“Why would God turn my biggest dream into my worst nightmare?”
Those were the words Nathan Peterman uttered to his family.
For Bills fans, they’re probably thinking those words came to the young quarterback following his five-interception performance in his first career NFL start against the Los Angeles Chargers.
There was another first for Peterman that truly tested every fiber of his faith four years earlier.
As a redshirt freshman at Tennessee, Peterman inherited the right to start from head coach Butch Jones with junior QB Justin Worley injured the week prior. He didn’t find out until he boarded the plane for the team’s flight down to Gainesville to face Florida.
Despite the late notice, 26 family members from his Jacksonville-based family were driving to the game that Saturday.
It looked like it was all falling into place for Peterman. His first start against a team he had watched growing up, with his family in the stands to watch.
Unfortunately, it all came crashing down quickly. Peterman was just 4-for-11 passing for five yards and two interceptions before he broke the thumb on his throwing hand that would require surgery.
Backed by family
Nathan’s older brother Aaron, was living in south Knoxville with his wife after they had both finished up school at Johnson University. While it was comforting to know that Nate would have his brother close by, their mother flew up to Knoxville for her son’s surgery. Nate’s oldest brother Ryan also made the trip. Everyone was there for his surgery Monday.
“It was just great family support,” said Aaron. “Ryan went to class with him and wrote notes for him. We were all there in the waiting room for his surgery on Monday. Right in the waiting room before the surgery was when he said those words. That’s when he said my biggest dream turned into my worst nightmare. That’s what rocked Nate’s faith because he felt his dream was falling apart.
“That’s where he wrestled out his relationship with God. Nate got through that wrestle and now literally no matter what happens he’s not going to be shaken.”
“He has a fire that just cannot be extinguished. I think a lot of it comes from what voice he’s listening to. All of us are listening to a voice. Whether it’s believing in ourselves, other people or the one true voice.” Aaron Peterman, Nathan's older brother
Built by family
The son of a minister, Nathan Peterman has always had a close relationship with God. His father, Chuck, founded Creekside Christian Church outside of Jacksonville. For Peterman, his father’s advice comes through the spirit by which they live.
“That’s who we are, and I don’t think you have to be a pastor to do that either,” Peterman said. “That’s just our whole life. I don’t think there’s a separation between the world and the Christian world. We see the world through that lens. Every talk we have I count myself lucky to have that great advice from him that I know is coming from the best advice ever written on Earth. I’m so thankful for my dad I can’t even put it into words.”
Peterman was also shaped by his older brothers, mainly middle brother Aaron, who hardened him no matter which sport they were playing.
“It was throwing me down on the basketball court, slamming stuff in my face,” said Peterman with a smirk. “If we were playing video games and I beat him he’d get mad. So, all of it kept me strong. Right up to the beginning of high school is when he stopped.”
The summer following Aaron’s senior year of high school just before Nate was to enter his sophomore year as their high school’s starting quarterback, they were playing another physical two-on-two basketball game with some neighborhood kids. Aaron as usual was guarding Nate and roughing him up.
“He’d frustrate me to a point and I would take some cheap shots when he’d shoot,” Aaron admitted.
But then it happened.
“He shot a jumper and I pushed him in mid-air while he was shooting. It was a full out shove and there’s no way he should’ve made the shot. But he kind of rolled with the punches through the years and figured out how to make the shots no matter how hard I attacked him.
“I attacked him pretty hard and he hit the three pointer. I was like, ‘Wow. He shut me up. I’m done.’ You get to the point where it’s pointless. I couldn’t stop him anymore. So, I’m like, ‘Have at it man.’ It was the last aggressive game we ever had.”
“That served me well my entire life,” Nathan said of his older brother’s beat downs. “That’s the world right there, competition, especially the football world. I can’t say how much that helped to mold me as a kid to expect competition and I enjoy it. That’s when you get your best and for every situation in football it has been helpful for me.”
He heard you
Heading into Peterman’s sophomore season at Tennessee, his thumb had healed and again he and fellow underclassman Josh Dobbs were still backing up now senior QB Justin Worley. But when Worley was injured against Ole Miss, head coach Butch Jones told Peterman and Dobbs they’d both be playing the next week at Alabama.
