Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Hero of the Underground" by Jason Peter

Sakes alive... "Hero of the Underground" by ex-Nebraska Cornhusker football star Jason Peter is quite the read. It's a memoir that takes the reader from Peter's youth to his role as a leader of Nebraska's famed "Blackshirts" Defense and then his NFL career... and subsequent descent into addiction.

There's so many levels on which the book is interesting. In the anecdote about a famous person category, there's the story of Peter's younger brother Damian. A hugely talented high-school football player, Damian was headed to Notre Dame to play for Coach Lou Holtz. However, a freak swimming pool accident left him paralyzed... and according to Jason, also no longer of interest to Coach Holtz.

Additionally, Peter's story shows some of the profound differences between life for a college as opposed to pro football player. He may have had it exceptionally good in college playing at Nebraska for top-level coaches in front of (what I can say from personal experience) extremely knowledgeable and supportive fans, but the NFL was a whole different story. Fans at the pro level were much more fickle towards the players (probably understandable given that they're large contracts) and the coaches much more desperately needed to win in order to hold onto their jobs. As a result, Peter found an environment where it was all about winning... to a point where the camaraderie was gone... and where you did whatever you had to do in order to keep your body performing at a high level.

This concept of health (or lack thereof) and what players did with their bodies in the pros takes the reader to the most interesting, and astonishing at times, aspect of the book... Peter's drug addiction and the hold it took on him. What started as a vicodin habit in order to keep playing then morphed into a full-blown painkiller addition. Throw in recreational cocaine use (often as an attempt to bridge the gap between the social life he loved in college and his outside of football boredom as a pro) and Peter's habits were set. Once his body officially gave out, he found himself a late twenty-something guy living in New York City with a drug habit, money to burn and a unfulfilled identity as a pro athlete.

From there, Peter began his hard-core partying career... including time spent holed up in $400/night LA hotel rooms with hookers and hanger-on fellow addicts. This all became much more complicated (and potentially deadly) when Peter eventually brought heroin and crack into his addiction menu. This whole portion (really, the largest portion) of the book is amazing in reading about the various situations that Peter put himself into and to know that he actually came out of each alive.

His story is certainly still an unfinished one, but after many trips in and out of rehab, Peter appears to have pulled himself through. Reading his story, it's easy to be amazed by the experiences he had, but also to hope that he can continue to keep everything together.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who... loves football, is interested in the psyche of the pro athlete and fascinated by tales of "extreme lives lived".