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Bucky Gleason: Peterman's competitive spirit suited for challenges facing Bills

Chuck Peterman knew what was coming long before his son broke the huddle and shuffled under center. On the previous snap, Nate Peterman had been flattened by a safety on a quarterback keeper. After regaining his feet, his coach hollered from the sideline for him to call his own play.

Sure enough …

"He called the exact same play, and he went right after that kid," Chuck Peterman said with a hearty laugh last week. "I knew he was going to do that."

Never mind that Nate was only 9 years old at the time and a first-year quarterback on a Pop Warner team in suburban Jacksonville, Fla. The decision explained all you needed to know about a kid born with a calcified chip on his shoulder and a relentless competitive spirit. It hasn't changed literally since he left the womb.

Peterman entered the world with a collapsed lung and broken collarbone and spent a week in the neonatal intensive care unit. Doctors weren't sure he was going to survive the first few days. Even in his infancy, he proved the most resilient of the three Peterman boys.

The runt often takes the brunt from brothers, and he was knocked down more times than he could count during his youth. No matter how many times Chuck pinned him on the family room floor as a toddler or older brother Aaron sent him to the pavement in pickup basketball games, Peterman came back for more.

And that's what he did in Pop Warner. He shook off the tackle like numerous others at home, called the same play, lowered his shoulder and settled the score.

"That kind of shows you who he is," Chuck Peterman said. "So long as there's daylight, he's going to keep fighting. He has that inborn competitiveness, temperament, whatever you want to call it. He has a deep fire burning down there in the furnace, where he says, 'I'm going to keep coming at you so long as I can stand.' "

Peterman was standing in front of his locker stall after practice last week counting the ways he regained his feet. It hardly began that day in youth football. He nearly walked away from the sport because his coach refused to give him a shot at quarterback and insisted he play offensive line and linebacker.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman throws during practice on Sept. 4, 2017. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

The former basketball point guard grew up with an appreciation for getting the ball into his teammates' hands. He was a natural leader and an extension of his coach who saw the entire floor, qualities that translated to playing quarterback. And to think that gift would have been wasted if his career ended before it started.

Given an opportunity, he poured himself into football and became one of the best schoolboy quarterbacks in the nation. He earned a full scholarship to Tennessee, where his career stalled. His future in football was uncertain after he transferred to Pitt and initially failed to earn the starting job.

He was picked later than he expected in the NFL draft when the Bills took him in the fifth round, 171st overall and the eighth quarterback selected, while inferior players celebrated before him. He had come to embrace the doubters and obstructionists, convinced they made him mentally tougher and a better person overall.

Deeply religious, he never lost faith.

He simply kept coming.

"Even from the start, when nobody wanted me to play quarterback as a kid, I feel like people have been telling me that I can't do something," Peterman said. "Adversity, in football and in the game of life, you keep getting these adverse situations. It just made me stronger, helped me learn a lot and to keep pushing through things."

Many wondered if he would fade into obscurity after losing the starting job at Tennessee in 2013. He completed 4 of 11 passes and threw two interceptions with a torn tendon in his thumb against Florida in his first college start, a performance that left him devastated. He completed 20 of 43 passes for 94 measly yards over two miserable seasons with the Vols, but to say he wasted his time would be would be grossly inaccurate.

Peterman is an intelligent guy with his priorities in order. He earned his degree in three years, which included a redshirt year, and met his future wife. He matured and left with a thicker backbone. He earned his master's degree in business administration at Pitt, making the most of his two seasons with the Panthers.

"I had people who thought I was going to quit after one bad game at Tennessee," he said. "That wasn't me at all. I battled back. The next season, I was ready to play and things just didn't work out. Things happen. It's football. For me, it was always about battling back and trying to get that opportunity."

Peterman blossomed on the field at Pittsburgh, completing 61 percent of his passes for 5,142 yards, 47 touchdowns and 15 interceptions over his two seasons under two offensive coordinators. He torched Clemson, the eventual national champs, for 308 yards and five touchdowns last season in a 43-42 upset victory on the road.

Nathan Peterman of the Pittsburgh Panthers reacts after throwing a touchdown against the Clemson Tigers on November 12, 2016. (Getty Images)

"I don't know if Nate would be in this position today if he only had success in college and didn't face such adversity," Aaron Peterman said. "It changed his whole perspective and where his mind was. … God has set him up for this. He really will not think that there's a game that's too big for him."

