clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Marcus Peters Confronts His Football Mortality

The Ravens cornerback missed all of last season with an ACL injury. While he was sidelined, he reflected on some contentious moments in his career, trying times in his personal life, and entering a new phase in his career.

Jay Torres

A few minutes after finishing a mid-November practice, Marcus Peters peeks his head into a field house attached to the Baltimore Ravens’ castle-like suburban training facility in search of a familiar face.

“Ayo!” he yells toward me, flinching his head in the direction he wants me to follow.

Peters is notoriously reluctant to do interviews, earning himself a reputation for reclusiveness that leaves some of his teammates awestruck by what’s transpiring.

“You doing media, Marcus?” one jokingly asks.

“Shut yo’ ass up,” Peters responds, chuckling.

I first met Peters during a tryout for a local youth football team in Oakland, where we both grew up. We’ve stayed in touch due to our similar paths in the sports landscape—me as a journalist, him as a professional football player.

I hadn’t seen Peters since August 2021, on a balcony of the Baltimore-area condo he shares with his wife, Jayla, and their two sons. The unit had all the fixings of a college dorm room. Open suitcases and boxes were strewn about the floor, ready to be unpacked; a flatscreen television sat in front of the fireplace, waiting to be mounted to the wall; an empty light fixture sat above the balcony. Peters and his family had moved into the condo only the previous week and were still unpacking.

Until very recently, the nomadic nature of Peters’s home would have been an apt metaphor for his football career. From his time at the University of Washington to when he entered the NFL in 2015, he hasn’t stayed in one place for long. He’s often found himself embroiled in confrontation or controversy, whether it be with his college head coach or his own team’s fan base. The Ravens are Peters’s third NFL team, and Baltimore has felt more like home than any of his previous stops. The items scattered about his house symbolized a new beginning.

“I’ve been growing like a mug, for me just as a man, as a person, as a human being, just spiritually, everything,” he told me that evening, looking out toward the Baltimore skyline. “When you look back on that journey you be like, ‘Damn, boy.’”

A month after my visit, Peters tore his ACL, ending his season before it began and bringing another opportunity for self-reflection. In the past year, his rehabilitation, a death in his family, and self-doubt have weighed heavily on him. Remnants of the stress accumulated during that time have left Peters, who is in the last year of his contract with Baltimore, wondering whether he can still play at the level the Ravens are accustomed to seeing. He’s had a few frustrated outbursts this season, including a verbal tiff with Ravens head coach John Harbaugh on the sideline during a game in early October. One month later, a defensive gaffe against New Orleans left many wondering what was going on with the former All-Pro.

When I meet Peters after practice, he’s eager to speak his piece. We walk down the sideline of the Ravens’ indoor practice field until we reach a door to the adjoining weight room. “Come on,” he commands, before finding two empty benches.

He’s spent a lot of time with his own thoughts. Now he wants to share them.

Carolina Panthers v Baltimore Ravens
Marcus Peters
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The morning of September 9, 2021, pinpoints the crossroads of Peters’s career.

“We was at practice. Binji [Victor] ran a deep seven, and we were doing a scramble drill with Snoop,” Peters recalls, referencing backup quarterback Tyler Huntley by his nickname. “Snoop had scrambled out, and Binji just tried to come back, and I just tried to plant, and I just stepped wrong, bro, and just went south from here.”

He felt a twitch in his knee, and team doctors would soon confirm the extent of the damage: a torn anterior cruciate ligament necessitating surgery and a year of rehab.

Disheveled, he went home.

“Soon as I got in the house, my son’s just asking me, ‘What’s wrong?’” he said. “My wife … she said she didn’t show me no emotion, but like she said she cried her butt off after I told her.”

Peters was about to endure the longest stretch of his life without the game.

His second-longest sabbatical happened following his freshman year at McClymonds High School in Oakland, when his failing grades (“my shit was a zero point zero”) forced his father, Michael, to send him to live with his mother, Doreen, 30 miles away, in Livermore.

But his new environment didn’t spur much scholastic improvement. On most days, Peters says he’d drop his little brother Brandon off at school and attend a class or two. Sometimes he’d go to Boomers, a local amusement center chain nearby, or just about anywhere else but school.

By the middle of the school year, his grandmother, Janice, had fallen ill. “She caught bone cancer and that shit was bad,” he says. “It was eating her up bad for a minute. And we used to make those trips home on the weekends, to go see her in the hospital.”

Janice, the matriarch of the family, was instrumental in Peters’s athletic ascent.

“My granny put me in swimming because my dad and my uncles, they was on the diving team,” Peters tells me.

“My granny took us to the pool. You didn’t know how to swim, she’d throw your ass in there and you was going to learn how to swim right there and then, and that’s how it happened. I learned how to swim and then the next week I was on the swim team.”

