They slide into a booth and order their beers, preparing to watch the Kansas City Chiefs at the sports bar inside a casino.
Then someone brings it up. Someone always brings it up.
As this Thursday evening begins, the Chiefs are 5-1 — one of the NFL’s best teams and perhaps the AFC’s most intriguing Super Bowl contender. But around here, there’s no meatier — or more divisive — topic than Marcus Peters, the team’s controversial and talented cornerback, and what should be done about him.
Peters doesn’t just protest during the national anthem before games; he has raised his fist or sat on a stationary bike. He doesn’t just sneer at coaches and disagreeable fans; he openly berates them. Peters uses profanity in interviews, has talked about going to get “loaded” after a bad game and is often vague and combative with reporters.
“I'm black and I love being black,” he said last year when asked to explain his reasons for protesting, and indeed during a season in which some players’ off-field expressions have clashed with fans’ allegiances to their on-field efforts, Peters is something of a cultural experiment here in Middle America: one that has occasionally pitted a player against his own team’s fans, individualism against traditional values.
“If it was me,” longtime Chiefs fan Dan Joy says, “I’d have a one-on-one, spend a day with him. He’s worth that. After that I’d sit him out a half a game.”
Sean Schuler, among the dozens at Winning Streaks wearing a red jersey but one of the few in Peters’s No. 22, snaps his head toward Joy.
“Sitting him out hurts the team!” Schuler says.
“That would be step two,” Joy says, reminding his friend a discussion would come first.
John Stoner, another fan at the table, nods.
“Progressive discipline,” he says, looking around the bar for someone. “Where’s Merf?”
Peters is one of the best defensive players on one of the NFL’s best teams. He tied for the league lead with eight interceptions in 2015, was named to the Pro Bowl following each of his first two seasons and is a young star at one of most demanding and isolated positions on the field. He also has a history of volatility: Three years before television cameras caught Peters screaming at fans and, a week later, his defensive coordinator, Peters was kicked off the University of Washington football team for a pattern of explosive behavior.
“We know that he’s emotional,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid told reporters recently. “That’s not a secret here.”
Neither, at least recently, is Kansas City’s tense relationship with Peters. Earlier this season fans made shirts with a strike through a No. 22, and this month a business owner suggested on Facebook that other businesses should refuse service to Peters. Some want him fined, others want him traded, and a few — maybe more than a few — just want him off the team and out of Kansas City.
“Merf!” Stoner says, waving over 62-year-old Doug Merfen, and he has barely taken a seat before someone brings up Peters.
“He’s a major pain in the” butt, Merfen says.
“I’d like to see him gone.”
Schuler shakes his head, unable to understand. Though many of the fans gathered here are friends and this season has mostly been a celebration, a debate has split them, and it boils down to this: In 2017, which is more important to a fan base — reaching the Super Bowl or the preservation of some cultural ideal?
“He disrupts the way people think a football player should be,” Schuler says of Peters. “He’s young, he’s black, he’s talented — and he scares white America.”
Just let him go off
Peters’s high school coach called after the tirade toward a fan, some projects never complete.
“You can’t act like that,” the coach told him, and it wasn’t the first time he had said it.
Even years ago, the young man had a temper. It was passion, the coach told himself; the kid was just emotional. Besides, it takes a certain personality to play cornerback, that lonely position whose isolation leads it to frequently be compared with living on an island.
Other times, the coach wondered whether he was in fact to blame. Michael Peters isn’t just the coach at McClymonds High in Oakland; he’s also Marcus Peters’s father.
“Some of it, I can say, is my fault,” Coach Peters says, going on to list a few stops on a tour of his guilt-ridden mind.
Marcus was allowed on the sideline at 2, into the coaching offices a few years later; the elder Peters wonders sometimes whether he allowed his son to wrap too much of his identity into the game. Is that why he was inconsolable when McClymonds lost? Was that why he would erupt at teammates when they blew a big play?
“Me and his mom, we got divorced when he was young,” Michael Peters says. “I don’t know if that had something to do with it.”
Point is, Marcus Peters is the way he is, and for a long time even his dad had no idea what to do about it. So the coach dug deeper into football, any downsides be damned, because the kid loved it and was so good at it.
He seemed to relish that isolation, that pressure; he could absorb the playbook in a few days, memorize route combinations, predict a receiver’s intentions based on body language. Marcus was patient enough to tackle in the open field, dogged enough to throw down against an opponent in press coverage.
His father came to believe the trade-offs were worth the outbursts, and when Marcus Peters overreacted, his dad ignored him and pleaded with him and placated him and — eureka! — let him erupt, assigned someone his son trusted to pull him aside to cool off, and a moment later it was finished.
And that became a kind of cheat code to managing Mount St. Peters: Just let him blow and then minimize the damage. Michael Peters doesn’t know if it’s right; he just knows it works.
“I’m always a coach,” he says, and now he spends his weekends in Kansas City or in front of the television, watching the only NFL player he ever coached.
A week after calling Marcus when he screamed at a fan at Arrowhead Stadium — Michael Peters says someone called his son a racial slur — the coach again watched his son erupt on national television. This time Marcus was yelling at Bob Sutton, the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator, and veteran linebacker Justin Houston calmly walked toward Peters, pulled him aside and took him somewhere to cool off.
The old coach decided he wouldn’t have to call his son this time. It took almost three years, but the Chiefs finally had figured out the Marcus Peters cheat code.
