Sept. 13, 2013
Navy assistant coach Steve Johns was not the least bit surprised that senior inside linebacker Cody Peterson became a co-captain for the Navy football team. Johns saw strong hints of the right stuff in Peterson way back in his plebe year, when Peterson was beginning the journey of a man in search of a true position.
Back then, Peterson, having been recruited as a fullback after a fine, four-year varsity turn at A.G. West Black Hills High School in Olympia, Wash., was not winning popularity contests at Navy. Peterson was buried on the depth chart as a member of the scout team. He also was making a habit of smacking around more established players, some of whom took offense to that treatment.
“Cody would just beat the heck out of some of the guys on the second-team defense. He’d take on linebackers and hit them hard,” said Johns, Navy’s inside linebackers coach. “Some of them didn’t like that, coming from somebody on the scout team. But Cody would get in fights with them. He didn’t care.”
At 6 feet 3, 228 pounds, Peterson has grown so much since then, although he has retained the same nasty streak he brought to Annapolis.
Peterson has bounced from fullback to outside linebacker and finally, to his home at inside linebacker, where he is now the quarterback of the Navy defense. He has rebounded from a shoulder injury that derailed what was shaping up as a sophomore growth spurt in 2011, when Peterson shut down his high-octane motor after four games to submit to season-ending surgery.
And after taking another huge step forward last fall, when a healthy Peterson started the last eight games and finished Navy’s 8-5 season with 67 tackles, he has positioned himself as one of the Mids’ unquestioned leaders.
Listen to his teammates talk about the guy everyone knows about now. Listen to them applaud Peterson’s work habits in the weight room, film room and on the practice field. Listen to their admiration for the teammate who doesn’t say much and doesn’t need to, since Peterson has been setting the right example since 2010.
“Cody’s play on the field speaks volumes about his command of leadership,” said senior linebacker D.J. Sargenti, one of Peterson’s close friends.
“He never stops. I consider myself a hard worker in the weight room. He keeps me going when I’m feeling dead. I know him well enough to know he’s not always as tough as he looks, but he doesn’t smile much.
He’s got a stern look. He’s an intimidating dude. He gets people to follow him.”
“Who is all business? Who is dedicated? Cody sticks out. He’s the heart of our defense. He’s a big human who is going to battle you,” added senior wide receiver Casey Bolena.
“Outside of football, when we’re playing video games or listening to music, Cody is a happy guy, more relaxed. But he’s a serious person in general, and he’s very serious about his job. It really eats him up inside if people aren’t feeling good about working at practice. When he has something to say, people listen.”
Peterson, an English major who aims to be commissioned a surface warfare officer upon his graduation next spring, said he is savoring every moment of his final season in a Navy uniform – the same way he loved competing year-round on the varsity playing fields at Black Hills High.
“I try to keep the underdog mentality. I don’t want to get comfortable by any means,” Peterson said. “I want to stay humble and hungry. I love football and I love my teammates. I never thought I was an elite athlete. I was never the fastest guy. But I worked hard at a lot of things, and it really came together for me with football, which has always been my passion.”
There is nothing pretentious about Peterson, the broad-shouldered product of a humble, blue-collar background. His father, Jeff, is a retired carpenter who now runs a tugboat service. His mother, Jennifer, works for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.
Peterson, who counted camping and hiking among his favorite pastimes while growing up on the southern tip of the Puget Sound in the town of Tumwater, also has fond memories of baling hay on his grandfather’s farm. Dennis Miller – “Denny,” as he is known to family and friends – still has about 15 cows on that same 100-acre piece of land.
“My grandpa [now in his 70s] still carries bales of hay around like it’s nothing,” Peterson said. “I used to love doing that. Every summer I’d get together with guys on the [high school] football team and put hay in the barn. I’d spend three or four days a week, 10 hours a day doing that, still try to do it when I get home. It’s good work. But sports kind of consumed my life growing up.”
Sports grabbed Peterson all the way through high school, where he set a Black Hills record by earning a combined 11 varsity letters in football, basketball and track and field.
He put it all together as a senior, first in the fall of 2009 by rushing for a school-record 2138 yards and 23 touchdowns and leading Black Hills to the 2A state playoffs as a first-team, all-state selection. The following spring, Peterson, one of the squad’s faster performers, led the track team to the state title. As a junior, Peterson placed second in the hurdles at the state meet and was part of the 4 X 100 relay team that won the championship.
