A cream-colored wall supports a picture frame in the top left-hand corner of the collage, displaying a family of a mom, dad and two sons dressed in bright clothes with big smiles. Underneath the frame hangs a 2017 diploma from The University of Oklahoma earned by Derek R. Peterson.
The frame directly below contains a group of eight college-aged friends with the backdrop of evergreen trees. Their arms are around each other, faces lit up with happiness; the force of their laughter causes a couple of them to bend over slightly.
The right frame, the biggest of all, holds a newspaper article on a maroon picture mat. The OU Daily Sports section exhibits “Freshman guard matures for OU” by Peterson. On the right of his first published article is four basketball trading cards vertically aligned and hanging by command clips.
In the middle of the wall, four identical white matted picture frames are arranged two-by-two making an even larger rectangle. Each is filled with a different story. Each is written with great detail, carefulness and dedication. The center of Peterson’s home office wall houses four of his own favorite feature stories. The covers feature Drew Brown (top left), Stanley Morgan Jr. (top right), Scott Frost (bottom left) and Jamie Nance (bottom right). Each of these stories means something special to him and represents a different part of his creativity and character.
“It’s an honor to be able to tell people’s stories, and I think it’s an honor when people allow you into their lives and allow you to write their narrative,” Peterson said.
The staff writer at Hail Varsity has had a feature story on the front cover of the monthly magazine almost a dozen times since he arrived in 2017. Hail Varsity, a print magazine based in downtown Lincoln, Neb. that tags themselves as “The Voice of Huskers Nation,” was founded in 2012 with the goal to cover primarily Nebraska football but also other Huskers sports.
Huskers football is the heart and soul of Lincoln and all of Nebraska. Memorial Stadium has sold out every game since 1962 and holds more than 90,000 fans on a football Saturday, becoming the third-largest “city” in Nebraska. In fact, Nebraska just held its first-ever “virtual spring game” and estimated over 24,000 viewers.
The people of Nebraska love their football but are also passionate about other sports. Huskers volleyball is one of the most decorated college volleyball teams and has sold out 268 straight matches. Nebraska is well-known around the country for its extremely dedicated, loyal and knowledgeable fan base. And Hail Varsity has capitalized on this.
Sports journalists dream about writing for such a faithful fan base. For Peterson, journalism is not just about the views and the awards, it is about sharing people’s stories in a way that will make them proud.
“There are journalists who want to tell stories because they want to tell stories that people can be proud of,” Peterson said of himself and his fellow journalists at Hail Varsity.
Peterson spends hours with his trusty paintbrush, striving to create a masterpiece. He has the ability and the drive to create a real moment with a strong voice and imagery. He writes like Picasso by using his thin paintbrush to outline every inch of a character, to delicately fill in the details and background of their life. But this masterpiece is not for his enjoyment, although he loves to write. The careful curves and colors are drawn to make the subject proud.
As much as he loves to write and, of course, wants people to enjoy his writing, he wants to paint his model in the most accurate and beautiful way possible. He wants his subject to feel as if they are looking in a mirror that reflects their journey, their motivations and their passions.
“I want to tell a story that the subject will hold onto and cherish,” Peterson said.
His wall contains four magazine covers that each frame a story handled with great care and reflect his writing talents, life experiences and character.
“Jamie Nance: The Center of Attention”
Incoming Nebraska football freshman, Jamie Nance grew up about 30 minutes from Oklahoma City in Blanchard, Okla., a town of 8,800 people who love and support Nance, the greatest athlete to come out of their town. Peterson’s article “The Center of Attention” about Jamie Nance was featured in the January 2019 issue of Hail Varsity Magazine.
In this feature, Peterson follows Nance around his hometown, from small shops on the main street to the Blanchard High School football field located right next to its baseball diamond. The baseball players getting ready for practice shout “GBR” and “Frost Season” according to Peterson. His story illustrates how much the people of Blanchard love Nance and how much Nance loves these people and his hometown.
Just like Nance, Peterson loves his hometown of Edmond, Okla., just 45 minutes away from Blanchard. He moved to Edmond, a northeast suburb of Oklahoma City, when he was 7 years old from Bellevue, Neb. He was actually born in Des Moines, Iowa and lived there for about two years before moving to Bellevue. His grandparents on his father’s side are from Bellevue and so is his mom’s mother, Cheri Menter. Peterson said he and his grandmother have a very close relationship.
This relationship grew stronger when Menter moved to Edmond in the early 2000s after her son, Scott Kimsey, died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition in 2003 at the age of 27. Kimsey was a Marine and collapsed of a heart attack during a morning run at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif. He left behind a wife and three little girls. Menter moved in with Kimsey and his family in Omaha, Neb. to help them grieve. Eventually, she moved to Oklahoma to be closer to her daughter.