Peters eventually returned to McClymonds for his junior year to be closer to Janice. He got his grades in order, excelled on the football field, and earned a scholarship to Washington. But by the fall of 2021, shortly after his surgery to repair his knee, Janice’s health was again on the decline, bringing him back to Oakland.

“I had just got back to walking,” Peters says, “got the news, and it was like, ‘Alright, she in the hospital. She’s been in the hospital a couple days.’

“We kind of knew what’s up, so I went back home and wanted to spend my time with her before anything bad happened.”

A few weeks after Peters flew out to see her, Janice passed away. Then Peters had to figure out how to move forward with his rehabilitation.

“When I got back here to start that all over, that process all over again, it was just like, ‘Fuck. Man, this shit crazy to see.’ You’ll never know what people really be going through while they’re dealing with shit,” he says. “You know what I’m saying? Because I thought it was just going to be ... ‘I’ll rehab this leg. Shit going to get better,’ but then that shit hit me. Man, it just ... I wouldn’t say I went dark, bro, but I just stopped expressing myself so much about certain things and just held onto it.”

Back in Baltimore, Peters’s rehab process started slowly. “The hardest part is right after surgery, where you’re trying to get your range of motion back,” he says. “I did that for two or three weeks trying to just get my leg to bend … just bending it and going through that pain of trying to rip that scar tissue up and get your leg back moving so you can start back exercising, doing some things, so you can gain your strength back.

“Man, those was hard, man. I was coming into this mother crying like a motherfucker.”

Peters’s absence coincided with the worst Ravens season in five years. Their defense dropped to the lower end of the league standings, and the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

“I was mad as fuck,” Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson tells me. “I was like, ‘We need him’ because he’s that guy. But I feel like he was just willing to get better. He knew what it was and what his situation was. And he was telling us to just stay locked in.”

When difficult times arose in the past, Peters would escape to the field, where he was able to let out all his frustrations constructively. But now, he had to find another way to cope, and his mood began to change.

“For me, if I wanted to vent about something that was going on, I’d go do my thing on the field, and it can kind of block it away for that moment—but it was hard for me to block away because I couldn’t run,” Peters says. “I couldn’t walk. That shit was just hard … I ain’t going to lie. That’s the best thing I can say. It was just hard for me, bro.”

After a while, the game began to bring him back. A few months later, he began to jog. Then the small victories began to add up.

“It was in the water here, man,” he says, pointing over his shoulder to a cold tub in the distance. “You start getting proud of yourself. You see yourself working, and you’re like, ‘OK, all right.’” Eventually, the training staff pushed Peters to exert himself more, and Peters had to learn to trust his body again. “[The trainers are] like, ‘All right, well, tomorrow we’re going to run,’ and it’s like not really running, but it’s like, ‘We going to move your legs.’ Somebody who was able to be gifted to do whatever you wanted with them for a long ... For as many years as I was, man, and then to have my leg taken away from me and not be able to do some of the things I was able to do, and then have to start back over with it.

“I think that shit was just the happiest day because it’s like, ‘All right. We only going to get better from here.’”

He returned to training camp this summer, ready for another run at a Super Bowl, having conquered a yearlong battle with himself.

“It was just like, ‘OK, all this shit going to add up, and then I’m going to just be back on the field,’” he says. “It’s going to come together, man. Yep.”

Buffalo Bills v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

When Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott called a timeout with three seconds left in the fourth quarter to get his field goal unit on the field to seal an eventual 23-20 road win over the Ravens last month, Peters headed toward the sideline in disgust.

Cameras caught an intense exchange between Peters and head coach John Harbaugh. The argument, which required two coaches to restrain Peters, stemmed from Harbaugh’s decision on the previous possession to—unsuccessfully—go for it on fourth down on the 2-yard line, instead of kicking a field goal to give Baltimore a 23-20 lead.

The scene was reminiscent of similar instances littered throughout Peters’s first few years in the league. And it was the latest iteration of the defensive back’s complicated relationship with his emotions.

As a child in West Oakland, Peters would leave his grandmother’s house on Chestnut Street and venture to McClymonds High School, where his father, Michael, was the head coach of the Warriors football team. “He was right in the mix from day one, man,” Michael tells me. “I used to bring him in the stroller, and shit. And they used to sit out here and play all day.” By age 8, Marcus was participating in drills during varsity practices, helping his father draw up coverages on the grease board, and interrupting film sessions to call out run fits.

“He liked to learn,” Michael says. “When we had coaches meetings, he was right there.” But his eagerness occasionally drew the ire of coaches. “When we did chalk talk, he would answer all the goddamn questions. We used to have to tell him, ‘Shut the fuck up. Let the kids answer the questions.’”

