QUEEN CITY, Texas -- It began six hours northwest of where it could end, just across the Louisiana state line, where the piney woods thin into the backland prairies and a ribbon of road peels off from Route 59.
The plot of grass stretches out behind a brick school building, in the shadow of an orange-and-black water tower, a thousand feet or so from the Union Pacific line. There, on a late summer day in the mid-1990s, a gym teacher looked out upon a line of sixth graders and sent a burst from his whistle toward the big Texas sky.
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At first, the scene unfolded as the teacher expected, a few of the smaller kids in the class sprinting out to an early lead. But then came a sight that, two decades later, still makes him laugh: a fourth kid emerging from the pack of pre-teens, this one twice the size of those left behind, 5-foot-11, 200-and-some pounds, rumbling toward the end line like a northbound shipment of West Texas crude.
“I was like, ‘Good gosh, this big fella’s faster than three-quarters of the class,’” Dawaski Davis said.
On Sunday, Jason Peters will take the field at the Superdome still very much a man among boys. At 36 years old, with a Super Bowl ring and a Hall of Fame resume and a body that is showing plenty of age, he is at the point of his career where any playoff game could be his last.
If the Eagles’ season does indeed end this weekend against the Saints, Peters will immediately become one of the variables upon which their offseason plans depend. A sparse presence in the locker room during media availabilities this season, he has given little indication of his plans. Excluding specialists and quarterbacks, he is the sixth-oldest player in the league this season, and one of two offensive linemen age 36-plus to start a game.
The Eagles will have some say in the decision. Peters’ contract carries a cap hit of $10.7 million, with a dead cap charge of $2.7 million, which means the club can free up $8 million of space if it releases him.
While he started all 16 games during the regular season, he missed significant playing time because of injury in four of them. Even when healthy, there were plenty of moments when he looked a half-step slower than before.
Postseason performance can erase a lot of memories, but the fact remains: The Eagles easily could have missed the playoffs to begin with, and their struggles to protect Carson Wentz and create running room were big reasons.
Yet Peters is also one of the principal reasons to believe that the Eagles’ quest for a Super Bowl repeat is not nearly the long shot that their regular-season record suggests. Against the Bears on Sunday, he turned in one of his better performances of the season, helping to keep Nick Foles upright against one of the NFL’s best edge-rushing teams.
Peters might not be as suited for the long haul as he once was, but this is a short-term part of the season, and after missing last year’s playoff run while recovering from knee surgery, he has plenty of motivation.
He also has a rich history of rising to the challenge. In Buffalo, he went from undrafted rookie to franchise left tackle. In Philadelphia, he returned from a twice-ruptured Achilles tendon to again become an All-Pro.
Perhaps the source of that resilience is here in Queen City, a rural speck of small homes and open space where, in high school, Peters rode his bike three miles to a now-defunct Wendy’s to work a part-time job on the grill.
Truth be told, the folks in Cass County didn’t know what, exactly to make of Peters. By his sophomore year at Queen City High, he stood 6-foot-4 and was pushing 275 pounds, with a mean low-block game on the basketball court and the best fastball in school.
“Everybody was worried about him, because in high school he was a big fella and he could dominate sometimes and sometimes he wouldn’t just because everybody was so small,” said Davis, who coached Peters in basketball and football. “I kept saying, once he gets to the next step, and he is around more guys like himself, you’ll see.”
He played both ways for the Bulldogs, on the defensive line and at tight end.
“When he wanted to get somewhere, three people couldn’t block him,” said John Ivy, the head coach at Queen City during the late ’90s.
During Peters' junior year, college coaches came flooding in. One of them, an offensive line coach at a national powerhouse, said that Peters could make millions if he started playing tackle.
“He didn’t want to hear that,” Davis said with a chuckle. “I reminded him of that a few years ago.”
Before Peters headed off to Arkansas, where he played tight end, he led the Bulldogs basketball team to a berth in the regional semifinals, scoring 37 points with 12 rebounds in a 71-59 loss.
“One of the best I’ve ever coached against,” said Ron Boyett, who was on the opposite sideline that day. “One of those guys you just want to run away from.”
In that sense, not much has changed. Sunday, for the second straight season, the Eagles will take the field as an underdog in the divisional round. At left tackle will be one of the biggest reasons to hope that this is the first of three more games.