Peterman was the backup, but now there would be a platoon system going forward. Again, things weren’t unfolding the way he anticipated. After praying on it, Peterman felt God was pushing him in a new direction.
He decided that he if he did transfer, he wanted to play in the ACC. Surprisingly, the man who recruited him to Tennessee just two years earlier, had just been let go at Arkansas and accepted a job at Pitt as an offensive assistant. Jim Chaney traveled to Knoxville and the fit just seemed right.
“We knew God was in control of that,” said his brother Aaron, now a youth minister at Heritage Christian Church in Peachtree City, Georgia. “What are the odds that the coach who recruited Nate to Tennessee would end up coaching in the ACC right when Nathan was looking to transfer?”
Peterman would eventually take over the starting job at Pitt. Come his senior season, the nightmare of his first college start would come full circle.
Facing No. 2 Clemson in Death Valley would be the biggest game of the year for Pitt. No one gave Peterman and the Panthers a chance. Clemson had won 21 straight home games. Odds makers had the Tigers as a 20.5-point favorite.
Nate’s two older brothers and his mom were seated in end zone seats for the game. Prior to the game however, Aaron was circling the stadium in prayer for his brother.
“I was just praying because that was a long three years of fighting back to accomplish his goals,” said Aaron. “In that fourth quarter, I’ve got Psalm 23 and Psalm 61 going through my head. Just trusting God and it’s going neck and neck, back and forth.
“Then they get to a point where DeShaun Watson is leading this drive down to the 10-yard line. And the clock is ticking down, and I remember feeling so upset. Like wow, here it is again where they get so close and it’s going to be taken away from them again. But then the next play DeShaun throws an interception and it gets returned for 70 yards and we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ That moment was when it hit me. I knew that Pitt would win the game.”
Peterman would have to lead a late drive into field goal range as Pitt still trailed by two (42-40) with under a minute remaining. A 21-yard pass to TE Scott Orndorff got the Panthers close enough for Chris Blewitt to hit a game-winning 48-yard field goal with six seconds remaining.
The final stat line for Peterman in the upset win, 22-for-37 passing for 308 yards and five touchdowns.
“We jumped the field at Clemson and tried to find him and that was just a great experience when we found him,” said Aaron. “I told him, ‘He heard you. He heard you. Tell the world.’ For us it was a whole journey of God’s faithfulness. That I see you, I care about the desires that are in your heart. You stayed faithful to me even though the circumstances were really bad. That’s again why you can’t capture Nathan without understanding his devotion to God and the faithfulness that plays out from that.”
“Even as a kid I’ve always had a competitive fire in me, a competitive spirit. It’s part of my personality and how God made me. That’s why I think it’s served me well through all my experiences, from the basketball court with my brother to all the competitions I’ve been through.” Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman
Inner peace and competitive fire
That validation was all Peterman would need going forward. No matter the obstacle, setback or struggle, the quarterback was ready to shoulder it, knowing whose plan he was following.
That’s why when his first career start went horribly wrong against the Chargers, Peterman wasn’t doubting his faith. He was relying on it.
“He just had a peace about him,” said Aaron, who called him after the game was over. A game he himself couldn’t finish watching. “Nate said, ‘I’ve done this before. God is in control. I know I can fight back.’ So, it’s weird how it all panned out so similarly. The story I think could be said from all this when it comes down to it for me is the voice that he’s listening to.”
Peterman’s father has often said that God put a fire in Nathan. A competitive will that is unrelenting.
“He has a fire that just cannot be extinguished,” said Aaron of Nathan. “I think a lot of it comes from what voice he’s listening to. All of us are listening to a voice. Whether it’s believing in ourselves, other people or the one true voice.”
“God has allowed all these situations to happen to me,” said Peterman. “Even as a kid I’ve always had a competitive fire in me, a competitive spirit. It’s part of my personality and how God made me. That’s why I think it’s served me well through all my experiences, from the basketball court with my brother to all the competitions I’ve been through.”
Including the one he is a part of now.