Photo by Casey Gomez

Before he was the president of the Georgia Institute of Technology or a professor at Colorado State University or a program director at the National Science Foundation or a research scientist at NASA or a high school mathematics teacher, Bud Peterson was a lanky pass-catcher running across the fields of
Manhattan.

Manhattan in the state of Kansas, that is.

The academic program — mechanical engineering at Kansas State University — was a natural fit for the tinkering Peterson, who, per the Tech alumni magazine, spent his spare hours in college putting together a classic car. The football program, on the other hand, provided a steeper climb. The team was competitive in the powerhouse Big Eight conference; both quarterbacks who started at the university during Peterson’s time went on to play significant roles on their respective NFL teams.

But Peterson was accustomed to working for things. Work, after all, was his introduction to the sport. In junior high, Peterson, who grew up idolizing local players, wanted to play football against his parents’ wishes. A deal was made: if he earned enough money to pay for the equipment himself, he could try out.

So Peterson did what any aspiring athlete would do. He began a paper route. He cut lawns. When a neighborhood friend quit the team early in the season, Peterson bought his equipment at a discounted rate. He conveyed the news to his dismayed father, who was out of town on business at the time. Peterson was on the team.

Peterson grew up idolizing former Notre Dame standout and three-time All-American Jim Seymour. Seymour was a tall, fast receiver who to date holds his alma mater’s record for most receiving yards in a game.

Peterson did not have enough speed to match his idol — he was moved from wide receiver to an in-line position in both high school and college, but he had grit and the knack for making a tough catch in a tight spot.

When it came time to choose a college, Peterson wanted the flagship: Kansas State. He arrived as a walk-on. Rules at the time dictated that a player could only play with the varsity team for three years, so he played on the freshman team his freshman year. The next year, he broke his collarbone diving for a pass in spring practice.

While the Wildcats’ offensive style might have foreshadowed modern times, their injury protocol did not. Peterson dealt with broken bones and a separated shoulder, all a result of hard hits. Quarterback Steve Grogan, expected to take the lead in the run and pass game when Kansas State moved to a veer offense, suffered nerve injuries only truly alleviated by doctors when he was drafted by the New England Patriots. Amid the injuries, being buried on the depth chart and pumping gas at a local station full-time to pay for college, Peterson was demoralized entering his sophomore year and was on the verge of quitting the team.

“An assistant coach said, ‘Do you want to play football somewhere else? I can get you a scholarship at a small school,’” Peterson recalls. “No one offered me a scholarship out of high school. One hundred fifty-six pounds, six foot two? Nobody wanted me.”

When Peterson told the coach he was not interested in transferring but did not plan on playing football again, the coach told him to stick around. Slowly, he worked his way up the depth chart, and with an explosive performance in the team’s annual Purple and White scrimmage, he established himself as a real offensive threat, not just another name on a long depth chart.

The next day was the Sunday that would define Peterson’s football career. He was pumping gas at a local station early that morning when head coach Vince Gibson stopped by. “How come you’re not going to church?” Gibson asked. “I need to work so I can go to school,” Peterson replied. “Come by the office at two o’clock and we’ll fix that,” Gibson replied.

That afternoon, Bud Peterson, who could not pique the interest of a single football program in the country just a few years before, was officially on scholarship at Kansas State.

Peterson played the inglorious but important role of a weakside tight end in the Wildcats’ pro style offense. He spent some plays blocking and others split out as a wide receiver, attracting the attention of a defensive back against whom Peterson could leverage his size advantage. Those two wide-receiver sets, considered almost primitive in a day and age when teams trot out four-wide sets, were at the time “forward-looking.”

Today, his statistics remain accessible on a page in Football-Reference.com archives, forgotten to nearly all, Peterson included. Thirty catches over three seasons for 359 yards. No touchdowns.

But Peterson has memories aplenty, like his feeling of fatigued exuberance when the Wildcats dispatched rival Kansas in 1972 in a 20-19 nailbiter. And he maintains contact with old teammates and coaches, some of whom spoke glowingly to the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine of Peterson when he was selected as Tech’s newest president in 2009.

“You’ve got a winner, I’ll tell you that,” Gibson once said of the man he offered a scholarship nearly 40 years before. “He’s been a winner at everything he’s done.”

“He was a smart football player,” said  Steve Grogan, once Peterson’s quarterback. “He understood what his job was and everyone else’s. You could rely on him to do exactly what he was supposed to do. And you couldn’t say that for everyone on the team.”

Today, Peterson says he seldom thinks about his days as a college football player. That was many careers before, and he acknowledges that the landscape of collegiate athletics has changed drastically. Yet Peterson is still very much the man who once donned cleats and pads on cold October afternoons.