Catching up with Carl Peterson and USA Football

Had a chance to catch up recently with Carl Peterson, longtime president of the Kansas City Chiefs, and someone who took a break from the NFL in 2009, but could be back next year. Peterson, who has spent about 30 years in the league, went from the Chiefs to his position as the chairman of USA Football, at the urging of Commissioner Roger Goodell, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find Peterson back in the NFL soon.

Peterson, who helped mold the Chiefs into a model franchise for most of his years there and could be a candidate for any sort of “football czar” position, is thoroughly enjoying his position overseeing USA Football, an organization that seeks to provide guidance and leadership to the millions of youth and high school kids who play this game. It’s turned out to be more of a workload than he anticipated, “but in an enjoyable way,” Peterson said, though I couldn’t help get the sense through our conversation that his competitive juices are flowing again.

USA Football is the sport’s governing body at the amateur level in our country, and also serves in many ways as an outlet to the rest of the world, teaching, sharing and growing the game in areas where it has yet to take hold. The first annual World Junior Championships in football were played in Canton, Ohio this year, featuring teams from around the globe. There will also be an international exhibition game taking place in Florida during Super Bowl week.

Peterson is taking his responsibilities very seriously, flying to the USA Football headquarters in Virginia at least a few times a month and in constant contact with NFL officials about various matters, with both the league and the NFLPA taking a vested interest in the continued growth of USA Football.

“We all agree on the importance of growing our game in this country and even outside country,” Peterson said. “Youth football is a major concern to anybody involved in those two entities. We’ve watched the growth of USA Soccer, USA Hockey in the amateur and youth levels, and we thought we’d better do something to get in line with them, if you will.”

USA Football was formed in 2002 as a non-profit group, with the late Jack Kemp the first chairman, and now has a fulltime staff of about 25 people, and 10 part-time employees. When Goodell asked Peterson to replace Kemp after his passing, Peterson thought back to his roots as a high school coach in Long Beach and eagerly accepted.

“What I try to do is give the organization some administrative and direct leadership,” Peterson said. “I’ve met with the staff a number of times in our offices about, what are we doing, how are we doing it, what better ways are there to do it. They’re all so talented.”

The organization aims to be a resource where parents, players and coaches can go to find out everything from the safest equipment to the best medical practices to the proper techniques to play and coach the game. USA Football also helps screen youth coaches and officials, providing background checks to try to provide the safest environment possible for the youngsters with an interest in the sport (there is an abundance of resources available at www.usafootball.com).

With so many unaffiliated youth leagues in the country, the group also strived to bind them all together. Many are regional and rural, with limited funds and few ties to larger entities, but Peterson and the group are trying to provide baselines for all to follow, through the accreditation of coaches.

“We’re very pleased that Pop Warner, the largest youth football organization in American, has required their head coaches to take and pass the USA Football accreditation program,” Peterson said.

Peterson tries to spread the word about the organization whenever possible, with the group working with medical experts about the best practices for injuries (including concussions). He is also enthused by the chance to help other countries adopt our game, and senses the level of play rising in the youth ranks around the world. There are youth football associations in 57 countries and Peterson believes the other countries will begin sending players to the NFL with some regularity over time.

“I’m absolutely convinced of it,” he said. “I’ve seen young German players and Scandinavian and Swedish players and Japanese players and they love our game in some of the Eastern Bloc countries in Europe. They have athletes as big and strong and fast as what we have here in America.

“There have been a certain number of universities now that we’ve seen have brought those international players with scholarships, and eventually they will be graduating those guys to the NFL and NFL draft, not unlike what’s happened in the NBA, although it’s certainly been at a much faster pace than the NFL.”

Peterson said he has enjoyed the flexibility this position provides, getting to take trips abroad in the fall, attend football games and visit family in ways he never could when running pro football teams. He says he misses game day and the competitive rush, but not the late night phone calls that came when a player got into trouble, or the minutia of contract negotiations.

I would not be surprised to see the allure of the NFL become too enticing to resist, though Peterson said he has no firm plans at this point.

“I’ll see what 2010 brings,” Peterson said. “The NFL is the best professional sports league in this country, I’m very biased about that. But I’m not in any rush to get back into a particular club. I’m available for consultation and to talk with owners and give my perspective and thoughts and have had some calls from ownership. And in my 20 years with the Chiefs I’ve made a lot of good friends.

“So we’ll see what happens. I’m enjoying USA Football and I’m going to enjoy the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl and, from the USA Football perspective, we have our game down there in Ft. Lauderdale (the international youth game). And then we’ll see what happens after the NFL season is over with, and everything starts anew.”

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