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Interview With Jason Peter - Hero of the Underground

I recently reviewed Jason Peter's book, "Hero of the Underground", the story of his life with drug addiction and recovery. It's a great read whether you're interested in football or not.

Jason and I talked mid last week about the book, his life after rehab, Nebraska football, and of course, that guy who sits next to Mark May. I hope that it adds to your experience with the book. 

Let’s start out talking about your book, Hero of the Underground. I read somewhere in an earlier interview that you didn’t think the book would sell.

I didn’t think it would have the type of success it did. If you would have told me it would be on the New York Times Best Seller list, I would have asked you if you were taking drugs. I didn’t think that it could reach that many people. I thought it might do well in Nebraska, but not everywhere else because of the way it was written. I was very very nervous before the book came out, not just because of how people would react, but that they certainly didn’t know everything in detail.

There’s a lot of people who have this image of Nebraska football. I was part of three national titles, an All-American, a captain of a national title team, and they don’t want that distorted, they just want to leave it like that. I was worried whether those people would not want me in the family anymore, but I was amazed at amount of support I got after the book was released.

I think people can relate to it. Addiction, alcoholism, they affect a lot of people’s lives. Most people in the world know someone who’s struggled with it so a lot of people can relate to it.

What was your original intent in writing the book?

I wanted to tell my story in hopes that maybe there’s someone who would read it who would benefit from it. If it keeps a kid from going through the same thing I did now, or a NFL player  from doing this, then that’s why I did it. It’s the same reason I did HBO Real Sports programs earlier. I thought maybe by me telling my story someone else could benefit.

It’s a really raw book, not just the subject matter, but there’s plenty of swearing. Was there ever a thought about cleaning that up?

I’m not a writer. I wrote this book, but I’m not a writer. The only way possible to do it was to write from my own voice. To tell those stories like I’m sitting here with me and you. People who read it who know me say it sounds like it’s coming right out my mouth. Back then, being a football player, a warrior type person, the adrenaline, that was the language I used, especially when carrying that over into the underground world, drug world.

Do you talk that way even now?

If I’m with my friends, the Jersey in me comes out. My wife.…

gets on your case?

a little bit. I clean it up when I’m around some people, like Tom Osborne.

It’s nice to know that wives are the same no matter who you are.

If she lets a curse word slip, well we know who’s fault that is.

I’ll tell you something that bothered me about the book. As I was reading through it, I won’t say it’s a glorification of drug use, but your life certainly had an attraction to it, here’s this guy who is a star, has all the money in the world, has all the women, doesn’t have to work and has all the stuff I can’t buy. There were times I felt like someone could read it and get the idea that what you did was okay, because until you’re at the end of the book, it doesn’t sound that bad.

I wondered if some people would question the title, “Hero of the Underground”.  What does he want? Does he want people to applaud him like he’s some kind of hero? If you read the book it’s about me finally taking responsibility for me. It’s more about the heroism that gradually became my life starting over. 

I’ll go back to high school. You have all these college coaches coming in, talking about how good you are, about how they need you, and if you don’t come, the university is going to have to board up the windows, life won’t go on and the world will fall apart.

You start there, then you get to Nebraska, sign, and become a household name. There’s no where else on earth where people love their program like here. You become a starter, then a three-year starter, a captain, and all you hear is how great you are, that you’re the best. I don’t care if you have a good head on your shoulders, you start to think that this is the way people should be treating you all the time.

In the NFL, you’re still on a pedestal, people tell you you’re right when you’re wrong, so it carries over. You think this is how life is supposed to be. You’re supposed to be told how great you are all the time. When the day came when I couldn’t play football anymore, my life just went down the toilet. I thought I’d play forever and then everything was over.

My identity was football. I thought I could transition into something, I didn’t think I’d be that story on ESPN, the guy who lost it all, the guy who can’t deal with life without the cheers. I was scared to death to fail. Everything I’d done was sports and I had never failed at anything. The real world scared the hell out of me. The only way to get that feeling back, was to close those doors to my apartment, so then it was just me and the drugs. I could still live that hero mentality, still king of the castle in my underground.

