Former gridiron Dawgs maintain cycle of mentorship, community service

MSU freshman linebacker Cameron Miller (left), alumnus, Super Bowl champion Tyrone Keys (middle) and assistant strength coach Nathaniel Peoples are all connected by a legacy of mentorship and community service that spans multiple generations of athletes.

Nathaniel Peoples’ office overlooks the weight room at the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex. As an assistant strength coach, he helps the Mississippi State University football team prepare physically to play at college football’s highest level.

Peoples knows what it takes because he’s been there before—in the weight room, on the practice field, doing what it takes to improve. In 1994, he was a walk-on freshman for the Bulldogs, going from a top high-school player in Florida to someone who stayed home when his college team left for road games.

The adjustment was a challenge.

“Every Saturday morning, the phone would ring and he would say, ‘Mr. Keys, they left again without me,’” explained Tyrone Keys. “I said, ‘Nate, keep your eye on the prize and the big picture.’”

A legendary former Bulldog defensive tackle and NFL player, Keys embodies the “big picture.” After his football career, the member of the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears turned his focus to helping young athletes, like Peoples, reach their full potential.

Peoples was among the first young men mentored through All Sports Community Service Foundation, a nonprofit Keys co-founded in Tampa, Florida, after an aspiring college football player he knew was shot and killed. The young man was offered a scholarship to a Texas school but never seized the opportunity.

The tragic death motivated Keys to ensure area athletes knew how to make good decisions on and off the field. With the help of a local businessman, he started the All Sports Community Service Foundation in 1993 and soon met Peoples, then a linebacker at Armwood High School in Florida.

Peoples came from a supportive home, but appreciated the life lessons offered by Keys, a fifth-round draft pick who always appreciated what others had done for him.

“As he helped me, I helped him do some things in the Tampa community,” Peoples said. “We were giving back to youngsters and some of the elderly organizations. That’s what the backbone of his organization is all about.”

When it came time for Peoples to look at playing football after high school, Keys—a Bulldog legend for his last second, fumble-causing sack that sealed the 1980 upset over the top-ranked Crimson Tide—helped Peoples secure a walk-on spot at Mississippi State. However, when it came to navigating the experience, the older Bulldog’s perspective could only help Peoples so much.

"I feel that it’s not just my duty as a coach, but as a human being, to try to point them in the right direction every day." ~Nathaniel Peoples

Keys came to Mississippi State in 1977 as a highly recruited student-athlete from Callaway High School in Jackson. Unlike Peoples, his spot on the traveling squad had been virtually assured. His path to the starting lineup had fewer roadblocks.

To help the new walk-on navigate his position and the challenges it posed, Keys turned to someone who could relate to the challenges: his former teammate and Bulldog walk-on, Mike McEnany. After an introduction, Peoples spent off-seasons working for McEnany’s construction company, which he said taught him the value of hard work and education.

When not building and repairing roofs with McEnany’s company, Peoples worked hard in the weight room and on the practice field. That effort eventually paid off when he was awarded a full scholarship for his last two years as a linebacker.

Peoples ended his playing career in 1997 and received a degree in fitness management. He then became a graduate assistant with the Mississippi State strength and conditioning staff while pursuing a master’s degree.
“I wasn’t always the fastest or the strongest. I wasn’t gifted with the most natural ability. I always had to bring those things out in the weight room,” Peoples said. “It felt like a natural fit to go from a guy that always depended on strength and conditioning to compete with some of the better players on the team to being a strength coach.”

After leaving Mississippi State, Peoples spent a year working full time for All Sports Community Service Foundation, which he had remained involved with during his college years. There, he helped guide Tampa-native Fred Reid to Mississippi State.

Peoples accepted his first full-time strength coach position at the University of Central Florida in 2000, then worked his way through stops at Stanford, Syracuse, Western Michigan and Illinois before ultimately returning to Mississippi State as an assistant strength coach in 2015.

As someone who sees the players as much, if not more, than the team’s on-field coaching staff, Peoples considers it his duty to prepare the young men for all facets of life. He said he finds himself acting as a brother, dad and counselor on any given day as players come to him with different life issues.

“I feel that it’s not just my duty as a coach, but as a human being, to try to point them in the right direction every day,” Peoples said.

More than 20 years after they met, Keys said he remains proud of Peoples’ accomplishments, especially how he’s fostered a cycle of mentorship.

By staying involved with All Sports, Peoples was able to work with Keys to help Florida prep standout Ricky Sailor make his way to Texas Tech University after off-field issues caused a scholarship offer to be pulled in the late 1990s.

That experience motivated Sailor to start a new company Unsigned Preps, which Keys is involved with as well, to help prepare athletes for college opportunities.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Keys said. “If a former student comes back with an idea for a program, we try to provide them with opportunities to help awaken the spiritual and social conscience of the next generation of students. ‘From the root to the fruit’ is what we call it.”

The next generation already has a presence on the Mississippi State campus. Cameron Miller, a linebacker from the Tampa area, joined the Bulldogs as a walk-on in August.

He discovered the Bulldogs through Unsigned Preps. In Florida, he and other high school athletes participated in community service, a leadership conference and local tournaments. Unsigned Preps also organized a bus tour of different colleges throughout the Southeast. Through it all, the players were reminded of the importance of mentorship and giving back, Miller said.

“I had really good parents that taught me how to act. A lot of guys in Unsigned Preps with me didn’t exactly have that,” Miller said. “Some of them could have very easily gone down a very bad path. Coach Ricky (Sailor) and Tyrone did the absolute best to make sure guys were doing the right thing and they were making good grades to help them get to college.”

By James Carskadon, Photo by Russ Houston