On and off for the past two years, Chiles High School (Tallahassee, Florida) football coach Kevin Pettis had been in walking boots to deal with the stress fractures he’d acquired – 28 total in both feet – from years of hard landing while serving as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army.
This spring, Pettis felt like his base was finally underneath him again. The boots were off, the aches were gone.
Then during a week-long, Memorial Day beach trip while at St. Teresa, along Coastal 98 west of Alligator Point, Pettis contracted MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a dangerous bacterial infection, in the long toe on his right foot.
Pettis said he had an ant bite on the toe and that’s how the dangerous staph infection got into the bone on his “hammer toe,” a genetic characteristic that pushes the bone to the top and the fatty tissue to the bottom.
Finally, after fighting several doctors’ unanimous remedy of amputation, Pettis relented to the diagnosis and that his six-week course of antibiotics had not worked.
The toe had to go.
Thursday, under the surgical care of Dr. Chris DeRosier at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, Pettis had the infected toe amputated, finally ending a painful and frustrating first half of 2019.
“Maybe I shouldn’t feel this way, but part of me selfishly thinks, ‘Haven’t I given enough?’ I served my country honorably, fought on different continents, did my deal,” Pettis said, reflecting on the outcome. “Part of me thinks I’m being punished for some reason. I told the surgeon that my biggest fear was, one, going under (anesthesia), and, two, waking up the first thing I’d want to see was my foot.
“The toe being gone, it will be different. I was nervous and scared and I haven’t been nervous about anything my whole life. This shook me.”
Bacteria at the beach
Some time ago when Pettis was enlisted and on duty at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, he was on a training exercise in the base’s Normandy drop zone. There were high ground gusts that day and Pettis made a mistake with 150 feet left in his jump’s descent. The wind grabbed his chute and he was running with it, panicked and popped his risers which created a ripple effect in his chute, causing him to plummet to the ground.
With his nine-months-pregnant wife on location for what was supposed to be a family day, Pettis braced for impact and didn’t remember blacking out when he hit the ground. According to a report he’d read in the hospital days later, he fell 130 feet and then was dragged a sizable distance before two servicemen caught up to him.
Pettis came away completely unscathed.
“I don’t remember anything, but I didn’t break a thing,” Pettis said. “I’ve literally survived all kinds of things. Here it is and it’s a toe, a dang toe. It’s crazy.”
The third-year Chiles coach who came over from Sebastian River but who grew up between Mexico Beach and Panama City didn’t think anything of the ant bite.
The family went to the beach, used their pontoon boat, and did what any family would do. On the last day of their trip, Pettis noticed the bite was getting puffy red. He took an old school approach, putting Neosporin and hydrogen peroxide on it as treatment.
Chiles football coach Kevin Pettis questions a call during the spring jamboree at Bragg Memorial Stadium. (Photo: Brian Miller/Tallahassee Democrat)
With one week of school left, Pettis went about his business but the toe wasn’t getting any better, so he scheduled a doctor’s appointment.
Subsequently, he learned the lymph nodes in his leg had grown to the size of a baseball. His doctor admitted him to the hospital to get a biopsy, which confirmed MRSA. He was given a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter) of antiobiotics.
Pettis had developed osteomyelitis, which WebMD defines as “an infection of the bone, a rare but serious condition. Bones can become infected in a number of ways: Infection in one part of the body may spread through the bloodstream into the bone, or an open fracture or surgery may expose the bone to infection.”
The antiobiotics saved the foot altogether, but the toe wasn’t as lucky. Instead of looking at a 16-week course of treatment at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Pettis chose amputation so he wouldn’t miss any of the Timberwolves’ upcoming football season. He believes this Chiles team is as poised as any in program history to compete at a high level.
“The kids worked too hard for past two years to let them down,” Pettis said. “I Ronnie Lott-ed them. ‘If I’ll be back sooner if you cut it off, then cut it off.’ It was better to take it off. And being MRSA, they said it could go dormant and then flare up again in six months or a year. I’m ready for it to be over.”
Pettis was told the surgeon would do a filet incision, which consists basically of making sure the bone is smoothly cut where the metatarsal and cuneiform connect and then taking the flap of available skin over top the open wound and stitching things up on top of the foot.
“Don’t like that. I wish we had another name for that,” Pettis said. “But they said I’d only be in the hospital for a day or two and be back in a week.”
Asked if he was a flip-flops type of person, Pettis, who is also a diabetic, answered in the negative.
“Thank God, no. I’m a closed-shoe guy,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll go on record with this even though it might make them mad – I don’t know a Pettis on the planet with pretty feet.”
Humor, heartache, healing
Pettis deals with stressful situations with humor, which is why he has self-deprecatingly told his players that upon his return he will be “Nine-Toed Joe.”
“There’s not a game that I’m in where I can’t talk or joke. That’s just how I grew up,” Pettis said. “You either crack on someone or they crack on you. I hate that I’m losing I’m toe, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a toe.”
The toughest part of Pettis’ reflection on his own circumstances is the comparison to that of his time in the military and those with which he served.
“I’ve got buddies who have been killed in combat, come home maimed and mutilated, and lost limbs,” Pettis said. “My heart breaks for them. And that’s part of the struggle is you make it through all of that unscathed and deal with that guilt and then an ant bite? That’s what gets you? It’s just a tough deal.”
Pettis son Trey, who is Chiles’ offensive line coach, has been with his father coaching for the past five years. Trey has been around his dad as he’s dealt with diabetes for the past 20 years. Ten years ago, Pettis weighed over 300 pounds, but in worrying about seeing his two daughters grow up, he committed to losing weight and has lost over 100 pounds.
That an infection could be his downfall after all that was challenging for the family.
“I’ve watched him go through this sickness for the past 20 years and you hear about people with diabetes losing limbs,” Trey said. “It’s something that could have been much worse. I’m grateful that it is just a toe and nothing more than a toe. I was scared because you just never know.”