I can tell you the moment in the book at which it hit me how bad you were doing. It wasn’t when your mom was in the hospital because she was worried about you, but it came for me when she calls, you were supposed to check yourself into a rehab and you don’t realize that a few days have gone by. They’re just gone and you wonder where they went.

When drugs is your life, three hundred sixty five days a year, twenty four hours a day and you are going from one high from next to the next, that’s the only thing that matters to you. I was at the point where I was losing track of days, weeks, months. You become so obsessed with drugs, making sure you have them that you shut the real world out. You shut everyone that’s living a normal life out and your days and nights just kind of run together. I can’t necessarily put a moment on when the switch went off for me. Maybe for me it was finally when my father said “When are you just going to stop?”

You don’t really mention faith in the book.… why?

I just think that there’s a built in excuse with faith. In all those twelve-step programs, you have to turn your life over to a higher power because what’s sitting in front of you, you can’t handle. God doesn't give you anything you can’t handle. You have to buy completely into the program. For me, it’s up to the individual. If you’re waiting for a magical moment, you’re going to be waiting for a long time and you’re going to relapse. There’s a common term - “white knuckling it” - when people are trying so hard to not do drugs.…

Like their hands are on the wheel and they’re gripping it so hard their knuckles are white.

Yeah, like they’re barely making it. I needed the doctors and the therapists so I’m not belittling those people and the work that they do, but in the end, it’s you, the individual who has to make the decision that you’re not going to use drugs today.

Yet you went in and out of rehabs.…

The problem for me wasn’t how long I was in rehabs. I spent a year in the last rehab. The problem for me was that for most of my life I had structure. Through high school, or college, or the NFL, I  had to be at the stadium at a certain time, or I had to be at class, and after the NFL, now there’s no reason for me to get up, there’s nothing.

The last day in rehab, I knew that I had to do something to get back that structure. So I volunteered in California as a coach. I loved being with the kids, seeing the kids faces, the glow in their eye. They loved being coached by a guy who played in the NFL and was a first-round draft pick. I loved being with them and the relationships. I was tough on them. I won’t say they liked it, but they needed it. They needed the structure, they needed the discipline.

Joy came after a month of pounding repetition into their heads. You see they can execute in a game. You see them get a ten yard sack. It’s all there. But if they knew I didn’t show up one day because I was out doing drugs, they would have been tore up and I knew that.

So... did they know you had a problem or not?

I showed them the HBO show, the first one I did. They were over at our house for a party. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe it. But I talked to them about it, because at some point in their future, they’re going to be faced with these issues, someone asking them to take drugs or alcohol.

Why aren’t you coaching now?

I was coaching out in California, volunteering at Edison High School and Huntingdon Beach. I had blown through a lot of that money, so I had put myself in a position where I had to work. I was trying to get a college job in a Division I program. I put out resumes, some feelers, didn’t get anything back.

While I was coaching at a school, Harvard West Lake, the opportunity came along to do the broadcasting. It was something I was interested in after I’d done the HBO shows and Jim Rome’s show a couple times. The people on both shows said ‘you really handle yourself well’, so I remembered that. The last time I thought about doing broadcasting, I asked my agent about getting into it. He said “You don’t speak well enough” and it was a huge blow.

I put some feelers out there. A month before 2007 football season was to start, ESPN was struggling with a time slot, so I guess they felt like ‘let’s see if Jason can do it’. They brought me out for a week to see how I’d do.

The first show we did over at Haymarket Park during baseball season. They told me to be there around two thirty, so I showed up at two-thirty and the show started at three. I had no newspaper  and the Lincoln Salt Dogs are playing. I struggled through three hours with the other host. My wife was waiting back at hotel and I kissed her and said “This isn’t going to work out, it was brutal”. But I went back the next day. And it got a little better and a little better and at the end of the week they offered me the job, but they said don’t come back ‘til the (football) season starts.

