When James Peter looks back at his U SPORTS career, the off-field things stand out for him first.
The on-field accolades — and there are many of them — are why you’re reading about the Ottawa Gee-Gees linebacker, but you may not have those without knowing his experience over the past five years at his hometown university.
There’ve been the lessons learned from head coach Marcel Bellefeuille, someone that’s amassed over 20 years of pro coaching experience, including a three-year stay as the head coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He returned to the Gee-Gees in 2020 and has been around Peter for the last two seasons of football.
“It’s been really good. He taught me firstly how to be a better leader, better teammate, a better communicator with my team. He taught me the ropes of how to be a pro. How to walk like a pro, talk like a pro, act like a pro. Coach Bellefeuille really helped me a lot,” Peter said in Edmonton, just as the CFL Combine presented by New Era was getting underway.
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One of Peter’s most profound moments came in an unlikely space. The cancellation of U SPORTS football in 2020 threw a wrench into the day-to-day of his life as an athlete. With gyms closed and stay-at-home mandates in place into 2021, Peter was determined to stay in shape for his eventual return to competition.
He scoured online shops and pored over Facebook Marketplace to buy whatever equipment he could get for a home gym. During the winter, he’d slip out to an empty football field at night or in the early morning, shovel in hand. He’d clear a space for himself to get his fieldwork in. Alone on the field, his breath visible and with the world in an uncertain place, he was on the lookout for bylaw officers. People walking their dogs would sometimes tell him to get off the field.
“I felt like during that time it was really just a mental block for a lot of people,” Peter said. “Me personally, I kind of took that mental block and I just said, ‘Hey, yo, James. You could really do something with football if you put forth all the effort.’
“That’s when I started taking it really serious. Over time it just told me that football’s for me.”
The joy of returning to the field in 2021 quickly turned for Peter and the rest of the Gee Gees when defensive lineman Francis Perron died shortly after the team’s first game of the season. He was just 25.
“We lost a brother,” Peter said. “We all experienced that with each other. That was a big, big, big barrier to overcome.”
Unfortunately for some of the more veteran players, it wasn’t their first experience with losing a teammate. Loic Kayembe died in his sleep while a member of the Gee-Gees in 2017.
“I had the experience. I had the other leaders at the time to show me some ways of how to cope with it. Whatever I used to cope with it I brought it to my team,” he recalled. “Everyone’s different in a sense, everyone needs different modalities, different methods to cope with serious stuff such as this. I brought whatever modalities I was taught to my team and I told them, ‘Honestly, we could still keep going forward. This is something our teammate would want, right?’
“I put that in my mind and I just said, ‘OK, yo, let’s keep moving forward. Nothing else.’ I could do a few things, right? Either I stop, I pause and life takes a toll on me, football takes a toll, my career takes a toll or I just say, ‘Let’s keep going. Use this as motivation to make myself a better person, a better football player, a better teammate, a better captain to my people.'”
Peter’s production spiked in 2021. His 36.5 total tackles and 1.5 sacks were carer highs and he was named the Gee-Gees’ most improved player. In 2022, he boosted his career bests, with 58 total tackles and two forced fumbles. He was named a U SPORTS first-team All-Canadian and an OUA first-team All-Star. He’s the 19th-ranked prospect in the CFL’s spring edition of the Scouting Bureau and CFL.ca’s Marshall Ferguson has him pegged as the 17th overall pick in his mock draft, landing with his hometown REDBLACKS as a territorial selection.
Peter didn’t have an outright preference on where he’d like to start his CFL career. He sees himself as a versatile player and would like to land somewhere that would like to take advantage of that.
“I have a lot to offer,” he said. “If the team sees me as someone that could be versatile and put me let’s say as a strong side linebacker, a middle linebacker, weakside linebacker and just overall keep like switching me around, I feel like that’s something that I would kind of want, rather than just staying on my own island. I feel like I’m more than that as a as a player. I offer more.”