The chaos of dozens of teenagers going through football drills includes testosterone and the summer heat and an NFL player cursing at a kid quarterback. This is 10 years ago, but as the man tells the story, it might as well have been yesterday.
Harold Pearson is standing on the field where it happened, at McClymonds High, in a rough part of town, remembering the moment he first realized this adolescent might someday be famous. Pearson was coaching the cornerbacks.
He was a former college player himself, and he was giving these kids the business. Advanced stuff. Man coverage disguised as Cover 2. Show press coverage, then bail out into zone. This is six levels over most of these kids’ heads. But look at that one boy there: a little smaller than the rest, sure, but see how he flips his hips at the right moment? See how he reads the quarterback?
See how he leaves his man at exactly the right moment to jump the route and make the interception?
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Tyrone Wheatley is coaching the quarterbacks, and he’s ticked. Screaming. Pearson is smiling. This isn’t about that quarterback making a bad throw. This is about that little cornerback making every play.
“This kid right here is a beast,” Pearson remembers thinking. “And he’s just a ninth-grader.”
Later, Pearson found out that kid was actually a sixth-grader.
And that is how he met Marcus Peters.
In Kansas City, Peters is known as the Chiefs’ first-round draft pick, a hothead who got kicked off his college team, a physical cornerback who is perfect for the Chiefs’ aggressive system. Probably in that order.
A disproportionate chunk of the Chiefs’ success this year, particularly early, will depend on Peters. Sean Smith’s three-game suspension means Peters will begin his pro career as a starter, including games against Aaron Rodgers (at Green Bay) and Peyton Manning (at Arrowhead in prime time on a Thursday night).
You cannot talk much about Peters without getting to his temper. This, along with his talent, define him as a football player.
You probably know some of the story. He threw — and this is his term — a “hissy fit” on the sideline of Washington’s second game of 2014. He had been flagged for an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty that kept the opponent’s touchdown drive alive, and then on the sideline threw his helmet and gloves and stomped around as his coaches tried to calm him.
The year before, he had been suspended for Washington’s bowl game. Peters’ college career ended with him being kicked off the team in November. This is a pattern.
That temper is why Peters — regarded by many to be the most talented cornerback in this year’s NFL Draft — was available when the Chiefs picked 18th overall. It is why many believe his production will never match his ability.
There have been calls for Peters to remake his personality, but by now that is impossible. Peters’ fire is as much a part of him as his hands and feet. It must be managed, sure, but he is way past the point where it can be muzzled. This is the way he’s always been, part of how he grew up back in Oakland and part of why he stuck out to Pearson on that field as a sixth-grader 10 years ago.
“Definitely,” Peters says now. “It started there, at a young age. I’m just so competitive with football. It’s something I take serious. So serious. It brings that extra edge out of me.”
Some who are close to Peters say this is a product of growing up in a rough neighborhood. One high school teammate quit the team after his brother died right around the corner from the school. Another couldn’t play because he was in jail.
At some point, Peters developed a hard outer shell.
“He had a little attitude problem,” says Wendell Taiese, a high school teammate. “But the game can do that to you.”
There are so many stories. Back at McClymonds High — everyone calls it Mack — Peters carried a Donald Trump-like confidence that stood out even in a pack of alpha males. Like the time that DeSean Jackson visited Mack. By then, Jackson was already in the NFL and had caught 62 passes for 1,156 yards during his second season.
A native of southern California who played at Cal in nearby Berkeley, Jackson had an anti-bullying campaign and was visiting schools across the country. Peters was a teenager — a kid — but approached Jackson after the presentation.
He did not want to talk about how to deal with bullying.
“I’ll lock you down,” Peters told Jackson. “Right now, I’ll lock you down.”
High school teammates remember moments when Peters screamed back at coaches, and at least a few times when he just walked away from them, ignoring whatever was being said. They openly talk of “character issues,” admitting that Peters’ past makes him a “gamble.”
They say it’s one worth taking, though.
Taiese, who went about 6 feet 4 and 300 pounds at the time, remembers the much-smaller Peters bumping and screaming at him for a bad game. Taiese was tired that day, and now admits that yes, he was getting outplayed. But it was still aggravating to have a smaller teammate — even now, Peters is listed at 6 feet, 197 pounds — essentially challenge his manhood in front of friends and teammates. The motivation worked, as Taiese’s opponent was blocked into submission.
“So I went out there and started killing this kid,” Taiese says now. “I did that because Marcus was on the sidelines working me.”
