TAMPA — He has been called every nasty name in the book. Death threats arrive via Facebook and Twitter. Even his parents are the subject of the public's vitriol.
Almost two months after winning this season's reality show Bachelor Pad, in which Nick Peterson walked away with $250,000 after he chose not to split the prize with his partner, Peterson continues to receive backlash from the viewing public.
Peterson, a personal trainer from South Tampa, shrugs it off and laughs with his friends and family. They support his decision to renege on an agreement to split the pot with partner Rachel Truehart and say he's not the greedy jerk people think he is.
"I know it's not true," his mother, Laurie Peterson, said in a phone interview. "Nick is funny, he's charming. He is always very positive, always upbeat. He's never negative, never moody. He's just a joy."
His best friend, Shane O'Neil, said Nick is "one of the nicest people I know."
"He's a genuinely good-hearted person," said O'Neil, who met Peterson more than a decade ago when they both attended Jesuit High School. "He would give you the shirt off his back."
Despite receiving hundreds of negative messages a day through social media, Nick Peterson's interactions with fans in Tampa Bay have been supportive, he said.
Even while visiting his grandmother in an assisted living facility in Palm Harbor recently, he was recognized by other residents' family members — and they told him he did the right thing.
"It was a game," said Nick Peterson, who recently celebrated his 28th birthday at Koto Japanese Steak House in Hyde Park. "I felt like I made the best move. I have reasons for doing what I did. I think I played with my head. I was smart. People forget that. It was a smart move."
In Bachelor Pad, contestants plucked from previous The Bachelor and Bachelorette seasons team up in an elimination-style, two-hour game show to compete for dates and a final cash prize of $250,000. The final two must come to a secret decision to either keep the money or share it. If they choose to share, they split it. If they disagree, the one who chooses to keep the money goes home with the pot.
Peterson, who appeared in Season 7 of The Bachelorette, teamed up with Truehart after both of their original partners were eliminated.
After filming the first seven episodes, and before the winners were revealed, contestants were allowed to fly home.
The Petersons picked up their son from the airport and stopped for a bite to eat. Over Subway sandwiches, Nick described every contestant.
"Nick never said anything bad about the cast members," Laurie Peterson said.
They asked their son if he and Truehart planned to split the money if they were to make it to the final round.
"Oh, we're definitely going to share," Laurie Peterson recalled her son saying. "We were like, 'Okay, good.' "
The Petersons — Tim Peterson works for Delta Airlines; Laurie Peterson works for Publix — flew out for the finale and sat in the audience.
"When (Nick) came out and started his little speech, my husband was like, 'Uh-oh. This doesn't sound like what we were expecting,' " Laurie Peterson said. "We were shocked."
The Petersons learned later that the finalists were sent to separate hotel rooms and shown the final two episodes. In them, Truehart complains bitterly about wanting to leave the contest to be with her original partner and how she didn't want to partner up with Peterson.
Laurie Peterson said she supports her son's decision, and thinking back, she's also not surprised by it.
Nick Peterson, an only child, is a fierce competitor.
He played baseball growing up, and it consumed him: first for Northside Little League, then at Jesuit High School, followed by stints at Appalachian State and the University of Tampa. He also played professional baseball in the minor leagues with the New York Yankees organization.
"All those years being a pitcher made him very mentally strong," Laurie Peterson said. "He's had people spit at him and throw cans at him, just pitching a baseball game."
Yet he always kept his composure, always wanted to control the game.
Perhaps that's why he stayed under the radar during Bachelor Pad and emerged as the surprise winner, his mother said.
"I feel terrible that it ended with hurt feelings," she said. "But like I said, Nick's very competitive. They didn't know that. They kind of underestimated what he was capable of."
Peterson, who lives in an efficiency apartment in South Tampa and drives a Ford Explorer with more than 200,000 miles on it, has promised his parents he will be smart with his money. He's going to invest most of it and maybe move to a place with a bedroom.
He will continue to go line dancing at the Dallas Bull while running his personal training business and pursuing a career in front of the camera.
Laurie Peterson said she's not worried about her son doing reality TV because she's proud of the man her son has become.
Before Nick flew out to Los Angeles, his mother had admonished him: "Don't embarrass yourself, your family or the Lord."
And he didn't.
"We always said if we weren't able to have more kids, at least God blessed us with a good one," she said. "He's a really great kid. We are his biggest fans."