MANKATO – It’s not often an NFL player gets to the end of an autograph line, notices one more person who hasn’t even asked for a signature and says, “Hi there, do you want me to sign something?”
A guy named Brian Peters did that Thursday as the Vikings broke camp at Minnesota State Mankato.
He is an undersized linebacker on a team that probably will keep six linebackers not named Brian Peters. He’s 26 years old and yet this is his first NFL training camp. The former CFLer is your typical NFL long shot, and he doesn’t care that none of us gives him much of a chance to survive two NFL cutdown days.
“I didn’t pack a parachute,” Peters said when asked what his Plan B is for this fall.
The Vikings have been known to uncover a long shot or two in their history. Only 16 Pro Football Hall of Famers were undrafted rookies. Two of them — Mick Tingelhoff and John Randle — were originally signed by the Vikings.
Peters won’t be a Hall of Famer. But he’d settle for being the next Heath Farwell, an undersized linebacker who went from undrafted rookie to Pro Bowl special teamer with the Vikings to Super Bowl champion with Seattle.
“Being here is so surreal,” Peters said. “But at the same time, I know I can play at this level. Hope is a strong motivator for the path I’m on.”
The Vikings have a few other NFL long shots working quietly under the radar this summer. Cornerback Jalil Carter spent the past three years in the CFL. Defensive end Leon Mackey won Arena Bowl XXVII as a member of the Arizona Rattlers last year. Defensive end Caesar Rayford spent the past two years in the AFL and CFL. And offensive tackle Babatunde Aiyegbusi played last season in the German Football League and 2013 in the Polish American Football League.
“We’ve always been proactive in making sure that we’re aware of anyone who is playing anywhere,” said Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, himself an undersized linebacker who went to training camp with the Chargers in 1987 and the Lions in 1988. “Even in the Arena League and places like that.”
Peters played four years at Northwestern, earning All-Big Ten honors in the classroom and on the field as a 215-pound safety.
“Then I had a couple rookie minicamp tryouts,” Peters said. “Tampa Bay brought me in as a safety and ended up moving me to linebacker. But I was this 6-3, skinny little thing trying to play linebacker. They didn’t want me.”
He went to Bears rookie minicamp a week later. They weren’t interested either. But the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena League were.
“I played this ‘jack’ linebacker position,” Peters said. “It’s like backyard football. You just run this way and crush somebody into the boards and then go that way and crush somebody into the boards. That was fun.”
After three weeks in the AFL, Peters had a tryout with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League.
“They took me to camp, but then they released me,” Peters said. “And then the league folded a week later anyway.”
Peters had an agent who was steering him away from the CFL because of its two-year commitment policy.
“I fired that guy and went to Saskatchewan’s practice squad [in 2013],” Peters said.
The Roughriders activated him for their final 11 games. In the Grey Cup game, he had five special teams tackles to help Saskatchewan win the title.
Last year, as a regular starter, he became the fifth player in CFL history and first Roughrider to lead his team in defensive tackles and special teams tackles in the same season.
With a bigger field and only three downs, the CFL’s aggressive passing style also was a good teaching ground for the now-bigger linebacker/special teamer.
Peters, an Ohio native, made his NFL preseason debut Sunday night in the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, just a few miles from where his parents went to high school and his grandparents owned a bowling alley.
He had an interception but missed two tackles.
“I had butterflies; it was awesome,” he said. “I’m still only 234 pounds, so I have to work on my pad level. But I know I can tackle and I think I’ll get there. I have a long laundry list of things to do, but I’m going to knock them off one by one.”