserved youth and economically challenged families both there in the NFL cities he played, has always enjoyed his time with working with young players.

Now he gets to spend time with young Gators linebackers, like sophomore Antonio Morrison, as well as promising freshmen Daniel McMillian, Alex Anzalone and Jarrard Davis. 

“I try to tell them that on this level you may not be the fastest guy, and if you want to play on the next level everybody is going to be fast,” Peterson said. “So then it falls back on technique. What are you doing? How do you prepare yourself? Are you watching game tape and studying the guy on the opposite side of the ball? Those are the little things that they can take for granted.”

Those are the things that made Peterson an All-American and kept him in the NFL for a decade and a half. Those are things that make a young player listen to what he has to say.

And coming from a guy who was a teammate of Peyton Manning's, played for Tony Dungy and just seven months ago came thisclose -- "Ten yards," he says -- from a Super Bowl in falling to Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers in the 2013 NFC Championship, the words carry a lot of juice.

"I tell them, get in your playbook. Get in your playbook, learn what to do,” he said. “And just every chance you get, take advantage of it. I try to tell the guys it's different in high school ball. High school ball you can pick the plays you want to go hard. In college, you just go hard, go hard, go hard because you never know when that play is going to come.”

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