Off the field, Marcus was never far behind his older brother, Michael Jr., better known as “Tank” in the neighborhood. Hanging out with Tank, three years Marcus’s senior, meant earning approval from an older crowd. “He used to always be fighting and crying all the damn time,” Marcus’s childhood coach Alonzo Carter remembers. “When he didn’t get his way, he’d either try to fight you or he’d be over there crying.”

That emotional dynamic has been a consistent presence in Peters’s career and it has periodically put him in contentious situations. Peters clashed with Chris Petersen, his head coach at Washington for Peters’s junior season. He was eventually kicked off the team. In the NFL, his early success was often followed by controversy. While a member of the Chiefs, he threw a penalty flag into the stands in protest of a defensive holding call during a road game against the Jets, then walked off the field when he was flagged for the toss. All the while, he became the league’s biggest enigma.

“I think he was just misunderstood in a lot of ways,” says Ravens linebacker Justin Houston, who spent three seasons as Peters’s teammate in Kansas City. “I think sometimes he didn’t do a good job of telling people his point of view. Because he’s so passionate and emotional about the game. He really loves this game and this game mean everything to him. Sometimes he get caught up into it. So he speak from a different point of view than most people will understand, you know what I’m saying? So when he controls his emotion and if you talk one-on-one with football, you’ll see he’s a guru.”

When Peters first arrived at the Ravens facility in 2019 after Baltimore acquired him via a trade with the Rams, he was aware of his reputation in the league, and had a message for Harbaugh.

“He said, ‘Hey, just tell me what you want from me,’” Harbaugh recalls. “‘Tell me what you want me to do. That’s all I need to know. If I know what’s expected of me, I’ll always be good.’ And if there’s ever a time that he doesn’t know or he’s not sure, he’ll ask or he’ll just say, ‘What do you want?’”

“I told all of them … ‘I’m here to find a place to be,’” Peters adds. “And what y’all need me to do? Just let me know, and I’ll get it done the best of my ability. You feel me? If we can’t ... If I ain’t getting it done to the T of what you guys want, let’s talk about it, find ways to where we can adjust, and we can get it done that sort of work for both of us.”

A few days later, in his first game as a Ravens player, he picked off Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, returning the interception for a score. In the past few years, he’s provided similar highlights in Baltimore, helping the Ravens routinely stay atop the league’s defensive standings, and earned a three-year, $42 million extension from the team in 2019.

Along the way, he became the team’s elder statesman. When young defensive backs need reassurance, he’s there to provide a lesson. “He’s the guy in the DB room and even in the defensive room when things start going awry, he gets everybody back on the same page,” rookie safety Kyle Hamilton tells me. “When we’re maybe a little unfocused, he focuses back up and he’s a great vet in that way and gets everybody on the same page.”

And in a locker room with many players who were in grade school when Peters was drafted, he’s become a respected voice on the team.

“He a real individual, you know he gon’ keep it real,” Jackson tells me. “That’s what you want. I consider him an OG because he’s been in the league and he’s smart as fuck, he knows what he’s doing when he’s out there on that field. He’s one in a million at that cornerback position. A lot of respect from me, fasho.”

Still, Peters has had hiccups this season. Like last month, when the Ravens were up 27-6 on the Saints before Peters whiffed on a strip attempt on tight end Juwan Johnson instead of tackling him, essentially helping Johnson score because Peters’s teammates gave up on the play, assuming he had forced Johnson out of bounds. “The New Orleans play on the sidelines, could I push him a little bit harder and make sure he got out of bounds? Hell yeah,” Peters admits. “Did I make the mistake by trying to strip him and make a play on the ball? Yeah, but we were up by a lot of points, and I was trying to make a play. It looked bad regardless of what the fuck we was trying to do. … The shit looked bad.”

The play prompted widespread criticism from around the league, including from Jackson, who confronted Peters following the play. And by the end of the conversation, differences were settled.

“Everybody had some words to say, and everybody said their words,” Peters says. “I mean, for me, they all came to me. It was just like, ‘Bro, just chill out. We got this shit. Don’t trip, bro.’”

As for his discussion with Harbaugh in Buffalo, Peters says he was promoting the same mantra of accountability to his coach. He wanted the defense to shoulder the responsibility of securing a win so it didn’t fall on Jackson and the offense. “I think the biggest thing for us as a team is that I hate the fact that we get looked at as Lamar and the Ravens,” he says.

“I love the shit out of Lamar … I love the shit out of him, man, and I just hate that,” he says, taking a deep breath. “I hate that that much pressure can be on one person, man, and the rest of the team. Just sometimes you get caught looking from the outside in, but no. I let him know all the time, man, ‘We out there with you.’ We got to play our part at that point of time in-game, man. It was our duty to go stop [them]. I wanted that to be on us.”

