Some players call it a “turtle”; my team called it a “pancake” — when an American football player gets knocked flat on his back. You feel the wind knocked right out of your lungs, and the shame of sheer defeat rises through the numbness.
This is what I tasted after my first play lining up against future NFL lineman, Jason Peter. Full-framed but lanky, inflexible, I was a high school sophomore defensive end in central New Jersey for the permanent underdogs, the Freehold Township Patriots. Peter didn’t have much more experience, but was already something of a local legend — the second of three star brothers from Middletown South High School, the oldest of who was already at the University of Nebraska.
The reality that I’d be facing him seeped into my nerves through a whole week of geometry class. My coaches made us study tapes of other lineman getting knocked backward by the Division I prospect. The Newark Star Ledger published a comic of a gigantic Middletown South Eagle holding a quaking miniature Freehold Township Patriot in the palm of his hand. On game day, senior offensive tackle Jason Peter jogged to the line of scrimmage with his head high, his sights aimed right at the end zone. His poise proved that he’d go far, before each beat-down he gave me.
In the plays after my first collapse, I would hit the ground face-first, a weaker player’s attempt to clog the line of scrimmage. And each time I did, I’m sure that he made me pay extra for it, with forearms to my neck and a facemask lodged right into my back. After the game, I lay in my tub under a hot shower, trying to sooth what felt like a migraine extending throughout my body.
I received big-league punishment while not yet 16. Though please understand, I approached Peter’s memoir, Hero of the Underground, not with a critic’s revenge. (I have more bitterness about the fact that football left me diagnosed with arthritic knees before I turned 30.)
I approached Hero with curiosity about a former personal idol: his brutalizing left me all the more devout, as I dreamed of playing Division 1 college football. I even attended the same post-graduate prep school/football farm as Peter did, a hole-in-the-ground called the Milford Academy (originally in Milford, Connecticut, but since relocated to New York).
Hero reveals all the glorious dreams promised to a talented young athlete. Peter followed his brother to Nebraska before appearing in the coveted first round of the NFL draft. Peter’s tale turns into an American neo-archetype: the ascent into stardom that turns into a descent into addiction. And it was a hard road: once a bulky beefcake, Peter now looks like Perry Farrell, and his voice at times trails toward nervy hints of Crispin Glover.
Peter and co-writer Tony O’Neill strive to illustrate the spirit of the suited-up player, who approaches the field in ritual and performs as if a modern-day gladiator. Everyone save pigskin fanatics will doze when Peter reflects that he is “not looking at myself anymore” when his helmet is in place, and that “Jason Peter is no longer in the room. He has been absorbed, banished to some nether part of my brain”. It serves better as foreshadowing of off-field torments to come, albeit a ham-fisted variety.
Yet when tapping into an adrenaline-fueled inspiration, Hero drops some alliterative riffs more diverting that goofy: “I can feel it building somewhere in the base of my skull … some God-given natural narcotic that will never again let me be … like a Japanese kamikaze pilot ripped on methamphetamine and charging at the enemy’s plane with a suicidal scream.” The sentiment may be obvious, but very true for youths reprogrammed by a football machine like the University of Nebraska. Though we are suspect of this authorial voice, since Peter admits he could never produce anything close to an eloquent writing assignment as a student. My guess is that the stylistics are all Mr. O’Neill’s (author of Digging into the Vein, his own drug memoir).
Formula also towers over Peter’s story, and it never gets out of the shadow. The memoir opts for a non-traditional opening, in which Peter and O’Neill spin a drug-fueled night in Manhattan, post-abortive NFL career. With its immersed point of view and feverish pacing, the chapter has a novelistic tone, even if it reads as a shallow pastiche of Hunter S. Thompson — an inspiration of the cover copy who never shows up again.
From there Peter and O’Neill rewind to the story’s beginning and move to a traditional memoir style, clean and glossy, in which Peter is a shining light in a world of promise. He reaches to Lincoln, Nebraska, where college players are stars adorned by glowing blond cheerleaders. The Cornhuskers’ stadium is a sea of cheering red that reaches to the sky. The grandeur brings Peter to a bowl game, where he faces future star, Peyton Manning. (“It’s time to fuck Manning up!” Peter recalls thinking pre-game, though his narrative never makes good on the promise.) Nebraska appears like a dreamworld, one he’ll miss once he’s signed to a losing Carolina Panthers. Wealth comes in tandem with shoulder injuries, for which he begins to double-up on painkillers, thus opening Pandora’s Pillbox.
Mephistophelean doctors open the path towards Peter’s addiction. He receives painkillers first from team physicians to quiet injuries, which would soon signal his career coming to an end. While at Carolina, fanboy private physicians are jazzed to write scripts for Dilaudid, OxyContin, and Xanax in exchange for an autographed jersey. As Peter continues his dream career via a reliable numbness, we wonder what kind of chemical haze sits over professional contact sports.
The dream ends when the Carolina organization lets Peter go. While self-medicating like mad, he finds more solace by bedding strippers and frequenting Manhattan parties with fans. Living off his NFL salary, Peter resides in a wasteland of the rich and unemployed, when his family coaxes him to visit a private rehab clinic out West. For readers even faintly familiar with the author, Hero comes of as guarded about the well-known upper-class Peter clan.
The legal troubles of older brother Christian are widely reported, as he was accused of raping the same woman twice in two days while a student at the University of Nebraska. He was publicly renounced by New England coach Bill Parcels after the team learned it had inherited an alleged basket case. (Christian then signed to the New York Giants, who helped him complete his degree at Farleigh Dickinson University.) Yet, the older Peter is nothing less than a stolid presence in this book — a permanent role model in spirit and an aid that flies to his brother’s side when needed. More investigation by the author into some deviant Peter instinct would have made Hero into the real-life testament it strives to be.
Peter’s downward spiral is kept steady, if predictable, complete with a platonic sugar mama named Zora (a blend of Martha Rae and Norma Desmond) and other aids in deviance. Peter loathes the religious spirit of 12-step recovery, which asserts that a greater being is the only source of hope. Yet irony comes when Peter finds his own great white hope, in the form of current wife, Sarah. The counterpoint to all the druggie prostitutes that were previously Peter’s habit, Sarah is a real-life embodiment of those fair-skinned beauties promised to future Cornhuskers at recruiting trips.
With hope, strong family, and a new career as a broadcaster with ESPN radio, Peter remains volatile, knowing that he subsists on Suboxone doses to stay alive. His memoir isn’t much different, itself striving for a “soulful badass” voice while subsisting on convention.