Ben Peterson stands 5-foot-9. With his cleats on. Maybe. His weight is listed at 175, 10 pounds fewer than anyone else on the offense.
But Saturday, don’t be surprised if Peterson runs out as Air Force’s starting slot receiver. And if he looks like an unlikely Division I football starter, well, that’s part of what brought him here. See, he’s used to punching up in weight class.
“It’s chasing after something you’re never going to hit,” said Peterson, of his constant competition with older brother, Arne, at their Washington home. “You’re never going to be better than your brother when he’s 3 years older than you growing up, but you’re going to dang well try.”
Anybody who competed against Peterson in high school would scoff at a portrait of him as an underdog.
As a senior he ran for 568 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 8 yards per carry. He also caught 25 passes for 436 yards and six scores. He played quarterback on occasion, returned kicks, served as the place kicker and even lined up at guard for one play.
Donald Hammond III has again won the Air Force starting quarterback job behind a multifaceted skill set.
“By the way, the Squalicum program said Peterson owns a 4.0 grade point average,” wrote a report from the Whidbey News-Times after Peterson did a little bit of everything in leading his team past the News-Times’ local team in a midseason matchup of unbeaten teams in 2016. “Also, Peterson was crowned Homecoming King at halftime. That’s an MVP.”
Air Force latched onto him through offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen, a native of Northern California who recruits the Pacific Northwest.
“The movement part flashed at us,” Thiessen recalled. “Then you get to know the kid and you find out he’s an Air Force Falcon through and through. … A service academy kid, that’s Ben Peterson.”
Peterson said he didn’t know the Air Force Academy existed before Thiessen arrived at his school with a sales pitch. He came to camp and was sold.
“It was the best choice for football, academics and develop as a person as well,” said Peterson, who had several Ivy League offers and has civil engineering as a backup plan if his quest to fly in the Air Force doesn’t pan out. “I wanted to challenge myself. I didn’t want to take the easy route. I wanted to do something hard. This seemed like it was the hardest thing I could do.”
Virtually all of Air Force’s skill position players have a similar background. Most put up dominant numbers in high school. Most had an academic profile that attracted prestigious schools. But among that crop, Peterson has hoisted himself into position to start at slot receiver.
“Everything that kid does, he just trains himself to be good,” receivers coach Ari Confessor said. “He’s the epitome of the player you want to coach. … I know he’s not the tallest, not the fastest, but he works his butt off to put himself in position to be successful. I love coaching those kids. If I had 200 of those kids, it would be easy.”
Added quarterback Donald Hammond III, “He goes 110 percent no matter what we’re doing, even walkthroughs. Weight room, classroom and on the field especially. He goes on the scout special teams even when they don’t ask him to and he runs down the field 100 miles an hour.”
Peterson, a junior, was listed as a starter in Air Force’s depth chart released after spring practice, but the assumption was that sophomore Brandon Lewis would overtake him. Lewis runs a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash, while Peterson is in the 4.5s, and Lewis logged time at slot receiver last year as a freshman while Peterson’s experience came on special teams.
But Lewis is no longer in good standing as a cadet, meaning he is ineligible to play for an undetermined amount of time – potentially the entire season. The spot now looks to be shared by Peterson and senior Ben Waters, who shares a similarly unlikely journey to this point. Waters is listed as a starter on the Game 1 depth chart, but Peterson has held that spot in most practices.
In evaluating his situation, Peterson can’t help but think the competitiveness in his house played a huge factor. But no one succeeds at the academy without a whole-person approach, and for that he points to his youngest brother, Danny, who has Downs Syndrome.
“He definitely puts things in perspective for me, gives me the humanity,” Peterson said of Danny, who will make his first trip to Air Force on Saturday for Parents Weekend and see the 1:30 p.m. opener against Colgate. “But he gives me the competition, too. He loves to wrestle with us and play sports and do the same things. He always wants to do what his big brothers do.
“You’ll never meet a dude with a bigger heart than him. He’s never met a stranger, never met someone he didn’t like. He gives me inspiration of just the right way to live.”