Where Are They Now: Rodney Peete

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Rodney Peete is one of the top quarterbacks in USC history, ranking third in total offense with 8,640 yards amassed over his four years as a Trojan (1985-88). As a three-year starter, "Sweet Peete" was the recipient of the '88 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award for the nation's top senior quarterback, was the runner-up for the '88 Heisman Trophy and collected several conference and team accolades. Peete, the son of former Arizona assistant coach Willie Peete, began his NFL career in 1989, playing for six different teams over his 16-year career.

Upon retirement in 2005, the Arizona native joined Fox Sports Net's now-defunct Best Damn Sports Show Period as a host and NFL expert. Peete, who is married to actress Holly Robinson Peete, is now the president of HollyRod Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based entertainment and investment firm. He is also co-founder of the HollyRod Foundation, an organization established to raise money to fight Parkinson's disease and support children suffering from autism, which his son, RJ, was diagnosed with at three years old. Peete shared the story of coming to terms with his son's condition in his 2010 book, "Not My Boy! A Father, a Son, and One Family's Journey with Autism."

Pac-12.org's Sarah Kezele caught up with Peete in time for Saturday's showdown between USC and Notre Dame, a rivalry the former quarterback still gets fired up about.

Sarah Kezele: As you know, the USC-Notre Dame rivalry game is this Saturday. Will you be watching?

Rodney Peete: I will be watching, absolutely. In fact, I was scheduled to go, but I have this new gig that I'm doing locally for ABC (Sports Zone on ABC7 in Los Angeles) every Saturday night, so I can't travel to games anymore. I made the trip to South Bend several times since I retired, but it didn't work out this time. I think it's going to be an interesting game even though both teams aren't at the top of the BCS standings. That rivalry is always exciting. The fact that it's going to be the first nighttime start for both teams—there's going to be a lot of atmosphere in that stadium.

SK: Which rivalry do you think is bigger: USC-Notre Dame or USC-UCLA?

RP: USC-Notre Dame. It's very close, say, 1 and 1-A. I think that USC and Notre Dame are so similar with the traditions, the heritage and the individuals that have gone to both schools. The fact that it's one team on the West Coast and one team in the Midwest, I think the whole country gets involved, as opposed to USC-UCLA, which is regional. Don't get me wrong, it's a great rivalry with UCLA because it's unique that it's in town and households are split. I can't tell you how many times I've met a family where the brother goes to USC, the sister goes to UCLA and the parents are the same way. Both rivalries are unique, but I think USC-Notre Dame from a national standpoint is a little bit bigger, not to mention that for many years, one or both of them were usually in the conversation for a national championship or high ranking.

SK: Speaking of high rankings, back when you were at USC, you guys were consistently at the top of the rankings, but you were swept by Notre Dame.

RP: I'm glad you brought that up (laughs). Yeah, that still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

SK: So when you see (then-Notre Dame coach) Lou Holtz on TV, you clench your fists? You want to sock him? How does this work?

RP: No, no. I don't want to sock him. Only sometimes (laughs). But no, it's a mutual respect. Like I said before, the schools are very similar as far as the programs and loyalty, so I think we both respect each other when we see each other. But, certainly, that rivalry still runs deep and we look forward to this weekend.

SK: Which of those four games when you were there was the most memorable for you? There were some good ones!

RP: Yeah, we had some good ones. Unfortunately, we came out on the short end of the stick all of those years, but I certainly remember the '86 game. That one that eats at me a lot. We were ahead in the fourth quarter and really had a chance to win that one, and then they came back to win on a last-second field goal. That one stung quite a bit. It was Lou Holtz's first year at Notre Dame. But the '88 game was the one: It was number one versus number two and everything was on the line—the national title and all that—and Notre Dame ended up going on and winning the national championship that year. But the buildup for that was unbelievable, not only around LA, but around the country because it put us on a collision course midway through the season. They were winning, and we were winning, and you could see on the schedule that we were going to end up being undefeated when we played each other. There was a lot of excitement around that game and the atmosphere was something I'd never felt before.

SK: After USC, you spent 16 years in the NFL, and two of those years were with the Raiders. How did the news of Al Davis' death affect you?