If Peterman was looking for adversity, he came to the right place. The Bills have missed the playoffs for 17 straight seasons while playing one flawed quarterback after another. They took a flier on him hoping – praying – the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder could develop into an NFL passer as they plod through another rebuild.

It's easy to root for am unpretentious guy like Peterman with his upbeat personality and quiet confidence. His was raised in a devout Christian household by parents who met while attending Cincinnati Bible College. His mother, Dana, is from Nashville. His father grew up in Conneautville, Pa., about 40 miles southwest of Erie.

"Browns fans sat on one side of the church," Chuck said, "Steelers fans on the other."

Chuck, a diehard Steelers fan in the 1970s, is a pastor of a church the family started out of their home in Jacksonville. Thirteen years later, they have more than 1,000 parishioners. Aaron, 26, is a youth minister in the Tampa area. Oldest brother Ryan, 29, works for Citibank in their hometown.

Nate Peterman is mature beyond his 23 years. He has been married to the former Morgan Shull for more than a year. The two met in 2012 and were college sweethearts at Tennessee. As a kid, when his parents asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, Peterman said he wished to be a father and a football player.

"It was instilled in me as a young kid, to be disciplined. I had goals for what I wanted to do when I was growing up," Peterman said. "I found the right woman. It was pretty special and easy for me to settle down with her. She's definitely the right one."

Good soul, Nate Peterman. The chip on his shoulder that he frequently references, hardened by his brothers, is reserved for football. Bills fans will come to appreciate his self-assured but humble personality the way they did Frank Reich back in the day. Time will tell whether he can become a starting NFL quarterback or dependable backup.

The early returns were promising, especially after Peterman completed 9 of 11 passes for 81 yards in the preseason finale against the Lions, but Bills fans shouldn't get too excited. Peterman isn't expected to become the next Tom Brady, who was taken in the sixth round in 1999. He has thrown the same number of NFL passes as Marcia Brady.

Still, the door is open. Tyrod Taylor played poorly in the first two preseason games, suffered a concussion in the third and missed the fourth. Cowboys star Dak Prescott was an unknown fourth-round pick last season before Tony Romo was injured. If Prescott can unseat Romo, Peterman is capable of taking over for Taylor.

"He knows that he has to do his part, and his part is going 120 percent until the door slams completely shut," Chuck Peterman said. "In the past, the crack in the door has allowed him to keep pushing and fighting."

Taylor's problem since he arrived has been getting the ball out on time and using the entire field. His biggest advantage over Peterman is experience. Peterman has good vision, pocket presence and poise. He has played well under the circumstances, but he didn't exactly light up the '85 Bears during in the preseason.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman warms up prior to playing the Detroit Lions in the preseason finale. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

In his first three exhibitions, Peterman completed 50 percent of his passes for 372 yards and one touchdown. He had two passes batted down, and another four dropped, while playing against Baltimore's aggressive first-team defense. He threw mostly short passes in all four games, raising questions about his arm strength.

The Bills have had quarterbacks with strong arms who amounted to nothing. The lasting image of EJ Manual throwing one pass into the hospitality tent at St. John Fisher. Cardale Jones could throw the ball through a wall, but he wasn't sure which wall he would hit.

"Looking at Nate, I really don't think a prerequisite for the job is having crazy arm strength," guard Richie Incognito said. "It's about timing, accuracy, rhythm, knowing where the ball is going to go. There have been guys in this league that could throw it over a mountain, but they didn't know who was open. He has all the things needed. To see him develop and grow into this offense is going to be fun to watch."

First, Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane need an extended look. Taylor isn’t the long-term answer, so the Bills should consider weaning Taylor from the starting role during the season, grooming Peterman in practice and gradually devoting more time to the rookie over the course of the regular season.

Taylor's play, the Bills' record and Peterman's development will determine playing time. By the looks of things, the Bills aren't headed for the playoffs. They'll eventually need to find out what Peterman can do under game conditions. Rest assured he's going to keep coming, keep fighting and keep competing. He has never backed down from a challenge.

He's not about to start now.

"I count that as a positive all the way," he said. "There's a lot of good players in the NFL, and there's a lot of tough situations. A football is not round. It's oval-shaped, and it bounces different ways. When those things happen – and they're going to happen, I'm sure – I'm going to be ready to bounce back."

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