Jon-Luke Peaker’s mother always told him he was different, special.
She wasn’t talking about football, either.
“To her, it was more important how I did in school than how I did in football,” Peaker said. “The most important thing was to try to be a great man.”
Peaker, who will be a senior at Northeast High, is one state’s top running backs. He planned to commit over the weekend to attend Old Dominion University on a football scholarship.
But the 5-foot-9, 185-pound speedster won’t be able to celebrate with his biggest fan. His mother, Lashainnia Peaker, died earlier this month at the age of 53 from complications related to COVID-19.
The tragedy was the second to hit Peaker’s family this year. He also lost his oldest brother, Jamal Cross, who died at age 31 in February of liver and heart disease.
“It’s been really tough,” said Peaker, who lives in Mount Airy with his father and siblings.
Peaker ran for 1,277 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, averaging 9.8 yards for a team that went 12-2, was undefeated against Public League opponents and challenged eventual state champion St. Joseph’s Prep in a 43-26 loss in the District 12, Class 6A title game.
Peaker gave the Vikings the early lead in that game, busting loose for an 85-yard touchdown.
“He’s a slasher but he’s got inside power,” Northeast offensive coordinator Troy Gore said of Peaker. “He has vision to find the gaps but explosive power.”
Former Northeast head coach Phil Gormley, now the school’s acting athletic director, said Peaker is adept at breaking tackles.
“I don’t think I ever saw him get taken down by the first tackler,” Gormley said.
Gormley said Peaker’s mature approach was a reflection of his home life.
“As good as he is as a player, he’s a better person,” Gormley said. “When you really sit down and talk to him, you know that maturity is coming from home.”
Peaker is a top student who has been recruited by schools in the Ivy League. He said his final four college choices among 14 offers were Old Dominion, Central Michigan, Toledo, and Yale.
“The Old Dominion coaches reached out to me every day when I lost my mom,” Peaker said. “They weren’t just coaches. They were people.”
Peaker said the family was devastated by the death of his brother, who had been on dialysis for years.
“It broke my mom,” Peaker said.
Peaker said his mother was hospitalized for most of May. No family members were able to see her.
He said the family was cleared to make one visit when his mother’s condition worsened. “They let us see her one last time,” Peaker said.
Peaker said his mother stressed academics more than athletics and family above all else.
“She was the one who kept us together,” Peaker said. “She always was cooking for everybody, always made us go to church. She cared a lot more about my grades than about what I was doing in football.”
Gormley confirmed that.
“I never once heard his mom and dad ask about football,” Gormley said. “It was never, ‘Why did he only get 10 carries?’ But if Jon got a C in something, mom wanted to know what was going on.”
Now that he has made his college choice, Peaker plans to focus on his senior season, helping the Vikings defend their status as top dogs in the Public League, handle the challenges of an ambitious schedule that includes games with Gonzaga of Washington, D.C., and take another shot at St. Joseph’s Prep.
Most of all, Peaker hopes to honor his mother’s memory.
“She always wanted me to be different than others,” Peaker said. “She always wanted me to stay off the streets, stay away from drugs, stay out of trouble.