A few weeks after the exchange, Harbaugh speaks of his star corner in glowing terms.

“I just appreciate somebody that’s passionate and cares,” Harbaugh tells me. “He’s very genuine, I guess is the best thing I could say. Nobody is perfect. We all got flaws. I look at myself. You have moments that you look back and you go, maybe I could have handled it better, but he’s always a fighter. He’s always going to be fighting. He’s always going to compete and he always wants to be successful. He cares about the people around him very, very much and that’s the thing. I’m a little older than he is, so sometimes I can talk to him and just say, ‘Hey dude, calm down, we’re OK.’ But sometimes he comes to me and says, ‘Calm down, we’re OK.’”

Two weeks after the Bills game, the Ravens played the Giants on the road. In the third quarter, the Ravens offense was in field goal range on fourth down with a chance to take the lead before halftime. Harbaugh turned to Peters on the sideline.

“Hey, yo,” Peters said Harbaugh yelled toward him and Houston. “What y’all want to do?”

“I just said, ‘Man, you the coach, man. Make the decision,’” Peters said. “‘We gon’ ride with you.’”

A few minutes and a made field goal later, the Ravens took a 13-7 lead.

“Me and Justin looked at each other,” Peters says, laughing. “Like, ‘Man, you know?’ I can ride with somebody like that because it’s like I know what that means.

“Like, ‘Motherfucker, if we do it again, I better not hear that shit.’”

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

For much of his life, Peters has been sure of his greatness, a confidence that has followed him throughout his NFL career.

During one practice in 2020, then-rookie receiver James Proche was matched up against Peters in a passing drill. “I had a comeback, I was on the outside,” Proche recalls. “And I’m about to break, but I’m thinking I’m beating him deep already.”

Except Peters already knew the route Proche was running and occupied the space Proche was about to run toward, erasing any chance of the rookie getting the ball.

“I was just like, ‘Bro, how did you know?’” he said. “And he was like, ‘You can only run this amount of routes from this split and this, this, and that.’ He broke it down to a science. So it was just cool to see. You hear about it growing up, but to be teammates with him and go against him in practice every day and actually feel that presence, it’s impressive.”

But 11 games into the 2022 season, a few months removed from his return, Peters is still figuring out his place.

“I’m stuck in this situation of I’m second-guessing myself,” he tells me. “I circle the right answer every time, and then I go back, and erase it, and double-check it to see if I got the right answer.”

“For me, I just know I got more, so it’s just kind of ... I don’t know. Self-doubt is realer than a bitch.”

Highlights from his season would suggest he still has plenty to offer. Against Tampa Bay earlier this month, Peters’s play helped the Ravens seal the team’s biggest win of the year.

If he had it his way, Peters would be the don of the Ravens’ DB corps beyond this season.

“I want to stay,” he says. “I think that it’ll be the best thing for me to end up here. So I wouldn’t go nowhere else, but I ain’t tripping. I’m really trying to just focus on winning this year, bro, and I’m going to take the offseason as it comes. If we get some things done, and it works out for both sides, then I’m going to knock it out.”

He says he’s felt the sense of community he was hoping to foster in past stops.

“I just think they just respect me as Marcus Peters,” he says. “We know what we hear about him, but the dude we run into every day ain’t that. You know what I’m saying? They rock with that all day, every day, and they know once we all ... I think pretty much everybody know once we hit the field, man, what type of situation they getting from me, and I think they love it, man. They say it fits the Raven way.”

Baltimore, like Peters, has had an up-and-down season, but both are hoping to get on track for the season’s homestretch. Three days after we speak, the Ravens beat the Panthers 13-3, aided by Peters, who forced a fumble in the fourth quarter to set up a late touchdown drive led by Jackson.That win pushed the team’s streak to four, and though they’d drop their next game to Jacksonville to fall to 7-4, they remain atop a competitive AFC North. Peters sees a high ceiling for the Ravens.

“Super Bowl,” he says.

“We going to keep getting better,” he says. “We going to keep getting healthier, first and foremost. We going to ask and hope that God can keep us safe so we don’t have no more injuries, and we going not be straight, bro. I like our shot. Real shit. I want us to keep stacking.”

But for now, it’s time for team business. About 30 minutes after ducking into the weight room to talk, Peters is informed by a team official that a defensive meeting is starting in five minutes, which will be followed by a team dinner. It’s time to prepare for another Sunday, and another opportunity to get out of his head.

Higher Learning

Arresting Donald Trump and the NFL’s History of Blackballing


The Dark History of the NFL’s Original Racial Sins

Extra Point Taken

Dolphins Are Winning the Offseason, Raiders and Broncos Fans Should Be Cautious, and Predicting Division Winners

View all stories in NFL