Mike Peterson has a passion and love for the Sunshine State. Peterson was a star athlete at Santa Fe High School in Alachua, Fla., right outside Gainesville, where he led the school to a state championship before developing into an elite linebacker at the University of Florida. He currently serves as the leader of the Jacksonville Jaguars defense.
Success has been a way of life for the nine-year NFL veteran, but he has not forgotten his roots. He remembers growing up in Alachua and not having the opportunity to meet any professional athletes or attend sports camps that cost more money than his parents could afford. He decided to do something about it.
Peterson started the Mike Peterson Foundation in 2005 to benefit underserved youth and socio-economically challenged families in his hometown and his NFL community of Jacksonville. He hopes to create a legacy by one day building a community center in the Alachua area just outside of Gainesville.
The foundation has been involved in numerous programs since its inception with the a Back to School Backpack distribution event, a Thanksgiving Holiday Food Drive and a Holiday Party for children at Alachua Elementary.
"When we first got it started, I let them know I was not in it for the money," Peterson said. "It's all about the kids. I am not trying to make a dime off the kids. I want to do things in my hometown and for the team I am playing for. I want to tie it in between Jacksonville and Gainesville."
Peterson is taking his charitable giving one step further next month as he is hosting the first annual Bring It Youth Football Camp on Friday, June 8 at Ribault Senior High School in Jacksonville. The camp is free of charge for boys and girls, ages 8-17. Numerous NFL players are scheduled to attend including Jaguars' Marcus Stroud, Byron Leftwich, John Henderson, Fred Taylor, Rashean Mathis, Greg Jones and Daryl Smith.
"It cuts out a lot of kids when it's not free," Peterson said. "That cut me out when I was a kid. I never went to a camp."
Space is limited to approximately 250 campers and each participant will receive a camp t-shirt and an autographed photo from Peterson. While football will be taught, Peterson is looking forward to also having the young children interact with his teammates and peers.
"We are going to take breaks from playing ball and just talk to them," Peterson said. "I want them to see a NFL player with their pants pulled up or a NFL player respecting an older woman with 'yes maam or no maam' in a lunch line. These kids see that and then they know how it's supposed to be.
"A lot of people get on these kids and criticize them, but they don't know. I was one of those kids. I didn't know. We want to show them the other side and they can see how it's supposed to be."
Peterson wants parents to know this is not your typical football camp. During the five hours of the camp, kids will get to know the players and be able to ask questions.
"Life skills are about just interacting with the kids," Peterson said. "It's not about putting the kids on one side of the field and the athletes on the other side. Athletes will be talking with the kids and eating lunch with them. That is life skills. They see us every day on Sundays, but they don't see us in everyday life."
The fun will not stop in Jacksonville as Peterson's foundation is hosting a Family Fun Day on June 2 at Skinner Field in Alachua with the City of Alachua and the St. Luke AMEC Women in Ministry. Kids will be involved in numerous activities including face painting, water dunk tank, three-legged races, sack races and numerous more games. Free lunch will be provided.
"Everything you can imagine a kid would want to do at a park," Peterson said.
For more information on the upcoming camp or event in Alachua call (800)717-0337 or visit www.mikepeterson54.com. Camp registration begins at 7:30 a.m. with camp running from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
"You hear about camps all the time about guys holding camps just to throw something out there," Peterson said. "Just something to put your name on. If it was up to me I wouldn't put my name behind it. This is for the kids."
More than 250 lucky children will be able experience it on June 8.