Before the 2015 draft, Reid visited Peters’s home, and the Chiefs sent an executive to Oakland.
They spoke with more than a dozen former teammates at Washington, with family and friends, with coaches who loved him and coaches who didn’t. There was no doubting his upside as a player; there was no predicting the downsides to his emotions.
“A pain in the butt” is how one former Washington employee describes Peters. “As talented as he was, I’d see [former defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox shaking his head, going: ‘Oh, God, he just doesn’t listen.’ ”
With the 18th pick, the Chiefs went for it anyway.
“He’s not a problem off the field,” Reid told reporters about a player who failed a drug test in college, had an academic problem that got him barred from the Huskies’ workout facility, was suspended three times, showed up late or not at all for occasional team meetings, clashed with coaches and was eventually dismissed.
But the Chiefs were in love with what Peters could do on the field, and all marriages need at least a little denial.
Fans in Kansas City, anyway, were more skeptical: “ok, not my first choice,” someone wrote on Arrowhead Pride, a popular Chiefs blog and online gathering place, after the selection.
“Beast with an attitude problem,” another wrote.
“Reid is a character whisperer.”
And that much seemed true throughout Peters’s rookie season; he picked off passes in three of his first six games, wound up leading the league in deflections and was the runaway winner for defensive rookie of the year.
Then a few weeks after Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem for the first time, the beginning of a movement and a firestorm, Peters stood on the Arrowhead Stadium sideline and, wearing a black glove, raised his fist. “The struggle, I seen it,” Peters, who declined an interview request for this story, told reporters after that game.
Some Kansas City fans didn’t see it that way.
“Peters proved he’s not on our team,” someone posted on Arrowhead Pride.
“First time I’ve felt this way about a Chiefs player. But I hope he has a career ending injury.”
Some fans became critical not just of Peters’s stance but of his play, the one thing about him never in question. A common point here is that, recently anyway, he hasn’t been worth the trouble, that Peters is, in fact, a liability on the field.
“If you’re going to be that big of a man, you’d better do it on the field, too,” Tim Vander Pol, 55, says about a player whom Pro Football Focus ranked as its No. 11 cornerback in 2016 and lists as its No. 40 corner through seven games this season. No other Chiefs cornerback is listed in the top 80.
When Michael Peters has visited Kansas City the past two seasons, he has felt tension. This marriage, between defiant young man and conservative region, seems increasingly strained. Peters, especially here, seems out of place.
“People from Kansas City just don’t understand it,” he says. “They’ve never had to live in a city like Oakland. You’re already a target here just by being an African American male.”
“Fans are going to be fans,” he says.
Take him or leave him?
And here are a lot of those fans, maybe 100 of them at the casino bar, and Merfen might be the only one old enough to know the experience of celebrating a Super Bowl.
He was a teenager in 1970, watching Kansas City face Minnesota in the championship game as his young relatives played outside. One of them fell and hit his head, and suddenly the whole family was hurrying toward the hospital. The Chiefs won, and when Merfen learned the score he went running through the hallways, past the treatment rooms, hollering about it.
“You’ve got a certain pride anyway. But when they go all the way, it’s a feeling . . .” he says, trailing off as he tries to recapture a memory that will turn 48 years old in January. “It’s a rock-and-roll party, man.”
Since the team’s last Super Bowl appearance, he has served in the Navy, played professional baseball and worked as a bouncer at a biker bar, he says. If those experiences shaped his worldview, he cannot say; he just knows he’s uncomfortable with Marcus Peters within it.
“He needs an ass-whooping,” Merfen says.
“I bet people felt the same way about Deion Sanders when they were winning those . . . Super Bowls, too,” Schuler tells him.
“I bet they did,” Merfen says, going on to say he cannot respect NFL players who protest by taking a knee during the national anthem or shout at fans. He estimates half of all Chiefs fans would like Peters off the team.
“He’s young, Merfen,” Schuler says.
“We’ve got enough backup.”
Before the game starts, Peters remains seated for the national anthem. For most of the game against Oakland, he is unpredictable, disruptive, a defender opposing quarterbacks tend to avoid and a player his own fans cannot agree on.
When he surrenders a third-down conversion to Oakland’s Michael Crabtree, the anti-Peters contingent boos. When he rushes in for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, instigating a brawl and the ejection of his longtime friend Marshawn Lynch, even a few doubters come around.
“It’s fun when he gives it to somebody else,” Stoner says during the fracas.
“Hell yeah!” Merfen says.
The adrenaline subsides, and Merfen remembers why he dislikes Peters. He calls him dirty. He says he’s unprofessional. He insists, regardless of statistics or context, Peters is a bad player.
At one point he’s asked which he would prefer: the Chiefs winning a championship or the ouster of their best defensive back?
“It takes more than one player to win a Super Bowl,” he says.
He’s asked again.
“A really good team has backups.”
So would he prefer Peters be cut, weakening Kansas City’s secondary and potentially extending Merfen’s 48-year wait for another Super Bowl? He thinks about it before answering.
“Yeah,” he says, adding he actually will say what many others think, and a few minutes later Carr throws toward the end zone and two Chiefs defenders surround Amari Cooper. The side judge throws a penalty flag.
Merfen stands and looks toward a television.
“On Peters,” he says before the referee announces a 47-yard pass interference foul that sets up a go-ahead Raiders touchdown. “Thanks, Peters.”
He keeps watching, shaking his head.
“Should’ve taken a knee on that one,” he says.
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