Cody Peterson’s rise in football at Navy took two years of patience, recovering from surgeries, and switching sides of the ball.
Peterson, a 2010 Black Hills High School graduate, for a time was a player without a home position. A fullback? No. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, he didn’t fit the frame. Outside linebacker? Not quite. Inside linebacker? Bingo.
After two seasons marred by injuries and adjusting from offense to defense, Peterson was a cornerstone of the Midshipmen’s defense in 2012 as a junior — a season filled with everything from playing No. 1-ranked Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland, to helping Navy win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, to playing in a bowl game televised on ESPN. It’s a journey Peterson described as “rewarding.”
“I had no idea I would be here at this point,” Peterson said.
It didn’t take long for Peterson, a junior, to emerge as a key linebacker with his size and speed in the interior, but getting there did. His first two seasons in Annapolis, Md., came with injuries – a meniscus tear in his right knee as a freshman on the scout team, followed by left shoulder injury that ended his sophomore season after four games – that led to surgery.
Peterson was frustrated, but not discouraged.
“You can work so hard for something and an injury can end it,” he said. “It’s been rewarding the hard work is finally starting to pay off.”
Accustomed to offense, Peterson was recruited as a fullback out of Black Hills. He rushed for a school-record 2,138 yards on 320 carries and scored 23 touchdowns as a senior in 2009, helping the Wolves reach the 2A state playoffs, losing a 14-7 decision to eventual state champion Lynden.
But Peterson’s frame didn’t fit the mold for an NCAA Division I fullback; the Navy coaches saw him fitting best at linebacker, first at outside, then inside. Peterson said he was told by teammates, “If they move you somewhere, they think you can be successful there.”
“I had a feeling I didn’t fit the mold for the fullbacks,” he said.
As the team’s largest linebacker, Peterson earned his first start in early October against the Air force Academy, a game the Midshipmen won, 28-21 in overtime. Peterson had 10 tackles.
That performance persuaded the coaching staff to make Peterson a starter for the rest of the season. In 13 games, including eight straight starts, Peterson was credited with 67 tackles, sixth-best on the team. He also had a season-best 14 tackles in a 17-13 victory over Army on Dec. 8, giving Navy the Commander in Chief’s Trophy for the seventh time since 2004.
Peterson describes the inside linebacker position as similar to being a running back, making for an easier-than-expected transition.
“I love it,” Peterson said of playing inside linebacker. “You sit back there and play downhill and hit the gap. Having a running back mindset helped me learn how to pick up inside linebacker.”
At 1-3 after early season losses to future No. 1-ranked Notre Dame, Penn State and San Jose State, Navy’s turnaround came in the overtime win over Air Force. The Midshipmen won seven of the their final eight regular-season games to earn a second straight trip to a bowl game.
Despite his team’s 62-28 loss to Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at San Francisco’s AT&T Park on Dec. 29, Peterson had a memorable week-long experience. About 20 friends and family members made the trek from the Olympia area for the game. The players and coaches enjoyed the sights of San Francisco, including a tour of Alcatraz, and were showered in gifts from the bowl sponsor.
Peterson was in Olympia last week for holiday break and traveled back to the Naval Academy’s campus Sunday.
He found time to stop by Black Hills, where he spoke to the football players. His high school coach, Jack Zilla, had a 14-year career in the Navy.
“Service academy kids are special kids,” Zilla said. “They’re smart, and they play hard.”
An English major, Peterson’s interest is in aviation and he plans to be a Marine Corp pilot.
Graduates of the United States Naval Academy must serve a minimum of five years in the Navy or Marine Corps, while pilots must serve at least eight years.
While he remains an undergraduate, Peterson has found his position in football and hopes to avoid injuries while he grows into one of the leaders on the team.
“It’s been a journey,” Peterson said. “... I’m living out my dream of playing Division I football.”Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 firstname.lastname@example.org theolympian.com/southsoundsports