“Cody is an overachiever. He always was good under pressure. He made it easy for my wife and me to bring him up,” Jeff Peterson said. “He’s got a huge heart. When he was in middle school, he just knew he was going to play football [in college]. He knows what he wants and he goes after it.”
That was most apparent from the fall of Peterson’s freshman year in high school, when Jack Zilla, then the Black Hills head football coach, watched this light, skinny newcomer repeatedly fight his way for yardage in preseason camp – and in turn fight his way onto the varsity roster.
“I would get [Peterson] two or three carries a game. We couldn’t block anybody, but he would still make the pile go forward,” Zilla recalled. “It wasn’t long before he became our big-play, go-to guy. There is no such thing as half-speed with Cody.”
While emerging as a star at Black Hills, Peterson dreamed of a scholarship offer from the University of Washington, since he was a huge Huskies fan. Instead, he only got invitations as a preferred walk-on at Stanford, Washington State and Cal-Berkley. In addition, Eastern Washington, a 1-AA school, extended a scholarship offer.
“I had no interest in that. I was determined to play Division I football,” Peterson said.
That eventually led to serious interest in Navy, in large part due to Zilla, a former U.S. Navy chief who served for 14 years after enlisting. He remembers talking to Peterson about his military service when Cody was a sophomore, and he later contacted Johns to spark possible recruiting interest at the academy. Johns took a look at some video of Peterson and liked the kid’s athleticism and hard-nosed approach in the offensive backfield.
The Navy football team really caught Peterson’s eye in the Mids’ season opener in 2009, a nationally televised sellout at Ohio State. Navy, fresh off of posting its sixth consecutive winning season and winning its sixth straight Commander-In-Chief’s trophy, nearly pulled off a stunning upset before dropping a 31-27 decision to the heavily-favored Buckeyes.
“After I saw that game, I was sold [on coming to Navy],” said Peterson, who, after receiving his appointment and accepting an invitation to visit the academy, signed up before leaving Annapolis. He was so sure of his decision that he did it without even calling home first.
Then came the major test of surviving plebe summer and that arduous first year, which included being a blip on the depth chart at the position Peterson would have to vacate. Then came the dislocated shoulder he suffered during his second preseason camp, an injury that kept him on special teams as a backup outside linebacker – but only for the season’s first four games.
By the time spring football came around before Peterson’s junior season, he was getting few repetitions as an outside linebacker, where Peterson was noticeably behind in his option reads – a byproduct of his previous lack of playing time.
But Johns, who was coaching inside linebackers at that point, loved the way Peterson threw his body around and lobbied to move him inside, where he thought Johns could play faster and more instinctively.
By summer camp, the move was paying off. By the season opener, Peterson was a solid backup who was coming on strong.
“What stands out about Cody is his toughness. What I noticed was, even though he was still not totally comfortable reading the option when he faced our offense in practice, he really let his natural aggression show when we went up against [opponents] with more conventional offenses,” Johns said.
“I wanted to start him after the first or second game [in 2012]. Against Notre Dame [in the season opener] Cody was knocking blockers over and snapping their heads back. We don’t have a lot of guys who can do that.”
The turning point came for Peterson in the season’s pivotal fifth game at Air Force, where the 1-3 Mids found a new quarterback in freshman Keenan Reynolds and Peterson entered the linebacker rotation. He produced 10 tackles and a forced fumble in a 28-21 win that changed Navy’s season.
Peterson started the last eight games of the year, during which the Mids went 6-2, secured their 10th bowl-game bid in 11 years and sealed their 10th CIC trophy in that span with a defense-dominated, 17-13 victory over Army. Peterson shined brightly that day with a career-high 14 tackles.
In hindsight, there was little doubt last spring about Peterson’s worthiness as a team captain.
“Cody embodies pretty much who we are as a team. He’s reserved, doesn’t say much, but I have to slow him down sometimes during practice and remind him we’re on the same team,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “I hope the rest of the guys on our defense play with the same effort this year.”
“I didn’t expect to become a starter in my junior year, but I kept grinding, kept trying to hit guys as hard as I can,” Peterson said. “I’m still trying to elevate my game. I need to know our defense so well that I can correct other people and not just worry about myself.
“I reflect on everything that’s happened and it makes me want this season to be very special, especially for all of the seniors I have a close bond with. I’ve got one more, good season left in me.”