Marcus Peters was shaped by Oakland -- and he lives to do right by the city that raised him.
By Jeffri Chadiha | Published Oct. 12, 2016
Illustration by Albert Lee
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Marcus Peters sat quietly at the bedside of his ailing grandmother, Janice Howard, praying that all this pain would end soon. Howard was receiving treatments for bone cancer inside that cramped Oakland hospital room when Peters arrived, and the image instantly jarred him. Nurses strolled in to track her progress. Wires stretched from her torso to machines surrounding her bed. Peters knew things were bad, but suddenly he was imagining the worst: His grandmother literally might not make it through this.
The more Peters pondered that possibility, the more he wondered how his entire family could move forward without this woman operating as the rock. He had spent most of his childhood in her home, had used it as a playground and a sanctuary, and he had known what it had meant to all his relatives. So as he stared somberly at his grandmother, Peters vowed to deliver for his family.
"I just told myself that I wanted to always do what I loved and take care of my family," Peters said during a recent interview. "And I love football. So I put my all into making it to the league. I told myself that somebody needs to step up and make it out."
Peters was leaning forward on the sofa in Howard's living room as he recently recalled that story this past summer. His grandmother did survive that scare eight years ago, and the home that Peters cherished -- which sits right across the street from the McClymonds High School football field where he first made his name -- remained very much intact. That dream he had of someday becoming a pro football player also had worked out for the best, even after he had been kicked off his college football team. Now 23 years old, Peters is a Pro Bowl cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs and one of the most talented young defenders in the NFL.
WHEN I GOT TO OTHER PLACES, I SAY IT LOUD. I REP OAKLAND PROUDLY, BECAUSE I WANT PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND WHERE I COME FROM. Marcus Peters
There's little doubt that the West Oakland neighborhood where Peters grew up had plenty to do with his ascent. He's a tough, strong-willed young man who always embraced the game of football and the love of his family. Those have been the two driving forces in his life and -- when combined with the grittiness that city can stoke in a native son -- they've resulted in a player who competes as if he can never afford to lose.
"Every time I go on the field, I want to be the best me I can be," Peters said. "That's how my pops (Michael Peters) taught me. The one thing that he always [said] was to not talk about what you want to do but to be about it. You have to show everybody what you can do and let your play speak for itself."
It's fairly easy to judge Peters -- who returns to Oakland this week when the Raiders host the Chiefs -- solely on how he plays the game. In 2015, he won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after tying for the league lead with eight interceptions (while amassing 280 return yards and scoring two touchdowns). Peters already has a league-high four interceptions through four games this year, even though the Chiefs defense has struggled as the team has started 2-2. Despite not having two full years of pro football under his belt, he's already one of the best ballhawks in the game.
When talking about the 6-foot, 197-pound Peters, Chiefs safety Eric Berry said it's "his confidence and attention to detail that sets him apart." Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger added that Peters is so adept at jumping routes that "it just seems like he almost has the team's offensive playbook." Said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin: "He's a calculated risk taker. The type of calculated risk taker that's required to be great at that position. And he's highly competitive -- you see that in his bump man-to-man techniques. So he's checking off all the boxes, and really, he needs no endorsement from me -- his numbers speak for themselves."
What's equally impressive is how little time Peters -- who's been asked to be a leader this year after Kansas City lost cornerback Sean Smith in free agency -- spends soaking up praise or savoring his newfound celebrity. You won't find him clubbing on South Beach in the offseason or becoming a regular at Vegas hotspots. His favorite place to enjoy downtime is right back in a two-block radius in Oakland, where he's surrounded by the people who know him best, and where he's connected to the same blessings that helped him thrive in the first place. Just like his mentor, former Seahawks running back and Oakland native Marshawn Lynch, Peters is all about the Bay Area.
During one weekend at home this summer, Peters didn't even have to leave his grandmother's house to see his support network. His mother, Doreen, stopped by and grabbed a seat on the stairway leading to the front door. His father, Michael, popped out of an oversized SUV while chatting with somebody on a cellphone. An assortment of friends and other relatives slowly arrived, as well, all while Peters leaned against a car on the side of the street and talked with a publicist about the remainder of his offseason plans.
Aside from a brief trip to Los Angeles for an Adidas promotional shoot, there wasn't much reason for Peters to leave Northern California in the following weeks. That, by the way, is exactly how he liked it.
"This is what made me," Peters said. "And when I go to other places, I say it loud. I rep Oakland proudly, because I want people to understand where I come from. ... If you aren't from here, you don't really know too much about it. But it's just a certain feeling I get when I'm home, and when I go some place else, I can feel [the difference]."
The passion Peters feels for his hometown also seeps into the way he approaches the game. He doesn't simply play; he attacks. Just as Peters can't let a practice go by without waving over to Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and challenging him in one-on-one drills, he can't back down from any receiver he confronts in an actual game. Every time he lines up across from somebody, he's thinking solely about owning them, dominating them and ultimately taking their will.
It's a quality that turns Peters into a bit of an emotional powder keg who's a constant target on Sundays -- "I'd rather have him be that way than to have to fire him up on every play," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said -- but it's also what makes him special. According to Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, "Marcus trusts what he sees. A lot of guys need to confirm what's in front of them. That's where he's unique. He takes some chances he probably shouldn't, but that's the part that makes him dangerous. He understands that when you're that kind of player, people are going to attack you more."