Michael Peters — Marcus asked that his father not talk for this column — always said he was no longer a parent on the football field. He was the coach. And that meant business. Jeremiah Walters, another high school teammate, remembers Michael pushing his son harder than anyone else. Whether that was because of Marcus’ potential or his bloodline, the picture is clear:
Peters’ razors have been sharpened by both nature and nurture.
As a senior, Peters’ high school team fielded just 23 players. They played schools with two or three times that many. It was a talented group — at least five kids from Mack signed Division I scholarships — but to go 12-0 against teams that much bigger requires a certain confidence.
Particularly, it would seem, when it came to the team’s best player. Peters was Mack’s star receiver, best cornerback and even did the punting and kicking. When Mack played the best opponent on its schedule, Peters’ team was down a point late in the fourth quarter. Third and 17. Walters remembers the coach being quiet during the timeout for the first time.
Peters spoke up. Just throw me the (expletive) ball, Walters remembers hearing.
Peters ran under the pass, turned it into a 60-yard touchdown that won the game and walked off the field as if he had planned it the whole time.
There are dozens of stories like this about Peters, tales that illustrate an outsized swagger, even by professional athlete standards, and at some point you start to see that separating Peters from this occasionally wild edge is not just impossible — it’s a terrible idea.
Physically, Peters is not exceptionally gifted when compared with other cornerbacks. His superiority lies in his football mind and an unshakable belief that he is better than you. He’s the kind of guy who knows more than you and is happy to remind you about that.
“Sometimes it can come across like he’s (a jerk),” Pearson says. “But he’s just super confident. Super confident in whatever he does. Like, I don’t know people who have this kind of confidence. And when it’s like that, you will go a lot further than other people because you know you can do it. Or, at least, you think you can do it and sometimes that’s enough.
“I’d put it like this: He doesn’t think the bad thing is going to happen to him, even if it happened to him before.”
The confidence is not an act. It is not a character that he plays, like some WWE star. If it is a creation, it is a creation born from years and years and years of work. Football is not a game to Peters.
It stopped being a game to him a long time ago.
“Long as I can remember, yeah,” he says. “I’ve been on the football field as long as I can walk, man. Yeah. Me and my pops. It’s always been me and football. Yeah.”
Peters is not exaggerating. He first played organized football at age 5. He was too young for the league, but he was persistent in begging his dad to let him play.
At some point, Peters began sneaking onto the field, a 5-year-old starting a lifetime of playing against older and bigger kids.
“It was crazy, but it was something I had to do,” Peters says. “We always played street football, but it’s nothing like putting the pads on and doing the hitting drills and those things, getting ready for football season. It was something I always wanted to do.”
Peters grew up in football, in as literal a sense as possible. He sat through meetings with his dad and other coaches, learning football strategy while other kids were learning to write cursive.
His family’s house was across the street from the field — no exaggeration, his bedroom was closer to the bleachers than the team’s locker room — which made it his playground and park of choice.
He was such a part of the program that as a grade-schooler he walked out with Mack’s captains for the coin flip, and was so invested that he cried whenever Mack lost.
So this confidence has been earned, at least in Peters’ mind, through years of hard work, advanced knowledge and being the best player on a team beating opponents two and three times bigger.
Peters does possess a natural athleticism — he was a swim champion growing up, and Oregon recruited him as a wide receiver — but his mind and confidence set him apart. When NFL organizations were interviewing Peters leading up to the draft, Pearson remembers one scout walking out of the room, his head shaking.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Pearson remembers the man saying. “Marcus is so far ahead on schemes and classroom stuff.”
The trick, of course, is using his powers for good. This has always been the challenge for Peters, one at which he has both succeeded and failed in spectacular fashion.
It’s interesting that when Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton talks about Peters, he compliments the rookie’s instincts and breaks. But when he talks about what he needs to improve, he mentions Peters’ technique and, without using this word, humility.
“No matter who you play against in this league,” Sutton says, “that player is good enough to beat you.”
In that way, the defining characteristic of Peters’ game is now up against the greatest challenge he will ever face.
What do you do when the trait you’ve most relied upon needs to be altered?
What happens when smarts and swagger are not enough?
That’s what this season will be about for Peters. The Chiefs took a chance with him, on several levels. Learning to play cornerback in the NFL takes time, but Smith’s suspension and the Chiefs’ schedule don’t afford that luxury.
The season starts in a week. The Chiefs can only hope Peters will find the right balance.