He describes himself as “a lot like Scott” which is why he and Menter connect on such a deep level. He feels that his grandmother is the easiest person for him to talk to and respects her highly.
“She’s the most selfless person that I’ve ever met, and she’s the most caring person that I’ve ever met,” Peterson said of Menter.
Peterson said he has a close relationship with all of this immediate family, which includes his parents and younger brother, Daniel, who shares his brother’s passion for sports and is considering a career in sports media. Derek says that his brother follows almost every sport and is better at remembering statistics and roster transactions than he is.
Right after Daniel was born when Peterson was 5 years old, his father took him to his first football game. No. 2 Nebraska was playing No. 1 Oklahoma at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 27, 2001. The Huskers won 20-10, thanks to the famous Black 41 Flash Reserve Pass from Mike Stuntz to Eric Crouch for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“It was a hell of a first football game,” Peterson said.
His father, Brian, is a “huge” Nebraska football fan and was “very disappointed” when his oldest son decided to attend The University of Oklahoma.
Peterson majored in psychology on the pre-law track until his sophomore year when his grades started to slip because of his lack of interest in what he was learning. After he lost one of his scholarships, he turned to his mother, Trisha. She told him, “You need to do something that you’re passionate about and you care about,” which led him to journalism and the OU Daily.
At The University of Oklahoma’s student paper, Peterson found himself at the news desk his first semester and then on the sports desk his second. He loved the editor he was working for, Spenser Davis, and eventually, the paper’s adviser, Seth Prince, would become one of his closest friends.
Sports journalism was a great fit for Peterson because of his passion for sports, especially basketball.
“I understand the intricacies of (basketball) more, more so than I do football,” he said.
Because of this, he wanted to cover either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Chicago Bulls after he graduated from OU.
But when Prince got a call from his former coworker, Quentin Lueninghoener, the design director at Hail Varsity about a job covering Nebraska sports, Prince recommended Peterson. After a phone interview and a six-and-a-half-hour drive for interview No. 2 in Lincoln, he was offered to the job and moved to Lincoln, Neb.
He came full circle. His first football game, Nebraska vs. Oklahoma, was a sign for his life. Both teams in his first football game became extremely important to who he is and how he got to where he is today.
“It was pretty poetic,” Peterson said.
“Scott Frost: Carved in Wood River”
The beginning of Peterson’s career at Hail Varsity was eventful. He covered Mike Riley’s last year as the Nebraska head football coach in 2017 and the return of Nebraska football’s former star quarterback and national champion, Scott Frost.
Months after Frost announced that he was coming back to Nebraska after an undefeated season at the University of Central Florida, every sports reporter in Nebraska and many around the country were talking about Frost. In order to write something unique, Peterson knew he had to go with a feature piece.
Feature writing “is where you set yourself apart as a journalist,” Peterson said. Long-form writing and feature pieces have no rules according to him, which allows the writer’s artistry to shine through.
“It’s their way of expressing who they are as a writer,” he said.
In “Scott Frost: Carved in Wood River” published in the December 2017 issue of Hail Varsity, Peterson discusses Frost’s hometown of Wood River, Neb., his family and his school and high school athletic career. The perspective provided displayed Frost’s high school football career, his character and his friendships.
He interviewed three of Frost’s former Wood River High School teammates and one of his teachers who doubled as an assistant football coach. All four of these men were able to see Frost grow up into a mature, talented high school quarterback then watch him earn a national championship at Nebraska in 1997. Despite these accomplishments and an ever-growing impressive coaching resume, Peterson was able to illustrate how his character has not changed through their stories and memories.
The most effective way to get a full picture of a person is to talk to the people surrounding them, Peterson said. He proves this in every one of his feature pieces, describing his subject’s characteristics and experiences through other’s eyes.
Peterson described stories about Frost and his teammates playing cards after football practice every day in the future coach’s basement. And others where his former teammates were shocked at Frost’s reaction to seeing them at the Oregon-Colorado game when Frost was still the wide receiver coach at Oregon. “It was just like we were in high school again,” Mark Codner, Frost’s former tight end and high school friend, told Peterson. The moments the four men shared illustrated who Frost is and who he was perfectly.
Every Nebraska football fan in the country knows Frost’s professional and athletic background, so instead of reporting on public knowledge, Peterson painted the Huskers head coach with a different color and a different angle.
When Peterson is fighting writer’s block or is concerned with the originality of his piece, he reads “When Winter Never Ends.” His favorite article and feature story paints the subject in a completely different light. “When Winter Never Ends” by Wright Thompson was published in March of 2018 and describes five days in the life of Ichiro Suziki, one of the greatest baseball players of all time.
Peterson is mesmerized by how Thompson “plays with moments” and “stretches them out.” Thompson travels to Japan to write a feature story about a man he has little to no access to and does it “eloquently” and “incredibly.” Ironically, he doesn’t watch, follow or really care about baseball. However, Thompson’s description of Ichiro is still “the best piece of sports journalism that I think I’ve ever read,” he said.
