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Unwavering faith helped Nathan Peterman overcome five-interception nightmare

The one thing Nathan Peterman loathes talking about is the one thing he can’t escape.

To the casual NFL observer, Peterman is known for one thing and one thing only. Five interceptions on 14 passes. That’s what he managed in his first career start last November for the Buffalo Bills against the Los Angeles Chargers – a performance that can safely be called one of the worst in history.

“Nathan Peterman stinks worse than anyone has stunk before,” read a headline on Barstool Sports before the game was even over.

“Nathan Peterman was a very avoidable disaster,” headlined an article on the sports website Deadspin the day after the game.

Those two outlets aren’t known for their compassion or restraint, but compared to some of the other comments on social media, those headlines were actually tame.

“I understand. If I was a fan, and that's all I'd seen,” Peterman said this week, his voice trailing off, “then that's all you've seen. It's not their fault. I definitely know that I'm more than that, and hopefully I'll get a chance to show that.”

The Bills have given him that this summer. Peterman is in the thick of a three-way competition for the team’s starting quarterback job, with fifth-year veteran AJ McCarron and rookie first-round draft pick Josh Allen. Peterman and McCarron have been rotating daily with the starters, with Allen also receiving some work with the first unit.

Of the three, it’s fair to call Peterman the underdog. Allen arrived via the seventh overall pick. McCarron has four years of NFL experience backing up Andy Dalton in Cincinnati.

Peterman, 24, knows most people are counting him out. He’s used to it. On the first day of training camp, he recalled the first time he played organized football in fourth grade, when the coach wouldn’t let him play quarterback.

“I was playing center and linebacker at the time,” Peterman said. “They put every first-year kid there. I'd come home every day crying to my dad: ‘I want to be a quarterback.’

“I finally got my shot the next year. Looking back at that and looking back at some other things that have happened in my life, God's had me in that underdog role for some reason. I believe he uses that role in a pretty special way throughout history, so I believe I've got to keep staying the course.”

An unwavering faith 

Peterman’s father, Chuck, started the Creekside Christian Church out of the family’s home in suburban Jacksonville, Fla., on Mother’s Day in 2002. Today, it’s grown to have a regular crowd of about 1,100 parishioners at its location on 92 Lifespring Way.

Faith, then, is the backbone of the Peterman family.

“Absolutely. That's foundational to who I am, the kind of decisions I've made,” Peterman said. “That affects every part of my life, definitely believing that God has a purpose and a plan for everything. It's hard to do at times. There's doubt. There are questions all the time, but to be able to trust ultimately that there's a purpose for it, is really what I've been leaning on.”

What would be the purpose of a five-interception nightmare in his first professional start? Peterman’s still not sure, joking that he plans to ask God that very question one day.

“I think I've grown so much as a person, as a player. Failure is the greatest teacher, I think,” he said. “Even as a person this offseason, I feel like I've gotten a lot deeper in my faith. I've had some similar experiences to this before, and that's the biggest thing is just getting closer to God and always being fully dependent on him.”

Ever the optimist, Nathan Peterman looking for positives after a trying rookie year

Peterman earned a scholarship to Tennessee as one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country. His first career start with the Volunteers, however, was eerily similar to last year’s disaster. He completed 4 of 11 passes for just 5 yards and threw two interceptions in Week 4 of the 2013 season against Florida, breaking his hand in the game for good measure.

“It was a long road, I know, for him to get through that, even with his faith,” Peterman’s older brother, Aaron, said. “He wrestled with his faith for at least another two years from that happening."

Watching last year at home in Tampa, where he works as a youth minister, Aaron Peterman had déjà vu.

“I had to turn it off after that last interception by the Chargers,” he said. “I had a very sick feeling, very similar to the feeling I had watching the Tennessee-Florida game from 2013. Some of the things the announcers said were the exact same things the announcers said in that game. It was very much like déjà vu.”

