By convention, Kenneth Ryan Petersen had no business being on the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium during the Utes’ scrimmage on Tuesday morning. The dual major — a senior studying biology and chemistry — should have been in a white lab coat somewhere on campus, calculating equations in his brain and pouring frothing liquid from one beaker into another. Instead, there he was, running routes and playing special teams.
His story is cool. Very cool.
"I’m super-fortunate to be out here," he said. "I mean, I’m just a regular college student. It’s hard for me to believe this is happening. I’m playing live college football. It’s surreal."
It’s surreal and it’s real. Real inspiring.
Petersen hadn’t played football since his sophomore year of high school in Twin Falls, Idaho, where he was a 5-foot-10, 140-pound middle linebacker. When a piece of bone broke off his femur that season, it was the end of football for him. He thought. He rehabbed enough to play basketball and baseball his senior year, but that seemed to be the last exit off the freeway of his sports career.
"I came to terms with it," he said.
He enrolled at Utah to pursue a secondary dream of becoming a physical therapist. And he barreled ahead toward that goal, enjoying a side of sports by playing on every intramural team he could find. In 2013, Petersen was pulled by a friend into the MUSS flag-football game, a fun little contest played between students and coached by Utah’s football staff before the Utes’ Red-White Spring game. His team won and he was named MVP.
The same thing happened earlier this year. Only this time, Kyle Whittingham took notice of the performance and invited Petersen to participate in his team’s summer workouts. He ran and lifted and hustled like a schnauzer. Next thing, he made the 105-man roster as a walk-on wide receiver.
Petersen may be the only Utah player to ever have taken the flag-football route to the varsity. He’s living proof that you can strap the flags on one day and the hat and pads on the next. But it’s not like he wiped the potato-chip crumbs off his chest and rolled off the sofa to do it. He’s got some wheels.
"He’s fast," Whittingham said. "He’s got quickness to him."
Receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield said Petersen’s contributions to this year’s team blow past the physical, straight to the emotional and psychological: "He appreciates where he’s at. He’s shown quickness, leadership and poise. He’s not getting a lot of reps, but he tries real hard. He helps guys understand how lucky they are."
Not often anybody hears a coach say of a player, "he tries real hard," and have it be a compliment. In this case, it is.
Petersen may not spread the field like a top-flight Pac-12 receiver, but, Stubblefield said, "he spreads positivity all around him."
In the grind of a long football season, there’s room in the locker room for a happy man who’s grateful for the chance to be involved — with no scholarship, no stipend, no promise of playing time, no benefits other than being included in the endeavor. Whittingham said Petersen could get some time on special teams.
Either way, the walk-on who over the past three seasons watched from the student section with his friends — "The best part of the college experience is the people you meet," he said — is thrilled to wear the Ute uniform and stand on the sideline, if that’s all it amounts to. He gets that. He gets it.
"I’m just super-excited," he said. "Super-thankful. I’m definitely toward the lower end of athletic ability around here. I try to make up for that by working hard and with small mental things. I love playing the game. I mean, I was playing today at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It was cool."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.
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