WHEN [MARSHAWN LYNCH] SAID HE WAS DONE, I TOLD HIM TO CHILL OUT. I'M READY TO PUT THIS WHOLE TOWN ON MY BACK. Marcus Peters
When asked to explain his hyper-aggressive style, Peters said: "You see it in how (Oakland native and Portland Trail Blazers point guard) Damian Lillard plays basketball or how Marshawn plays football. lt's just something that you know we are from Oakland. We got that look on our face when we play the game. That emotion of just how much we respect what we are doing. It just comes from here (Peters pointed to his heart), because you have to give respect to get it, and Oakland is going to teach you that."
Peters is comfortable with people coming after him, because he's always had a strong sense of who he is. That comes from the streets of Oakland and the family that protected him from all the dangers that lingered out there. As Michael Peters said, "Normal kids probably don't see nobody get shot, [but] our kids step over a body and keep coming to school, and it's hard for some kids to even get to school. ... Nobody really messes with [the football players] because they know they play football, but they still have to go through situations."
Peters avoided many of those issues precisely because of his family environment. Though his parents didn't stay together -- he lived with his mother -- he still spent plenty of time with his father, who was the head coach at McClymonds, and grandmother. In fact, Michael was holding a practice one day when Marcus was a toddler sitting in a stroller. The next thing Michael knew, he looked over and saw his baby boy cautiously walking across the weathered grass along the sidelines.
"He just took off to keep up with the other kids," Michael said.
That desire to follow the older crowd led Marcus into football when he was 6 years old. He finally convinced his father to enroll him when they stopped at a local McDonald's one day, and Marcus kept pleading for the opportunity. Michael eventually signed his youngest son up for a league filled with boys who were at least two years older. Marcus also took swimming classes, spent his Friday nights as a ball boy at his father's high school games and devoted most of his remaining time to hanging out at his grandmother's house.
It was a small universe, but one that offered a valuable sanctuary in a rough area. Howard said Peters benefitted from a multitude of people looking out for him -- "Marcus had a lot of people to talk with him, because it takes a lot to raise a child," she said -- and Peters nurtured his competitive spirit by playing with so many older kids. He spent many afternoons telling other children that he was destined to play in the NFL someday. The difference between him and most everyone else his age is that he truly was committed to that vision.
Howard -- who is Peters' paternal grandmother -- even said her grandson loved watching game film when he was a little boy: "He wasn't a kid that watched cartoons. It was always a game." Added Peters: "I was always probably three or four years younger than everybody else. So even if we were going to the basketball courts or playing football, I was always the youngest person, and I just knew that I could play with them."
That confidence helped Peters become a star recruit for his father at McClymonds. He actually spent his final two years of high school living with his grandmother, so he could be closer to school and help her with her fight against cancer. Peters kept a constant eye on Howard during that time, whether that meant lifting her out of bed or lying down beside her to sleep.
"[Marcus and his father] would get back here around seven or eight o'clock at night and make sure that I had my dinner," Howard said. "Marcus would put me in my bed, and I always had one of them in the bed with me, making sure I got up or got to the bathroom. It was a difficult time for him."
"Seeing her in that pain made me think that we always have to have this house as our backbone," Peters said. "If you need a place to come sleep, if you need a hot meal, if you need anything, I wanted to be able to provide that. That s--- was scary to see."
Peters seemed well on his way to realizing that dream when he accepted a scholarship to Washington in 2011 (even though Michael was so consumed with preparing recruiting tapes for others players that he initially forgot to create one for Marcus). He intercepted eight passes over his first two seasons and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors as a redshirt sophomore. But when head coach Steve Sarkisian took a job at USC and Washington hired Chris Petersen away from Boise State in December 2013, everything changed. Suddenly, Peters became a major disciplinary problem in his junior year, one who didn't know how to control his emotions.
Included among his transgressions were: a suspension for the first quarter of the Fight Hunger Bowl in 2013 (interim head coach Marques Tuiasosopo levied that one prior to Petersen's arrival); a one-game suspension by Petersen after Peters head-butted an Eastern Washington receiver and threw a sideline tantrum; and a first-quarter benching against Stanford for showing up late to team meetings. By November 2014, Petersen had so tired of Peters that he dismissed him from the team. As the coach told local reporters, "When you feel like it just can't work, you gotta do what you've gotta do."
Peters admitted that his problems had plenty to do with Sarkisian being more tolerant and Petersen being a strict disciplinarian -- "That was me having an attitude," he said -- but the hardest part was telling his family.
"I didn't want to make that phone call," he said. "You know how you talk to your mom or your dad and they tell you how they see stuff coming, but they wanted you to go through it and figure it out for yourself because it's your life? That's all I was told when I told my pops and moms. [They said] they saw it coming."
Peters still remained confident enough to believe his on-field success at Washington would lead to him being selected in the 2015 NFL Draft. After his dismissal, he returned to Oakland to train, help his father with his high school team and spend time with his son, Carson (who was born just a couple weeks before Peters' college career ended). Peters wound up meeting with several teams prior to the draft, but the Chiefs continually displayed the most interest. They enlisted 20 different staff members in vetting Peters, and owner Clark Hunt also had a conversation with the young prospect.
In the end, Peters had a strong vibe about the franchise -- "I felt love when I talked to everybody who was in the Chiefs organization, like I was wanted around that facility," he said -- and the Kansas City decision makers felt the same about him.
"I know his college coach (Petersen) real well, so he explained to me what went on, and Marcus did, as well," Reid said. "[General manager] John Dorsey and [director of football operations] Chris Ballard did a great job of going out, meeting his family and going through the area where he grew up and learning what he's all about. And then we felt comfortable. He loves football. He's high-strung, but he loves the game."