Bighaus column: Rocky's 'Little Joe' keeps Hall on hold to help others
It may stay that way for a few more years.
The 36-year-old Peterson was a hard-charging, high-scoring basketball standout at the school in the late 1990s. For the past nine years, "Little Joe" has been serving as a missionary, teacher and soccer coach in Africa, working to help ease poverty and hardship in rural Kenya.
Peterson, who was visiting Billings for the first time in four years last weekend, said it was "kind of a shock" in 2010 when he received the news in the small fishing village of Mbita that Rocky had chosen him to be a member of its sports Hall of Fame.
"I don't know if I quite deserve it to be honest with you," he said. "But I'm very much honored."
The 5-foot-9 Peterson, a point guard, earned All-Frontier Conference accolades and some NAIA All-America recognition during his senior season at Rocky in 1997-98.
He went on to become an assistant coach for the Battlin' Bears for one season before moving on to serve as a Division I assistant for two years at Northwestern State University in Louisiana, and two years at Charleston Southern University in Charleston, S.C.
Northwestern State made it to the NCAA Tournament in 2001 -- and even won a game.
However, a few years later, following a short trip to Kenya, Peterson decided to step away from his promising coaching career. He sold all of his personal belongings and has been doing missionary work for Christ's Gift Academy in Mbita since 2004.
"My role with the young children in Kenya is to try to bring hope to them," Peterson said. "Bring hope for this life, but more than that bring hope for eternity for them."
Christ's Gift Academy, situated on Lake Victoria, was started in 1997 in response to the HIV/AIDs pandemic. It was developed to provide a quality education for orphans and other needy children in the community.
"Life is challenging," Peterson said. "But when you know you're where you're supposed to be, you just throw yourself into it and do the best that you can."
Peterson, a native of Lake Havasu, Ariz., returned to the United States in August and has been traveling across the country raising funds for the school, his own personal support and for the Mbita District's Suba Lakers Girls Football Club, which was formed in 2009.
"I couldn't live in Africa and do what I do without the support of the people here back home," he said. "It wouldn't be possible."
Peterson left Monday for Portland, Ore., and will also stop in Seattle. He has talked to church groups, at schools, to sports teams and at coaching clinics across the country.
Set to return to Kenya on Nov. 24, he visited friends on the Rocky campus Friday and watched the women's soccer team play. His visit to Billings, though, wasn't long enough for the school to organize a proper Hall of Fame ceremony.
"I think it will probably be two or three years before I come back again," Peterson said. "I've been talking to Bobby Beers, the AD. He just said next time when I know that I'm coming to make sure to let them know in advance and they can maybe plan it."
Peterson is committed to teaching, coaching and administrating with Christ's Gift Academy at least through 2014.
"At this point I'm kind of seeing that I might be there much longer," he said. "I'm very open. It could be 10 more years or 20 ... It's definitely home and it would be really hard to leave, but if that's what God calls me to do, I'll be ready for it."
Peterson lives in a small rental house on a compound near the school. He has running water, but no flush toilet or electricity.
"I have solar power so I can power up my television and computer for a few hours each night," he said.
As a college basketball player, first at Dawson Community College in Glendive and then Rocky, Peterson said, "I really feel like I worked as hard as I possibly could to be the best basketball player that I possibly could."
These days, he is putting forth the same energy as a soccer coach in Mbita, working mostly with young girls in the sixth through eighth grade. He is hoping that their enjoyment and success with the sport — along with his steady influence as a role model — will help "impact their lives physically, socially, academically and spiritually."
That combination of faith, sports and academics appears to be working.
"I think in my life I've seen the power of sports and how God can use sports to impact the lives of people," Peterson said. "It's fun to be able to do that in Kenya, and especially with a group like these young girls that are so neglected and have so few opportunities."
With the Suba Lakers, one of the requirements is that the girls have to stay in school to play. Peterson said only about half of the girls in the impoverished Mbita District will finish eighth grade, but progress is being made to improve that statistic through sports and academic programs designed to ward off negative influences.
"Every year they stay in school it decreases the chances they're going to get HIV and AIDs," he said. "It basically increases their opportunity to make more money in the future. They're, literally, breaking the cycle of poverty in their families."
While Peterson's exploits on the basketball court at Rocky — especially his determined drives to the basket — made him Hall of Fame worthy, his life-changing work as a missionary has earned him even more praise around campus in recent years.
"Sometimes that makes me feel a little bit awkward," Peterson said of the attention. "All of us, I think, are called to be missionaries and to serve and to love others and to help others."
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