The 49ers are heading to Super Bowl LIV with three former Gophers as central figures in the team’s reconfigured efforts to break a string of injury-ravaged seasons in which San Francisco went 17-47 from 2015 to last season.
Plymouth native Ben Peterson, in what’s believed to be a unique title and job description among NFL teams, was hired last February as head of player health and performance, overseeing athletic training, functional performance, nutrition and strength and conditioning.
Dustin Perry, who recommended Peterson to General Manager John Lynch, was promoted to head strength coach. And then Shea Thompson was hired away from the Bengals to be Perry’s assistant.
“All three of those guys were at the University of Minnesota in 2012-13,” said Cal Dietz, head strength coach of the Gophers hockey teams. “Ben was my intern while working on his PhD. Dustin and Shea were working as strength coaches for the football team. They must be doing something right out there.”
After going 4-12 with the fourth-highest number of games lost to injury (105) a year ago, the 49ers enjoyed good health during their 8-0 start. Injuries did mount during the 5-3 finish, but things improved in time for the 49ers to wallop the Vikings and Packers with a postseason pair of 17-point shiners en route to Sunday’s matchup with Kansas City.
Peterson wasn’t looking for an NFL job when Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan lured him from the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers 11 months ago. But, in their opinion, he was the ideal candidate for a newly created position that would bring multiple departments together under one person.
“Teams typically draw lines between departments,” said Dietz, who’s also an Olympics strength coach and a decorated speaker in his field. “It’s usually, ‘We do this. You do that.’ Ben looks at all the data and makes them work together.”
Peterson, a 2003 graduate of Robbinsdale Armstrong, was a 6-7, 310-pound offensive tackle for one season at Northwestern.
“He was practicing one day and had just finished his block,” said Peterson’s dad, Wayne, a pastor who 35 years ago founded St. Barnabas Lutheran Church in Plymouth. “He was getting up when Noah Herron, the running back who went on to play for the Packers, caught Ben on the side of helmet with his knee.”
The first concussion of Peterson’s career was enough to end it. But Peterson stayed on as a student assistant the next three years.
In 2009, he worked as a strength coach for the Twins’ Class A team in Beloit. Then he went to the University of Minnesota to get his master’s degree and Ph.D. in kinesiology.
“We wrote a book together,” said Dietz, referring to the book “Triphasic Training: A systemic approach to elite speed and explosive strength performances.”
“I had the concept for the book for 10-12 years, but I can’t write. Ben’s writing skills were off the charts. When I explained my system, Ben picked it up faster than anybody. I handed him a bunch of my bar napkins and grease board photos, and he produced a book.”
Peterson got a job in sales with Catapult Sports, a world leader in GPS tracking systems designed to improve athletic performance.
“Ben’s Ph.D. dissertation was something to do with oxygen levels and hockey players,” Wayne said. “He knew his stuff. The Philadelphia Flyers were one of the first teams in the United States to buy from Catapult. The Flyers created a position called ‘director of sports science’ and hired Ben.”
Wayne laughs and mentions his daughter-in-law, the former Michelle Maunu.
“The irony is Ben gets a job with an NHL club even though he’s never played hockey in his life,” Wayne said. “And his wife was the captain of the Gophers hockey team.”
It wasn’t long before the 49ers became interested in the advancements in sports science in general and Peterson in particular.
“Ben’s ability to look at data and create stuff is pretty impressive,” Dietz said.
“It might sound crazy, but he sees things that can’t be seen,” Dietz said. “It’s the things that don’t appear in the data, the human part of this, that he can see and make better decisions on for what a player needs that particular day. It sounds a little bit mystical, but it’s things that others can’t see.”