RP: It affected me. We all have a lot of respect for Al. But if you played for him and were part of his organization, you have a different kind of respect for him and his knowledge of the game of football, but also what he did for the game of football in his years. He's left his mark on what we see today in the NFL. A lot of times, individuals like Al Davis and even Jerry Jones to an extent get criticized for meddling or being too involved with the team. But in Al's case, he was a coach and a general manager, and he knew the game of football and studied the game of football, and you could really respect that. I remember during the weeks leading up to a football game we would have a good 30-minute chat every Friday about what the game plan was going to look like and what we all thought we could accomplish against the team we were playing, but he was very knowledgeable about the game and understood it on an X's and O's level. It wasn't just being an owner and making money with his team. He was 100 percent invested in every aspect. It was sad to see him go, but his legacy will certainly live on forever.

SK: Just from what I've observed as a fan, it seems as though anyone who was on any of the other 31 NFL teams hated him, but whoever played for him absolutely loved him and was completely devoted to the guy.

RP: Absolutely. I would say 99.99 percent of the people that played for the Raiders and had a chance to be part of that organization absolutely loved it. One thing he did was make sure that everybody was treated first class from top to bottom: The way we traveled, the way our facilities were, the locker rooms, everything about the Raiders was first class and I think he left his mark that way because it's not that way around the league. There are places where it's not first class. There are places where teams will take a bargain on hotel rooms or the type of plane you travel in and the type of facility you may have. Al never cheated us. He spared no expense to make sure you were the most comfortable you could be, so the only thing you needed to focus on was playing and winning.

SK: You retired from the NFL in '05 and moved right into Best Damn Sports Show Period. It looked like such a good time on the show with all those personalities. Do you miss it at all?

RP: I do, I do. It was a great show and we had a lot of fun doing it. What you saw watching it on TV was exactly how it was on the set and hanging out with those guys. It's a shame it ran its course and it's not on the air anymore because I had such a great time doing it and being able to meet all the different personalities that came through there. That was the good thing about it: We not only got athletes, but we got entertainers and political figures. It was one of those shows that people enjoyed coming on because we were not the show that was going to beat you up for throwing three interceptions the week before or run down your stats and say, "Why did you do this? Why did you do that?" It was more really getting to know the individual as opposed to what they did on the field or in a movie or whatever. It was very cool to be around that atmosphere, and I enjoyed every single minute of it.

SK: Was there one specific interview or show that stands out as your favorite?

RP: Probably my favorite show was when we had Matthew McConaughey on. He took up probably 75 percent of the show. Both (show host) John Salley and I sat down with him about two weeks before the USC-Texas national championship game at the Rose Bowl. He's a big Texas guy, so we had a chance to go back and forth and razz and jab each other. He was very knowledgeable about football and very passionate about it, and knows the game pretty well, so we had a great time. He's a very down-to-earth guy, so it was great to get his take on college football and the game that was about to be played between Texas and USC, which, to me, was one of the best college football games I've ever seen.

SK: Now that the show is no longer on the air, you're busy being the president of HollyRod Entertainment and the co-founder of the HollyRod Foundation. As I'm sure you know, it's Autism Awareness Month. Are you doing anything special for that?

RP: We are doing a lot of things. I just got back from New Jersey playing in a charity golf tournament for a school out there called Newmark. It's a school for children with special needs around that area, but really a state-of-the-art, cutting-edge school from middle school all the way through high school. A lot of times it's very difficult for families to find the right type of services for children on the autistic spectrum, and often times, parents are in the car for half the day going from therapy session to therapy session, so this is more of a one-stop shop. That's been our big push, to have that one-stop shop underneath our umbrella out here in Los Angeles, where kids can get speech therapy, occupational therapy, emotional therapy and family therapy, as well as get a good, quality education at their pace. My wife is also on the board of (autism science and advocacy organization) Autism Speaks, so we travel around and try to help families deal with the initial diagnosis, and then try to help them with the road map to help the quality of life for not only their child, but for their entire family.

SK: I read an excerpt of your book and the Men's Health article from last year about your experience with your son, and it was absolutely heartbreaking. How is RJ doing now?

