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Retired NFL QB Rodney Peete talks CTE, autism awareness and family in the second season of ‘For Peete’s Sake’

Athletes should get to a doctor now — before it’s too late

When retired NFL quarterback Rodney Peete married actress Holly Robinson (21 Jump Street, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, For Your Love) in 1995, the couple never imagined the impact they’d have on families all over the world.

The power couple is raising four children, one with autism and another with ADHD, while balancing their foundation and Peete’s post-NFL career. And it’s on display for the world to see. On Feb. 18, the Peetes showcased the first episode of the second season of their OWN reality show, For Peete’s Sake, which portrays a glimpse of their life.

The new season picks up right where it left off last season. An MRI exam revealed that Rodney, 50, has lesions on his brain that could be an indicator that the brain trauma from decades of playing football may lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Peete played for 16 years in the NFL.

“As soon as they put that face mask on my face and I knew what this was for. I didn’t like it,” Peete said during the show. “I didn’t like feeling that vulnerable. The anxiety of me laying there is me thinking about the worst-case scenario.”

According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. The Associated Press reported that the NFL estimates 6,000 former players, or nearly one-third could develop Alzheimer’s disease or moderate dementia from suffering concussions.

Peete shows no symptoms, but the only way to be diagnosed is after a person dies. In an effort to spread the word and learn more about CTE, the Peetes have joined a Harvard University study that examines the health concerns of former football players. According to its website, the Football Players Health Study lists Rodney Peete as a player adviser.

In May 2012, Peete lost good friend and teammate Junior Seau to suicide, related to the effects of CTE.

“Junior and I went to USC together, went to college together,” Peete told The Undefeated. “Very close friends from that moment we were in college together, then obviously went on and had a tremendous NFL career, and we remained friends to the day he died. It was tough, because Junior was a guy, not only in his family but in his immediate circle, was a guy that kept everybody together, kept everybody happy. He did everything for his family. He had a big extended family. He was the big breadwinner in that family. Junior did a lot for the community with charity and philanthropic, and all those things that drove him. Just a great human being and always had a smile on his face. Everything we did with Junior. So when we got word that he had taken his own life, it was a shock. It was a shock to me. As someone that was close to him, I felt a lot of guilt that I didn’t know certain things were going on with him. He was able to mask a lot of those things outwardly, smiling and being happy, everything was OK, when deep down he was extremely troubled. Still to this day, it’s something I think about. It’s very tough to think that we don’t have him here with us right now.”

Drawing on expertise from across the university, the Harvard study is dedicated to understanding the causes of conditions former NFL players face, with the goal of improving their health and well-being.

According to the study’s website, “The Football Players Health Study is working on prevention, diagnostics and treatment strategies for the most common and severe conditions affecting professional football players. We are focused on the integrated health of football players, not solely one concern or condition. Our work is on the cutting edge, pushing innovative ideas forward and turning discovery into therapy. In addition, the study is working to understand the legal and ethical issues that may promote or impede player well-being, and developing responsive recommendations to resolve them. In order to determine what these issues are and what is important to former players, we are gathering input and listening to them.”

Peete added that retirement is an emotional time in a player’s life, and his thoughts of dealing with brain trauma takes its toll.

“You go through an emotional roller coaster when you’re done playing football. Even if you look at it as, ‘Oh, I only played pros for three years.’ You look at most guys’ life that even had an opportunity to play professional football, it didn’t start there. It started when they were 8, 9 years old, so they’ve been doing it for a long, long time. That transition is very tough.

Rodney Peete #9 of the Philadelphia Eagles throws a pass against the Detroit Lions during an NFL Football game September 15, 1996 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Peete played for the Eagles from 1995-98.

Rodney Peete #9 of the Philadelphia Eagles throws a pass against the Detroit Lions during an NFL Football game September 15, 1996 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Peete played for the Eagles from 1995-98.

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“Then you’ve got the guys that abused their body along the way, and the effects of that are going to come back and haunt you later in life. We dealt with that in that conversation. Certain guys, as athletes, especially as men, we believe that you never let them see you sweat. We don’t want to talk about our injuries. We don’t want to talk about you can’t sleep at night. We don’t want to talk about we got headaches. We don’t want to talk about something maybe going on with my brain, I can’t remember or I’m not feeling so well. We kind of dust it under the rug because we were taught to go back and play hurt, and play at all costs.”

