COSTA MESA — Alipa Peters has experienced a lot of adversity, from financial hardship to the death of loved ones. Tuesday afternoon was a time to celebrate his ability to rise above it all.
At Estancia High's training center, teammates applauded the soft-spoken 17-year-old who received the surprise of his lifetime. He was one of two Orange County football players selected into the Legacy Leadership Project, a mentoring program that includes an all-expenses-paid trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Peters, who has two deceased brothers and a father who died of heart failure 10 years ago, was left speechless about receiving the rare honor.
"This is the biggest surprise [in my life]," Peters said later. "It was like a dream come true."
For the past few weeks, coaches and administrators at Estancia kept quiet about the good news for Peters, who was nominated by Eagles football coach Mike Bargas.
The coach who guided Estancia to its first outright league championship in 21 years was selected as the Orange County representative for the Legacy Leadership Project, which is in its third year.
Ron Yary, a former USC star lineman and NFL Hall of Famer, visited Estancia to announce Peters' honor in front of a TV camera and a packed classroom that included teammates, a few parents, coaches and Principal Kirk Bauermeister.
They all watched as Peters stood stunned to learn that he would be mentored by either Yary or Hall of Fame defensive back Mike Haynes for his senior season. Peters will also go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the enshrinement ceremonies in August and will receive full access, said Dr. Casey Cooper, the director of the Legacy Leadership Project.
"They have more access than the press," Cooper said of Peters and El Modena incoming senior Alfonso Cacciatore, who also had a visit from Yary at his school later in the day.
The Legacy Leadership Project, which is sponsored by Newport Sports Museum, works as an ambassador of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A group selected two Orange County football players among 71 who were eligible for selection after being nominated by their coach.
The nominees attended workshops and also submitted an essay detailing what it would mean to be mentored by a Hall of Famer.
"I just wrote that it would mean the world to me," Peters said. "I said it would help me understand one of the main things in my life and that it would help me find out what football is all about."
Bargas said he nominated Peters for the mentoring project because he thought Peters was the perfect candidate. Peters has shown great potential and is a good-natured kid; he just needs to be more vocal, Bargas thought.
Bargas said the 6-foot-2, 270-pound defensive tackle plays the game with great emotion and the coach is also aware the teen has experienced plenty of adversity.
According to Peters, when he was a baby, his older brother died in a drowning accident. Six years ago in Samoa, another older brother was killed when he jumped from a cliff for the ocean but landed on rocks.
That same year, his grandmother died.
The deaths took a toll on the family. Peters' mother, Sa, has struggled to make it work as a single mom. Peters says things are good for the family now, but, "I want better for my mom and my sisters," he said. "I want to make something of my life. I want to do something for my family."
Peters has two sisters, and two brothers, Billy, who played for Estancia two years ago, and Kevin, who will be a junior on the football team.
He said he never wanted to use the death of his loved ones as a crutch or an excuse to fail or waste his potential.
"At first when my older brother died and the same year my grandma died it really hurt," he said. "I went for some help and I learned that people in your life are going to die. That's just the way life is. You have to roll with the punches. It's better to remember somebody by how they lived than remember how they died."
Peters also said it was best to press on after the deaths because that's what they would want him to do. Moving on now includes shaking hands with Yary and posing for photos with him.
Yary, who played 15 years in the NFL as an offensive lineman and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, gave advice to the Eagles and congratulated Peters.
"You had to open up your heart and your mind as well, and you did," Yary said. "You earned it."
Yary then turned to the audience and said, "I played with some great players in the past and he's going to meet them."
Peters said he wants to meet Jerry Rice, a Hall of Fame wide receiver, and Barry Sanders, a Hall of Fame running back.
When recalling the scenes with Yary and Peters, Bargas' voice shook with emotion. He said he got choked up about Yary's visit and the great opportunity he'll get to experience with Peters. He called it, "Christmas in August."
"It's a privilege for us," Bargas said. "For Alipa, I think it's going to be a life-changing event."