GAINESVILLE — Mike Peterson always envisioned himself coaching and earning his degree from the University of Florida when his NFL career was over.
The only difference between his dream and reality is that he didn't know he'd be doing both at the same time.
Peterson, the former Florida All-American and a 14-year NFL veteran linebacker, has returned to his alma mater to complete his degree and coach the Gators. The former Alachua Santa Fe High star is a new undergraduate assistant coach and will work while completing the two classes required for his sociology degree — fulfilling a promise he made to his parents.
"It's really, really different going back to school, but I'm excited about it," Peterson said Tuesday. "You have two dreams as a kid, not in any particular order, but: play professional sports and get a degree. I'm thrilled just to be able to accomplish the latter. Awfully excited. I think my parents and my grandparents, they may be even more excited than me. It's a dream to be able to get my degree before they leave this precious place."
Peterson, 37, a Gainesville native, played for the Gators from 1995-98, and in his senior season led UF and was second in the SEC with 127 tackles. He was a second-round selection of the Indianapolis Colts and also played for the Atlanta Falcons and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Peterson has 883 tackles in 196 games with 21 ½ sacks and 19 interceptions.
Florida coach Will Muschamp said Peterson's ties to UF, his professional experience, and the fact he's showing how much he values education, will be invaluable in his interaction with current players.
"You talk to anybody who coached Mike, we all talk about he was a coach on the field and he obviously was a really good player," Muschamp said. "But he was a guy that had a cerebral approach to the game and understanding why we did things, not just how to do it, but why. He has been great for our players."
Peterson, the son of a longtime Gainesville-area coach, said he has lived his father's motto — "hard work pays off." Former coach Tony Dungy and Falcons coach Mike Smith have also been huge influences.
"Coach Smith, he gave me a great opportunity because a lot of times in meetings he would let me run the meeting so I would actually have to get up there and explain the defense, explain the coverage," Peterson said. "So I'm comfortable in that role."
Peterson joined the staff though he has not officially retired from the NFL. He said he's glad to have made it out while still physically able to play with his 6- and 3-year-old sons, Michael and Gavin. Any temptation to give it one more shot would depend on timing.
"If they give me a call tonight, it may be a little different," Peterson said. "But if they give me a call a week from now, I'm a loyal guy, a committed guy, and right now, I've got a commitment to the team here. … I just want to make sure that door is closed all the way before I jump into something else."
While adding Peterson is great for Florida's young linebackers, Muschamp said it will also benefit new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin.
"With D.J. being a coordinator and being able to walk around a little bit more and see a little bit more of the practice, having Mike being able to be hands on with those guys is invaluable," he said. "He's doing a fabulous job. He's got a huge future in this profession."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]