They say you can never go home again, but if you're former Florida Gators linebacker Mike Peterson, you go home all the time. So you can imagine the Atlanta Falcons defender's surprise when, while traveling on I-75 from his home in Tampa to Gainesville last weekend, he saw his own picture on a billboard congratulating him for being inducted into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame as a Gator Great.
"I looked up after my wife pointed at it, and I was in awe. I stopped the car, got on the side of the road and said, 'Get out of the car! Get out of the car!'" he recounted on Tuesday. "You got to remember, man, I'm from Alachua. It's a small town, there ain't a lot going on. I'm not accustomed to billboards and hall of fames and [being in the] NFL for 12 years. I didn't have a lot growing up. I just let it settle in a little bit. It was a shocker, and it's still a shocker to me, man."
A true Alachua County native, Peterson has spent the majority of his life just miles away from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. So when it came time to decide where to go to college, all he thought he wanted to do was get out of town and possibly head up to Michigan to play quarterback.
That is until then-defensive coordinator Ron Zook convinced him to come by for an official visit. The rest, as they say, is history.
"Once I came on a visit, man, it made no sense for me to go anywhere else," Peterson said. "I had everything right there in my backyard. ... It was hands-down where I needed to be."
Back in town with his wife, children, former teammates and a bunch of friends, Peterson was overwhelmed with emotion during his induction on Friday.
"I'm still in shock and even in awe. [It] was an honor to receive such a prestigious honor from one of the top universities," he said of the experience. "Right now, I'm still in shock. To have my name associated with so many Gator Greats ... it's just humbling to me, man. When you know my story and know where I came from, know how much work I put into it, you appreciate things like that probably a little bit more than everybody else."
In addition to celebrating his past, Peterson made sure to look to the future over the weekend. The first thing he did was meet with head coach Will Muschamp. Suffice to say, he came away impressed.
"I had all the confidence in Mr. [Jeremy] Foley that he was going to hire the right guy and he was going to do his homework. So I'm all for him," Peterson said of Muschamp. "I had a chance to meet him. I love everything about him. I love the passion he brings to the game. [I'm] loving that he's a defensive-minded guy. I'm all for him, man. It's early. I told the guys, 'It's early. Don't expect to light up the scoreboard or be this top-ranked team now. It's a process. Just work the process and let it work for itself.'"
Peterson spoke with the team after he met with Muschamp and tried to convey to the players that they have been provided with a one-of-a-kind opportunity to play for the Gators and that it is something they should not take for granted.
"I told the guys to take advantage of this opportunity. There are millions of people that would love to be in the position they're in now. I told them to take the advantage of the opportunity they have. Don't gripe about the position you're in now, because the position you're in now you may not be in that position 10 years down the line," he said when recollecting his speech to the team.
"I gave them a couple of my experiences. Who knew Mike Peterson coming out of high school? Who knew Mike Peterson coming out of the University of Florida? Even to this day, I've been elected to the hall of fame and there's probably a bunch of people still wondering, 'Who is Mike Peterson? Who is No. 29?' I just tried to encourage them and motivate them. Don't be satisfied with what you're doing now, take advantage and live one day at a time because once you're done there, you're done there. All you've got is memories, so enjoy it."
He was also thoroughly impressed with Florida's football complex including the weight room, training areas and trophy displays honoring the Gators' numerous team and individual accomplishments.
"That's one of the things I spoke to the guys about. I said, 'Man, this is top-notch,'" Peterson said. "I told the guys to take advantage of it because you don't get that in the NFL. Everybody thinks when you go to the NFL it's going to be a step up. Coming for Florida, it may be a step down with the facilities, the way you're treated in the city, the love you get from the city and the way fans rally behind you win or lose.
"It's a top-notch program. Right now, to me, it's the best program in the country. I don't see why, if you're a high school kid, why you'd want to go anywhere else."
Ironically, the decision Peterson made 16 years ago has now come full-circle.