Peterson’s lack of interest in baseball shows how impactful feature writing can be. Despite this opinion, the way that Thompson illustrates Ichiro’s story infatuates him and makes him strive to use some of Thompson’s techniques.
“I like to read people who write aggressive feature stories. I like to read people who are adventurous in the things they report or (who) go after bold story ideas,” Peterson said.
The Hail Varsity staff writer appreciates when journalists exhibit great attention to detail and strive to do the same. Baxter Holmes, also an OU alumnus, is rumored to have tracked down an airport bartender to collect “one really insignificant anecdote.” Peterson believes that every journalist needs to display this amount of care for telling other’s journeys.
“Drawing on Experience: Drew Brown Looks Back to Move Forward”
The front cover of the 2017 October issue of Hail Varsity Magazine is a picture of former Huskers football placekicker, Drew Brown, wearing his red jersey and full pads; however, you can just see the tops of his shoulders. What draws you in is the solemn look on his face and the almost recognizable pain.
The article “Drawing on Experience: Drew Brown Looks Back to Move Forward,” telling the delicate story of a football player deeply affected by the loss of his best friend and teammate, Sam Foltz. Peterson describes the relationship between Drew and his older brother, Kris, and his chosen brother, Foltz.
Brown felt he had to live every moment of his senior year for both him and Foltz. The Nebraska kicker struggled with the expectation of celebrating the monumental moments of his last year as a Husker and his football career but “instead he feels burdened or saddled with wanting to make sure that he’s living every moment that Sam didn’t get to live,” wrote Peterson.
Brown’s story was extra special because of the overwhelming grief he was experiencing.
“For him to allow me to tell that story and for him to allow me into that intimate part of his life, I think that’s incredible,” Peterson said.
Because Peterson is given permission to share another’s journey, he feels anxious when he submits the story to his editors and when his article gets published. His anxiety is induced by his hope that “the people I wrote about appreciate and like the way that I told their story,” he said.
Writing a subject’s narrative is special to Peterson because it is important to people like Brown, Frost, Nance and Stanley Morgan Jr. to be portrayed in a light that is true to them and their experiences.
“All of these stories were for other people,” he said in reference to the four magazine covers framed on his wall.
“At Nebraska, Stanley Morgan Jr. Has Unfinished Business”
The top right corner of Peterson’s collection of framed magazines is the April 2018 issue of Hail Varsity featuring Stanley Morgan Jr. who is showing off a jean jacket with three red flowers on his left forearm and a New Orleans Pelicans hat with a laugh dancing across his face. Why wouldn’t he be smiling; he had just announced his decision to return to the Huskers football team for his senior year.
“At Nebraska, Stanley Morgan Jr. Has Unfinished Business” by Derek Peterson tells the story of a driven and talented Nebraska football wide receiver from New Orleans. Peterson describes Morgan’s drive to “mark his name atop a list of Nebraska greats.” This article details it’s opening sentence: “To understand why Stanley Morgan Jr. stayed, you have to understand why he came.”
Peterson had a lengthy phone call with Morgan’s mother, Monique Jason, about her son’s childhood and deep passion and talent for football. To Peterson’s surprise, after they both hung up, Jason called right back and claimed she had Morgan Sr. on the other line; she had patched him in from prison. “I want him to be part of the story,” he remembers Jason saying.
He was totally blindsided and didn’t have any questions prepared for Stanley Morgan Sr., who was convicted of sexual battery in 2005 and sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2007, according to Peterson. Peterson was forced to think on his feet.
Peterson says this is his favorite article but you might be surprised why. His ‘why’ was not because of its in-depth description of Morgan’s football talent, dedication, charisma and passion for the game. His ‘why’ is not because of the full coverage of Morgan Jr.’s decisions to enroll at Nebraska and stay a Husker for one last season. This is his favorite because he made the mistake of being underprepared.
He claims that he thinks about this piece and his mistake a lot.
“It could have been so great. It could have been this moment that took the piece from really good and made it one percent better,” Peterson said.
Striving to make a piece of writing “1% better” is a term Prince, the adviser at the OU Daily, would ask of his journalists. Peterson is still always looking for a way to improve his articles and writing in general.
Eventually, he wants to take over Prince’s job when he is ready to retire. The OU Daily cultivated many of Peterson’s skills and also started his love for storytelling. The driving force of his long-term career is to be able to “nurture the next generation of journalists.”
But for now, like Morgan Jr., Peterson has “unfinished business” at Nebraska.
Peterson is so determined to become a better journalist that his favorite article is the one that he felt didn’t get the “one percent.” He wants to be able to share people’s journeys and moments as perfectly as possible, that is why he wants to always be improving his journalism skills: “I want to write an article that that kid’s mom wants to hang on the wall.”