In other words, don’t do baseball.…

Yeah, don’t do baseball. (laughs)

But I love doing the show.  I’m not good enough with words to maneuver about... to make things sound good. With me, I say it like it is, like what I’m seeing. If you need someone to drink some kool-aid and tell you everything is great, then I’m not that guy, and I hear about it from fans.

What do you think of the 2008 Husker football team so far?

It’s a work in progress. There are things that I see improvement on. I spoke with the team a couple weeks ago, and I told them the only thing I am going to hold you to is that you go hard every play. I don’t care if you go 0-13. You need to play with passion. There are 85,000 people out there, hard-working blue-collar people who make sacrifices to enjoy a game. The thing you could do for them is to play like it means something. I told them as long as you outwork the opponent, Nebraska will have more points on the board.

So many times last year guys were loafing.

Have you seen guys loafing this year?

Have I seen that this year? Not completely. It’s gotten better. But they don’t know yet where it needs to be. It might mean that guys push each other. They need what we had, a group of young men that don’t tolerate anything less than maximum effort. They need to hold each other accountable.  That’s who we were, if someone saw you loafing, even for a minute, you paid for it.  They need to start having that physical, nasty mentality. I’m still waiting for them to start doing that. I’m happy with two victories, and they should be too. I think they know it’s gotta get better. But when you get into the Big 12, you can’t be doing anything but giving your best.

Do these guys know what that means?

I just don’t think that they know. They don’t know what they’re asking for. They don’t know the effort it takes. Every year you got away from 1997, guys from those national championship teams graduated. There’s nobody there who understands that kind of team. The coaches can only can do so much. At some point the players have to take control.

Those late teams that Tom Osborne had ran themselves. We set the tempo, we ran the practices because we made sure that everyone was working. The four-star five star stuff, it’s a joke. These kids today, they’re softer than they used to be. By the time they get to college, they’re on youtube, they’re on web sites, and everyone is telling them how great they are, so they believe it.

Every day we went out, we had to work for the positions, to be starting, and when you have to work for something and you finally get it, you don’t want to let it go.

So how does Nebraska get back to the championship level?

How does Nebraska get back? They need to run that smash mouth, physical mentality, in your face, down your throat offense because the defense doesn’t want to play that kind of ball today. These kids all want to run after the quarterback and get the sacks because that’s where you get the money and get in the NFL. But if you run that smash mouth stuff, it can hurt a defense because it’s demoralizing having the ball run at you that way.

Everyone today is running the spread offense. So week after week you’re preparing for the spread, and suddenly you have two days to get ready for big bruising Nebraska to come back through and these kids don’t want to play that game. I don’t think you can prepare a kid’s mentality for that type of game, so that gives Nebraska the edge they had before.

Okay, I have to ask, because I can’t stand him either, how do we get rid of Lou Holtz?

I don’t know how you get rid of him. I think there’s just more and more people who realize how full of crap he is. Once everybody sees that, he’ll be off.

If you’re auditioning for Lou’s position on ESPN, what are you going to tell ESPN to put you there instead of him.

For one you could understand my Jersey accent and it’d be better than he sounds. I’d get rid of him for the same reason they didn’t win national championships every year he was there. They should have. Every year Notre Dame had a ton of All -Americans coming to play for them. The fact that they didn’t win championships every year is because the guy standing in front of them wasn’t genuine. Some people think you can tell 17-18 year olds anything and they’ll run through a wall for you and that’s not true. They can tell when a guy isn’t being genuine and Lou Holtz isn’t genuine. He’s full of crap.

There’s nothing good to say about him.

And that’s a wrap. I know you’re thinking, that I edited that bit at the end where he said “crap”. Well, I didn’t. He actually said crap. I don’t think he swore once during the entire interview. I did, but I edited those out because, well, my Mom might read this.

Nebraska needs a guy who tells it like it is. We tend to have a media in Nebraska that’s a little soft on the Huskers, giving us what we want to hear, so it can be refreshing listening to something that isn’t so oriented towards kool-aid drinking.

If you've read the book, I've love to hear your comments on it, or if you're a listener of his radio show, let us know your thoughts on that too.