Ted Petersen loves chickens. The former NFL offensive lineman who played on two Super Bowl teams with the Pittsburgh Steelers has about 20 of them, five cows, and a few pigs on his farm located 50 miles south of Chicago. The house isn’t far from where he grew up and played high school football, before eventually attending Eastern Illinois on a football scholarship.
“I always wanted to come back to this,” Petersen said recently, now an athletic director for Kankakee Community College in Kankakee, Il.
At a time when the media blitzes the public with tales of former NFL players in financial strife, burdened by mental instability and physical ailments, Petersen, now 58, finds himself decidedly content in comparison. His job has allowed him the to give back to the community, teaching young athletes the values they’ll need in life. And living on a farm provides solace for this former man of the trenches.
The fraternal bond
When Petersen was drafted in 1977, he joined a solid squad that would lose in the playoffs to the eventual AFC champion Denver Broncos. This Steelers team had a handful of Hall of Famers and NFL legends—household names like Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris. Steve Sabol built an empire on their names, while the ’77 Broncos roster reads like picking names at random from a phonebook.
Petersen may have walked into locker room full of titans, but what he discovered was an immediate connection with many of these men that stretched well beyond football. He opened himself to the Christian faith and its principles, connecting with like-minded teammates. The bond has endured for 30 years and he fondly reflects on the friendships which blossomed over his nine-year career, having spent eight with Pittsburgh and half a season each with the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns.
“I don’t have any specific stories,” he said about his playing days. “When it’s all said and done, you think about the people and events that impacted your life and the friendships and what it was like to be part of two Super Bowl teams.”
With nearly 18,000 former players, to call yourself a retired NFL player is to belong to a unique group of individuals. Petersen explained that the longer a player stays in the league, the more they begin to feel connected to the sport and their peers. The “group dynamic” of offensive lineman garners in a completely separate subset.
And it’s the friendships that he values most. He stressed that he wouldn’t want to play in today’s game for this reason alone, despite the price tags current players garner. The popularity of the game isn’t shocking to him, since he understands the appeal firsthand. What is shocking, he said, is the amount of money involved. The average salary of an NFL player in today’s game is nearly $2 million. The ’78 Super Bowl team Petersen played on had a total salary of $2.5 million.
After the glory days
Petersen doesn’t want to get hung up on talking about the glory days. He admitted that he enjoys reminiscing, but there’s more to life. He has a son, Samuel, and he and his wife, Marian, have plenty to do on the farm.
They haven’t discouraged their son from playing football, though it would seem he might be more inclined to play baseball. Marian has three nephews who have proven proficient at the sport. Petersen explained that he knows nothing about baseball and he finds himself learning as he goes. Both his other boys from a previous marriage, Teddy and Garrett, did enjoy playing football.
Petersen himself didn’t start playing until he was 15 years old, but the 6’5″ 230-pounder took to it easily. He would have likely given up the game had he not been given a scholarship.
“My parents worked too hard to have to pay my way,” he said.
His father was a farmer and truck driver. Drawing from his father’s tutelage, Petersen has little trouble managing his small farm. Beyond the art of growing and raising your own food, Petersen said, he believes people take what they are eating for granted. Food security is not far from his mind and the process is yet one more skill he can pass to his son. He stressed that he loves spending time outdoors, often lamenting the time the modern world requires us to spend in front of a computer.
“I can’t say I watch a lot of football. Sitting in front of the television doesn’t set a good example for my son.”
The elephant in the room
He might be all but removed from the game, but it’s never far from his mind.
“I had a couple small ones [concussions]. But nothing drastic. I can remember the lights going out a couple times,” Petersen said, candidly speaking about head trauma and concussions.
In a recent Washington Post story entitled “Retired NFL players endure a lifetime of hurt,” nine out of 10 former players surveyed reported having at least one concussion, while six in 10 reported having three or more.
Petersen explained that they were taught to lead with their heads first. When he adds up the toll on his head, the numbers begin to worry him. Forty to 50 times of helmet-to-helmet contact in a given practice, compounded every Sunday for 17 weeks, multiplied by the nine years in the NFL could equal a potentially brutal cumulative effect.
But Petersen said he hasn’t experienced headaches, though he often wonders what it might be like when he is 70. Unlike the nearly 5,000 concussion plaintiffs, however, he believes the NFL is headed in the right direction, from the techniques they are teaching to the safety they’re promoting.
He stressed that despite what he knows now he wouldn’t change a thing if he had it to do over again.
“I have no regrets. I would never change when I played or who I played with,” Petersen said.