The show’s trailer for the remainder of the season shows support groups the Peetes participate in with other NFL players and their families.

“It’s really to bring everybody under the tent — and everybody’s different. Especially when guys retire, we go through a bunch of emotions,” Peete said. “That happens whether you played 16 years like me or played three years or played two years.”

Peete said the conversations he had with other players during the show were to encourage them that it’s OK to talk about everything involving CTE, including early intervention, early treatment and early diagnosis that they may not consider until it’s too late.

“That’s what we want to avoid with a lot of former players and even some of the current players,” he said. “We want to really address the former players in a way that, look, it’s OK to talk about these things. We’re all going through them. Let’s get a diagnosis early so we may be able to treat it so you’re not dealing with something major when you’re 60 or 70 years old.”

Peete said he’s in a good place in his life.

“I had to have the ups and downs,” he said. “I think you’ve got to have some failures. You’ve got to have some bad times. How you overcome them is what makes you who you are. I’m proud of being married for 22 years and have four great kids. By no means nobody’s perfect and it hasn’t been rosy the whole way. We’ve fought and had some knock-down, drag-outs and had our issues, but the bad times help the good times and vice versa.”

The intimate show follows the couple and their children — twins RJ and Ryan Elizabeth, Robinson and Roman. The most unique part about their life is RJ, who began displaying signs of autism when he was 2 years old. He is now is transitioning into adulthood and working in his first job with the Los Angeles Dodgers, learning to drive and interacting with his family, while his twin sister Ryan is heading off to college at New York University.

The Peetes seek to inspire other families by bringing attention to their life.

“Holly went out and pitched it,” Rodney Peete said of the inception of the show. “Oprah came calling and said, ‘No, you can’t do it anywhere but us. I chronicled your whole lives and before you had kids and you guys got engaged and the whole deal. You don’t need to be anywhere but on our station.’ So that’s how that happened.”

They also wanted to make sure families see the positive side of reality television.

“When you hear the word reality, and in your face so hard, you automatically think about the bad stuff, flipping tables, trash and ghetto,” Peete said. “We all like those sort of things, they’re guilty pleasures to watch, but I don’t want to be a part of it. So when we had an opportunity to do something positive, and it’s real, too, and there’d be something positive along the way, I was OK with it.

“We wanted certain things to be portrayed, so we’d deal with the real issues of a black family, have teenage boys and a teenage daughter and one going off to college and all that, and one with autism. We deal with the reality of life, and we tackle it head-on. I think that’s the big thing.”

Peete said that after about a week, the family forgets the cameras are around even though there are 30 people in the house.

Besides dealing with the 19-year-old twins, with the help of Holly’s mother, Dolores, Holly and Rodney also prepare to homeschool Robinson and Roman as they continue to tackle the surprises of raising teens.

Whether they’re advocating for autism awareness, Parkinson’s disease or positive social change through the HollyRod Foundation, navigating the trials of raising kids in today’s world, or just trying to keep their marriage sexy and successful, there’s always something dramatic happening behind the scenes with the Peetes.

Rodney Peete, who is a co-founder of the HollyRod foundation, is best known for his leadership on the field. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from University of Southern California, where he was a first-team All-American quarterback, winner of the 1988 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award for best senior quarterback and the 1988 Pac-10 Player of the Year. During his 16 successful seasons in the NFL, Peete was named to various All-Rookie teams, led two different franchises to the playoffs, had a winning record as a starting quarterback and retired after his NFC championship season and Super Bowl XXXVIII appearance with the Carolina Panthers.

Peete went on to co-host The Best Damn Sports Show Period on Fox. He can also be seen hosting a variety of NFL and college preview and recap shows for Fox, Fox.com and ABC’s Sports Zone. In March 2010, Peete authored his first book titled Not My Boy!: A Father, A Son, and One Family’s Journey with Autism. Peete is a member of the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame, the USC Hall of Fame, and serves on the board of governors at his alma mater.

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.