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Kansas City Chiefs' Cornerback Marcus Peters Is A Paradox

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Courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs' Marcus Peters has drawn criticism for not standing for the national anthem this season, but he's also drawn praise for his work with kids and teens.

Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters is a paradox. He’s a lightning rod for attention because of his refusal to stand for the national anthem and his in-game emotional outbursts. But Peters also seems to reject a lot of attention.

Around a year ago outside Ruskin High School, former assistant principal Torrence Allen kept an eye out for Marcus Peters, who didn’t want anyone to know he was coming to watch the Golden Eagles football game that night.

“I’m riding around and looking for a fancy vehicle or some sort. Something that would scream, ‘A Chiefs player’s here!’” recalls Allen. “Lo and behold, it wasn’t what I thought. He slipped in under the radar in a pretty beat-up used car that didn’t scream, ‘Hey, a Chiefs player is driving this!’”

His low-key approach contradicts the Marcus Peters who once told his high school assistant principal he’d like to be a TV commentator after his football career.

In front of a microphone lately, Peters is often evasive and not shy about firing off expletives, even after a good play like the key fumble he forced in the win against Washington. “That made my game go from hella weak to weak. I ain’t hella weak. I’m just weak this week,” Peters told local sports reporter Darren Smith after the Oct. 2 game on Monday Night Football. “Next week I’ll get back on my (expletive) though.”

Before Ruskin took the field that night, Peters addressed the team. A year later, Ruskin senior Shakespeare Williams remembers the message, “He was basically saying he came from this kind of environment and you’ve got to keep working hard. Don’t always dwell on everything. You’ve got to just keep working and stay positive as much as you can.”

Credit Greg Echlin / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
McClymonds football takes place on the high school campus in the neighborhood of West Oakland.

Peters grew up in Oakland, California and graduated from McClymonds High, a school with a long history in social activism. Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali once spoke at the same function at McClymonds with Black Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton in the crowd.

“Starting with the Black Panthers, that whole legacy and the history that’s behind that here, it’s still entrenched here,” said Cleveland McKinney, the assistant principal at McClymonds.

The Panther lineage runs through Marcus Peters’s family. His uncle, David Hilliard, was the Black Panthers Chief of Staff. Michael Peters, Marcus’s father and the head football coach at McClymonds, says some of that family history has rubbed off on his son, “Marcus got family on his mom’s side that was Panthers, so he’s actually seen a lot of that. That’s what’s instilled in all of us around here. We want the best for everybody and for everybody to be treated fairly.”

Credit Greg Echlin / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Michael Peters is the father of Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters. He's the head football coach at McClymonds High School in Oakland, which is 7-0 so far this season.

McKinney’s second-floor office overlooks an open area called the “Plaza of Peace.” A mural is displayed on one of the school walls facing the Plaza of Peace with painted messages such as “power to the people” and “anti-violence” in a mélange of colors.

McKinney says Peters follows the school tradition of activism. “He is a pro-active thinker,” says McKinney. “His passion for things, whenever you’re passionate for things, sometimes people can take that the wrong way. But his intent is really good.”

The most dazzling contribution by Marcus Peters is a free carnival in the spring with the theme of “It Takes A Village.”

From his office, McKinney points out the layout and says, “If you can envision, that’s the cafeteria right there. Over here? In front of that was multiple food venues and it was all free. Hamburgers, hot dogs, onion rings, slushies, Icees. All kinds of carnival foods.”

The carnival, which cost $50,000 each year to produce, has exploded in popularity though publicity has been by only word-of-mouth and social media.

Around 5,000 people show up in the compact plaza area from 10 in the morning until nine at night. How fun did it get? Imagine Marcus Peters himself, the trash-talking NFL corner, sitting in a dunk tank. “He did,” confirms McKinney with a laugh. “He actually did sit in the dunk tank. I saw him get dunked a couple times."

Credit Greg Echlin / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
A mural on one of the school buildings reflects the history of social activism at McClymonds High School.

So when the Chiefs played in Oakland last week, there were fans of Peters who wore his red number 22 jersey among the crowd dominated by silver and black. But Peters had some rough moments in the game like the unnecessary roughness call against him when he put a hit on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.

The Chiefs lost a heartbreaker, 31-30, and Peters quickly ducked out of the locker room.

Back in South Kansas City at Ruskin, Torrence Allen has heard all the stories about Peters. But after talking to Peters that night on the high school football field, Allen concludes, “We live in a world that’s very strong of opinion, but I think you always need to read the book rather than just judge it by the cover.”

Allen hopes that more people do that with Marcus Peters, even if Peters prefers that certain chapters remain unread.

Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.

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