When Nico Peterson spends a day with Michael Trotter, there is no negotiating the priorities.

“Cleaning, reading, writing, math,” says Peterson, one of two Lutheran Family Services of Virginia direct support professionals who provide in-home services for Michael.

So, on a recent Saturday, out came the schoolwork. Michael, 15, is just 49 inches tall, behind academically and tired of being teased on the bus. But if he works hard on his assignments, there is time for something else: Fun playing catch, dribbling a basketball, running errands in Peterson’s convertible, or even hanging out with the Averett University football team.

“Michael absolutely adores Nico,” says grandmother, Frances Trotter. “But if he doesn’t do well in school during the week, he and Nico can’t have fun on the weekend.”

And while Michael may not realize it, the fun times may be when the most-important lessons happen: Building self-confidence, working toward long-term goals, and navigating difficult social situations.

Peterson, an Averett psychology major, works with Michael and with Bryce Viernes, a 25-year-old deaf man who needs help improving his communication and life skills if he is to succeed in job training. Peterson’s demeanor and work ethic give Michael and Bryce examples to emulate, says Peterson’s supervisor, Douglas Jones.

“Because of the college ties, the youth, the upbeat attitude, he’s just hit it off with both Michael and Bryce,” Jones says. “He’s been a good influence, man-to-man.”

Bryce and Michael’s and Bryce’s grandmothers agree.

“He is a great guy,” says Doris Logan. “Being a young man with a love of sports, Nico is someone Bryce really needed.”

“Nico is patient with Michael,” Frances Trotter says. “He talks to him. Michael was close to his grandfather, who died last year. Michael might ask Nico some questions Grandma can’t answer. He is a lifesaver.”

Peterson wasn’t always a great role model. He was kicked out of Alexandria schools. His behavior, along with an unstable home life, led to his placement in foster care when he was 16.

“My foster mom, she was a really good lady, but I gave her problems,” he says, shaking his head.

“I was inside the box, and I couldn’t see outside the box. I started to see, slowly, but surely. I saw a lot of friends getting hurt and passing away,” Peterson says. “I knew staying in Northern Virginia wasn’t going to be good for me. There was nothing there for me but trouble. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted more.”

By this time, Peterson was playing football for Potomac High, and he knew the game was his way forward. Soon, he was in Danville, getting himself noticed, for all the right reasons, as a Cougars defensive end on the field and as a student in the classroom.

That intensity and drive made an impression on Cleive Adams after he became Averett’s head coach before last season.

“He’s an outstanding young man, one of those young people who has persevered,” Adams. “To get a degree from a private university hasn’t been easy. He’s had to work summers and during the school year while holding up his end of all the responsibilities of a scholar-athlete: That’s character I can admire.” — Dan Montgomery

This slideshow requires JavaScript.