Nathan Peterman, however, had a very different feeling: One of peace.

“The ball bounces the wrong way sometimes,” he said. “That's football, and that's life. Just take those things in stride. For me, it's about knowing where my identity is, too. It wasn't necessarily in that game -- if I played well, if I played bad. My identity is a child of God. That's my outlook on life.”

‘A born fighter’

Nathan Peterman was born with a collapsed lung and broken collarbone. He spent the first week of his life in a neonatal intensive care unit. Doctors cautioned his parents, Chuck and Dana, that he might not survive.

Those doctors underestimated who they were dealing with.

“There's something deep within him that says, 'Keep getting up and keep charging forward' ” Chuck Peterman said. “We saw that in that game. We've seen it pretty much all his life. He pops right back up and goes right back at it.”

Chuck Peterman loves telling a story from Peterman’s second year of Pop Warner football. Finally given the chance to play quarterback, his son ran a draw and was hit hard by the safety. After picking himself up and returning to the huddle, the coach signaled for Peterman to call his own play.

“He called the same play and ran right back at the kid,” Chuck Peterman said. “Nate was always one that had a deep burning in his heart and mind that he could win. It didn't matter if he was playing guys who were 5 years older than him. God has given him a fire, a will to survive and win.”

Peterman’s time at Tennessee wasn’t a success on the field. He threw just 43 passes over two seasons, completing 20 of them for 94 yards. Off the field was a different story. Peterman graduated in just three years, and met his future wife, Morgan.

He transferred to Pitt for his final two years of college eligibility, winning the starting job as a senior. In two years with the Panthers, he completed 61 percent of his passes for 5,142 yards, 47 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He went on the road as a senior in 2016 and beat Clemson, the eventual national champion, throwing for 308 yards and five touchdowns in a 43-42 victory.

Thought by some to be worthy of a Day 2 draft pick, Peterman instead lasted until the fifth round. Again, he was the underdog.

“Things happen the way they do,” he said. “It's confusing sometimes. Faith is definitely believing what you don't see and that's what I’ve always done.”

Getting the call

Coach Sean McDermott dropped a bombshell when he announced that Tyrod Taylor was going to be benched for Peterman before the Bills headed to Los Angeles. The team was coming off back-to-back brutal losses to the Jets and Saints, prompting the change.

Peterman was thrown right into the fire, having to make a cross-country flight and go up against two of the premier pass rushers in the NFL in the Chargers’ Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.

It’s easy to forget because of what happened later, but the game started strong for Peterman. He completed a nice slant to Kelvin Benjamin on one of his first throws, but the team’s No. 1 receiver suffered a knee injury on the play. Facing a third down near midfield, Peterman had his third pass of the game bounce off fullback Patrick DiMarco’s hands right to the Chargers’ Korey Toomer, who returned it 59 yards for a touchdown.

“It’s the same for any NFL quarterback, but for me, obviously I wanted to go out and start well,” Peterman said. “There were good things and bad things in that game, but it just snowballed.”

How Nathan Peterman put his nightmare rookie season behind him

By the time the Bills got to the locker room, they were trailing, 37-7. McDermott mercifully replaced Peterman with Taylor for the second half of a game the Chargers would go on to win, 54-24. Peterman finished the game 6 of 14 for 66 yards and a 17.9 quarterback rating. Before they left the losing locker room inside the StubHub Center, team chaplain Len Vanden Bos sought out Peterman.

“I learn as much from Nate as he learns from me,” Vanden Bos said. “He’s very grounded. Grounded in his faith, wise beyond his years, for sure. I think the key for Nate is his identity is not in football. His identity is in his relationship with God. His identity is as a man and husband. Because he has that identity, he's able to withstand any storm that comes his way. Any obstacle he faces, it's just one more opportunity for him to grow.”

This loss won’t define you, Vanden Bos told Peterman in the locker room, but it will be a part of your story.