RP: Thank you for saying that. He's doing fantastic. We're so lucky. A lot of families don't have the same kind of success that we've had with him, but he's doing really, really well. He's in seventh grade now and he's in a mainstream school. He's still involved in some special education classes, but he's also been able to integrate into some regular classes as well. He's really thriving. He's been able to keep, make and maintain a good circle of friends, which is the biggest challenge with kids dealing with autism—the emotional and social sides of being able to interact with other kids and other individuals. He still has a ways to go, and there are some challenges academically for him, but we're very proud of where he is, especially given the fact that when he was three years old, he was basically non-verbal. To be here now when he's 14 years old and hear how he can express himself verbally really, for us, is more than we could ever hope for. We're still pushing him and, like I said, he's still got a long ways to go. We don't know what the future holds, whether he's going to be able to attend college or not, but we're working toward that goal. He keeps a smile on his face all the time. I think the best thing about him is that he understands who he is and he recognizes who he is and he embraces it. He's not shy to talk about it, and that is the biggest thing in the world because he has shown other kids that although you may have autism, it doesn't have to have you. He works with what he has and he makes the most of it, and that's the thing that I'm most proud of, is that he's a kid who really understands who he is.

SK: Have you faced any bigger challenge in your life than coming to terms with RJ's autism and adjusting to that?

RP: Absolutely not. I can reflect back on several rough times throughout my life: injuries in sports, loss of loved ones and things of that nature, but to have a child that's gotten this diagnosis, especially at the time at which we received it and for me not understanding what autism was, it was a traumatic time for me to deal with. I write pretty candidly about it in my book, about the struggles that I had and how it affected not only me, but my marriage and my family and the person that I was. And even still today. As a parent, you always want the best for your kids. You want them to be better than you. You want them to have every opportunity in life, and you'd literally take the bullet for them. When your child has all this wrapped up inside of him and he just can't express it or share his feelings because it's trapped inside his own body and his own brain, it's heartbreaking. On the surface, he wants to be able to do so many of the other things that typical kids do, but he's not able to. For a long time there was a lot of guilt and blaming myself and asking, 'How do I fix this?' and it was wearing on me. But through the help of my wife and close friends and RJ, I was able to put that all aside and realize it wasn't about me. It was about him and his development and seeing the world through his eyes, and not mine. Once I came to that realization, life has been such a blessing for all of us.

SK: You mentioned earlier that because of your ABC gig, you can't get out and go to as many USC games as you'd like, but do you still get to the Coliseum at all for some games?

RP: I do. I try to get to the ones that start earlier in the day. Nowadays, with all the games that are on TV there are a lot of later start times, so that makes it difficult, but I get out there as much as I can.

SK: I'm sure you've seen a lot of Matt Barkley, then. He has broken school records and even tied one of yours, so now his name is in the record books along with yours and Carson Palmer, Mark Sanchez and Matt Leinart. Where do you think he stands in the rankings of USC quarterbacks?

RP: He's certainly in the upper echelon. Can you rank 1-2-3-4-5? It's hard to say because he's still got some time left, but he's a fantastic quarterback that I believe has all the tools. Physically, he certainly can make all the throws and can do everything with the football. But more than that, mentally, he's as sharp as it gets from anyone playing the position. I was very impressed with him from day one when he stepped on campus and started the first game as a true freshman. I think he's continued to grow every single year during some tough times for USC. It's not always easy to do that. I think he stepped into an unfortunate situation with the school on probation and knowing that they can't go to a BCS game. Also, he had an opportunity to jump ship as they were put on probation, but he stayed around and wanted to make the most of it, so that shows his character as well. But he's a fantastic quarterback, and he's the right guy for USC at this time because we're still young and still not quite where we would like it to be as an alum and a former player, but we will get back there. I think Matt Barkley has been a tremendous leader for that football team during this tough time.

SK: Think he sticks around next year?

RP: I think he does, to be honest with you. I think he'll look at it as wanting to finish out his senior year. I think there are some other guys that are coming out (for the NFL Draft) and he may not want to get caught up in that shuffle. Obviously, there's the guy up on The Farm (Andrew Luck). But in my gut, I think he definitely comes back one more year. Well, we hope. Maybe that's wishful thinking.

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