Martell Pettaway was exactly where he belonged when Detroit King opened the football season in August.
Pettaway, who had a brilliant junior season at St. Clair Shores South Lake in which he ran for 1,383 yards and 14 touchdowns in nine games, transferred to King in January after his family moved back to Detroit.
It was the place he had always wanted to be, and he figured he would have the same kind of success he had at South Lake, which earned him scholarship offers from schools like Michigan State, Iowa, Illinois, and Northwestern before he finally committed to West Virginia.
But then the season began and suddenly Pettaway realized he wasn’t in St. Clair Shores anymore.
“Actually, it was the first game against De La Salle,” he said. “I couldn’t really break loose. I broke loose maybe twice, and got tripped up on those two plays.”
Those two breakaway plays at South Lake could have been touchdowns, but now Pettaway, 5-feet-10, 205 pounds, found himself playing a tougher schedule in the Detroit Public School League.
“There were no one-arm tackles anymore and breaking through those,” he said as he made a motion with his arm, showing how he could easily swat away defenders’ arms in the past. “They’re a little stronger than that.”
But this is where Pettaway wanted to be — at King, playing in the PSL. Today he will be wearing familiar jersey No. 32 when King plays Lowell at 1 p.m. for the Division 2 state championship.
But for the longest time it appeared no one named Pettaway would ever set foot in King again.
“I wanted to come to King, it was just hard because of what happened to my brother,” Pettaway said. “At first my mom didn’t want me to come. She didn’t even want to be involved.”
On April 14, 2008, Theresa Pettaway was picking up her youngest two children, Chany and Martell, from Spain Middle School, while her husband, Mark, went to pick up older brother Devinne, a senior at King.
Theresa’s phone rang and it was a call from her husband.
“They said Devinne had fainted in the gym,” Mark told her.
An EMS vehicle roared past Theresa’s car when Mark called again.
“Theresa, we’ve got to get to the hospital,” he said. “He didn’t make it.”
Theresa was confused.
“What do you mean he didn’t make it?” she asked. “How does somebody go from fainting to death in a healthy kid?”
Martell was in the backseat and stared out the window in silence.
“We were all thinking this is just a cruel joke somebody is just playing on us,” Theresa said. “Lord, just don’t let this be true.”
Life in the Pettaway home would never be the same again. After his death it was determined that Devinne died from cardiomyopathy, a previously undetected enlarged heart.
Losing Devinne was beyond anyone’s comprehension, because Theresa and Mark had done everything right in raising their children. You would have to search hard to find two more involved parents. Whether it would be parent-teacher conferences or any type of school function, the Pettaways where always there. Together.
“The thing about both the boys that is very good is that the mom and the dad — you never see one without the other when it comes to anything that has to do with Martell or Devinne,” said King coach Dale Harvel. “They were always together and they’ve provided a good framework for those two young men.”
That is why it was so difficult for the Pettaways to accept losing Devinne. The youngster was never in trouble and his parents made sure he hung with a good group of friends.
“We’ve been like that all our lives with all of our kids,” Theresa said. “Just hands on, participating in everything, front and center from little kids on up. We’ve always been the kind of parents that we’re going to get to know all of the kids, all of their friends.”
But then Devinne was gone and Theresa and Mark became angry.
“I understand now, but I was mad at God for the longest time,” Theresa said. “All of the crackheads and people just not living right. I took him to the doctors and did everything that was supposed to be done.”
The atmosphere in the Pettaway home became toxic and Martell needed to escape. He needed to be anywhere but home.
“I was still at the house, but it was just kind of crazy,” he said. “Sometimes I went over to my auntie’s house or I wouldn’t be a home a lot.
“Eventually we had to pull it back together.”
Losing his big brother was difficult for Pettaway to grasp. Gone was his mentor, his best friend, the person he wanted to become.
There were playful fights between the two boys, but they always ended well.
“It was his sense of humor,” Pettaway said. “He was the funniest guy. Mostly everything he said was funny. He always made you laugh.”
Devinne’s death completely overshadowed what had been an incredible first semester of his senior year in the fall of 2007, when he helped King become the first PSL school to win a football state championship.
It was a journey the entire Pettaway family took together.
“It was amazing, the whole process they went through,” Pettaway said. “I was just following along and my brother was a part of it. It was just crazy to watch. The big-time games — the city championship and the state championship — were just amazing, really.”
Devinne was a defensive back for the Crusaders, who had lost in two previous state championship games before finally winning in 2007.
Theresa especially remembers the state championship game in which King trailed Midland, 14-7, at the half before rallying for a 47-21 victory.
“They went into the locker room at halftime and I don’t know what was said or done in there,” Theresa said, “but when they came out them boys were ballin’ like they were in it for their lives.”
And now Theresa is reliving the state championship journey through Martell.
“As we get closer, my anxiety … Oh, my God, I haven’t been able to sleep,” she said, laughing. “I’m just worrying away. It looks like we might be able to do it, but I want it to be over. This has been the most stressful year of my life.”
The stress Devinne’s passing created was off the charts for more than just the Pettaway family. Harvel realized that Devinne was someone who played football as a means to an end.
“He was a really great kid and he was not just a football-oriented kid,” he said. “Devinne would sit down and talk about what he wanted to do after football at King. He talked about law. He wanted to do some things in his life that are extra special.”
Devinne was extra special to his younger brother, too, and now it is up to Pettaway to continue that legacy.
He wanted to do it at King, wearing No. 32, which had been retired following Devinne’s death.
“It’s an honor, actually,” Pettaway said, “just to be in the same shoes he was in, wearing the same jersey number.”
The pain from his brother’s death still haunts Pettaway, who can’t seem to go a day without thinking about the last player to wear No. 32 at King.
“It’s almost every day, really,” he said. “I’ll be doing something and he’ll pop up in my head. I’ll be sitting around and start thinking and memories come back.”
Pettaway was terrific in King’s 40-6 semifinal victory over Livonia Franklin, running for 147 yards and two touchdowns, giving him 1,629 yards and 22 TDs in 13 games.
But games like that didn’t happen early in the season for the youngster.
“He’s fit into the role that he’s molded for,” said Harvel. “It’s something I didn’t see from him early in the season, he’s getting the tough yards for us now.”
Early on Pettaway struggled adjusting to life in the PSL, where yards don’t come easy regardless of the competition.
“Our league, no matter what it might lack with a lot of good teams, everybody has a certain amount of athletes that can run and are physical,” Harvel explained. “That he sees every week in our league. A lot of guys he just can’t flat out out-run. He’s had to adjust his running style.”
Pettaway now runs hard inside between the tackles and is dishing out more punishment than he is receiving.
He has a grasp of what he is doing now. He is playing for his team, his school, his family and his departed best friend.
“I’m just playing, doing what I can do,” Pettaway said. “It’s very important. That’s the whole team goal, to win the state championship. And especially to win it for the family. That would be big, just to win another one and wear No. 32.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1 .