“As that unfolds in the NFL, and I think it will be a long career, I think that start will be an integral part,” Vanden Bos said. "He's going to be able to use that and say, 'Look where I started.' ... It's going to be amazing. I said that to him before we even left Los Angeles. He embraces that, and he knows that, but he needed to be reminded.

“His perspective on life is what gets him through. To have that start not go the way he or anybody wanted it to go was a tough pill to swallow, but what I've seen out of him time and time again is his resolve. He just gets up and attacks the next challenge.”

'Steady Eddie' every day

That would come in Week 14 – during a blizzard. With Taylor out of the lineup because of a knee injury, Peterman got the start against the Indianapolis Colts at New Era Field. About an hour before kickoff, it started snowing. It never stopped.

The box score shows Peterman finishing 5 of 10 for 57 yards, but that doesn’t come close to providing a true reflection of his performance. Late in the second quarter, he connected with Benjamin on a 21-yard completion down the sideline on a third-and-7 play. That got the Bills in scoring range, and the two hooked up again on an 8-yard touchdown reception just 27 seconds before halftime.

Early in the third quarter, however, Peterman got knocked out of the game when he took a knee to the head, resulting in a concussion.

“Afterward, it was kind of like, ‘Wow, that was crazy,’ but before the game, it was, 'Hey, there's nothing that's going to stop me.’ We could play in this parking lot, we could play anywhere, and we're going to get a win,” he said of the conditions. “That was my mentality before the game. It didn't end the way I wanted it to personally, but it did end the way we wanted to as a team, so that was special, just to get that win and continue in the playoff race.”

Before the Bills headed out on their summer vacation, McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane were asked if Peterman got enough credit for the job he did in that game against the Colts. In unison, they both shook their head no.

“Nobody talks about that,” Beane said. “He made a great throw to Kelvin to get us the lead before half, which proved super important after they scored late. … He's super smart. He's not going to tell you how good he is or how smart he is. He's just steady Eddie every day and you love how he approaches the game. I know Sean's been there more than me, but even I've stopped in there a couple times when (offensive coordinator Brian) Daboll's had those guys in there and they're writing stuff on the board. He's playing Jeopardy with them. He's trying to just see what they know, and Nathan is really, really smart."

Peterman’s next chance to play came in the playoff game against Jacksonville after Taylor suffered a concussion on the team’s final drive. Peterman drove the Bills into Jaguars’ territory before being intercepted by cornerback Jalen Ramsey, ending any hopes of a comeback.

“That's something coach McDermott and I talked about after the season: ‘Name me another rookie quarterback that has gone through all that you've gone through.' It's certainly trial by fire, but I think I've learned so much from it,” Peterman said. “Careers don't always, I guess, start super great. Our whole team mantra is to have a continuous improvement. I definitely feel like that's where I'm headed.”

Peterman impressed during the spring, with some observers feeling like he had a slight edge in the quarterback completion. The start of training camp has narrowed that gap, but with four preseason games still to be played, it’s far too soon to make any definitive statements about who the starter will be. One thing is clear – Peterman is squarely in the mix.

“He's a winner and I understand that happened, I acknowledge that, but that doesn't define someone. One game never defines someone, right?” McDermott said. “So the guy's a winner. … You hope over the course of time that that'll come out, but his whole approach is what you want."

Peterman spent time this offseason in California training at 3DQB, the biomechanics facility founded by Tom House, a former Major League pitcher who has mentored other quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Peterman focused on his mechanics during those workouts. Just as important, though, was tweaking his mental approach.

“Not putting everything on yourself, but realizing, ‘Hey, this is a relationship here, a team game and we've all got to work together to accomplish the goal we've set,’ ” he said.

“That's what's got Nathan this far,” Aaron Peterman said. “A lot of guys can get caught up in a game like he had and say ‘that's my identity. I'm moody because of it.’ It goes back to our faith. That's our rock. That's where we derive our peace, where we derive our confidence and our freedom.”

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