We would run through a wall if it meant not disappointing him. He was an amazing inspiration to me and to so many other people. —Ed Eyestone
ROY — When it came right down to it, his nickname, "Neville the Devil," didn't really describe the way people felt about him at all.
Oh, sure, longtime high school coach and teacher Neville Peterman's persona was often like that of the Tazmanian Devil. During a track or cross country meet, he could be a wild man, a whirling dervish of endless energy, enthusiasm and intense emotion.
But he'll always be remembered for the tremendous way he challenged people to push themselves in a never-ending quest to be the very best they could be — not just on the track, but also in life.
Peterman, who passed away last week at age 73 after several years of declining health, was fondly remembered by many of his former athletes, their parents, fellow coaches and his children in a wonderful, touching memorial service Monday evening at Roy High School.
Turns out "the Devil" was truly a wonderful, beloved man who made a huge, positive impact on the lives of countless young men and women over a 31-year career as a track and cross country coach at Bonneville and Roy high schools.
He guided the Lakers to state championships in both boys track and cross country in the 1970s — and they haven't won a state track title since. He moved on to Roy High as a special education teacher in the late 1990s, when he returned to coaching and he and head coach Mike Hein guided the Royals' boys to a state championship in track in 1991.
"He was definitely enthusiastic and passionate," Hein said. "He was an intense character, and everyone that knew Neville has a Neville story. I owe a lot to him."
Ed Eyestone, a two-time Olympic marathon runner and currently the head track and field coach at BYU, was one of Peterman's prized pupils during their days together at Bonneville High.
"He was very passionate and sometimes he wore his heart on his sleeve because we were his family. He did a tremendous job of building a team culture," Eyestone said. "He was unique and was so far ahead of his time — simple things like the importance of two-a-day runs, morning runs as well as afternoon runs, the importance of hydration.
"Because of the passion he had, we wanted to be better. ... We would run through a wall if it meant not disappointing him. He was an amazing inspiration to me and to so many other people. Those same coaching tools of setting goals, working hard, nothing's given to you and you've got to earn it, I think he employed in his classrooms as well, and I think that's why the kids loved him. That just tears at your heart to hear a kid (Jeff "Bubba" Wardleigh) remembering that Neville taught him how to write his name in cursive. He was an advocate for women's causes; he was an advocate for the bullied.
"... He was your biggest fan and he would do anything to help you achieve whatever high, impossible goal he had helped you set," Eyestone said. "And because of his belief in you, you believed that that high, impossible goal was possible. Everyone here would say that they would run better than they were capable of running because of Neville."
Among coach Peterman's many glowing attributes that those in attendance spoke of were the way he championed girls' participation in high school athletics, the incredible heart he poured into everything he did, the tight-knit family atmosphere he built with his teams, the boundless love he had for his athletes, who he treated like his sons and daughters — "He didn't consider us his runners, he considered us his children," one of them said — and the amazing way he pushed, prodded and motivated people, bringing out their best efforts and encouraging and convincing them to do difficult things they didn't think they could do.
He hated the word "potential," yet he always saw talent in people that they didn't see in themselves, and he always believed they were faster, stronger and better than they believed they were. He was a fierce protector of his athletes and his programs, and he believed in defending the defenseless. He was a father figure to many teenagers, a man who constantly sacrificed the time he could be with his own family to spend time and serve his track family.
Peterman was a tough, undersized hockey player and distance runner from Canada who came to Utah to run for Weber State back in the late 1960s and early '70s. Though he was stubborn and never backed down from a fight, he truly cared about people, all people, including those with substance abuse issues, because an alcohol addiction was something he had battled himself and overcame during his life.
"His dedication to people with substance abuse was unparalleled in my life," said current Weber State track coach Dan Walker. "People that had had problems with substance abuse, he was always there for them. And I know that there are so many people that are leading better lives and even being alive today because of his caring about their substance abuse."
Bill Schuffenhauer, a key member of Roy High's state track title team in 1991, went on to be a track and field star at Weber State, specializing in the 10-event decathlon. He then got an opportunity to compete in the Olympics — not in the Summer Games, as was his original goal, but instead in the 2002 Winter Games as a member of the U.S. Men's Bobsled Team, winning a silver medal in the four-man competition. He also competed in 2006.
Schuffenhauer got to see Peterman's strict, tough-love guidance first-hand on a daily basis when he went to live with the Peterman family during his senior year of high school after Schuffenhauer's foster family moved to Japan. At that time, Bill was running with a pretty rough crowd, and his life could've certainly gone in a much different, destructive direction.
In a way, Peterman saved him from what might've become a deeply troubled life of being a reckless hellion and possibly winding up in prison.
"That's more than fair to say," Schuffenhauer said through tears. "That was really the turning point of my life, to look back and be so thankful for somebody who believed in me when I didn't even believe in myself. It's great to have all the achievements and stuff like that, but it's more meaningful for the things I learned from him, the life lessons, that helped mold me to be the man I am as well.
"The goal to go to the Olympics started with coach Peterman and coach Hein. I didn't believe in myself, but coach Hein and coach Peterman believed in me.
"Neville had so much impact on my life, even still today, and will continue to do so. ... And I'm so thankful for everything he's done for me. Obviously, we know what he's done for my life, and you think about all the other people that he's done the same thing for," Schuffenhauer said. "Neville was the key."
Indeed, coach Peterman was a guy who led by example, a strong, positive and intense example of determination and dedication, of never backing down or giving up, of setting high goals and constantly striving to achieve them.
He definitely made a huge, positive impact on the lives of thousands of young people. And he will be greatly missed by so many of them who will always admire, respect and love him so much for it.