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Kamryn Pettway grabs a shovel

Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway overcame serious medical hurdles growing up to be in the position he is today competing for the starting job.
Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway overcame serious medical hurdles growing up to be in the position he is today competing for the starting job. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

There are 48 hours Kamryn Pettway will never get back.

The future Auburn running back spent two days on a hospital bed surrounded by family who spent the time wondering if little five-year old Bubba would ever be the same.

A case of meningitis — what his mother Salina Washington calls a “freak thing” — could have proved fatal. The infection could have left Pettway with brain damage, permanent blindness or without the use of his legs.

When doctors woke Pettway up from an induced coma, the worst-case scenario playing in his parent’s heads never materialized. Pettway showed no signs of the serious infection within days of checking into Baptist Hospital in Montgomery.

A tremendous recovery according to doctors, but the never-distant memory of the illness left an indelible mark.

Youth Football

Pettway’s early athletic career was already a tenuous proposition before the bout with meningitis.

Doctors warned Pettway’s parents in the hospital their son was born with a genetic defect — Pectus Excavatum, an inverted sternum, which might prevent him from ever playing contact sports.

The condition can cause decreased stamina and endurance, accelerated heart rate and in severe cases prevent a person from participating in activities that expose the chest.

Pettway’s first foray into organized sports was little league football at the age of four-years old. His father Orlando Pettway signed his son up knowing he might have to pull him off the team at any time.

“We watched it,” Orlando Pettway said. “If there were any issues we were going to take him home.”

Basketball

Orlando Pettway never had to make the decision, but the case of meningitis almost robbed Kamryn Pettway of his passion.

As a kindergartener at Dozier Elementary in Montgomery, Kamryn Pettway came home from school complaining of a headache that worsened throughout the day.

Washington’s son wasn’t one to complain, so she made the decision to take him to the emergency room at the end of the night. The results of a spinal tap showed he had meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal cord.

“The doctors explained the severity of it to us,” Washington said. “The first hours were critical, but even if he did recover he might not be able to see or walk. There was a list of things.”

Washington doesn’t know where Pettway contracted the illness. There were no other cases at the school, but the longtime educator spends little time thinking about her family’s misfortune given her son’s quick turnaround. The recovery stunned doctors who were reluctant to send the family home days after sedating him.

“It only took him three of four days and he was able to do everything he had done before he went into the hospital,” Washington said. “They wanted to keep running tests cause it all happened so quick.”

Broken Arm

Kamryn Pettway didn’t take his miraculous recovery for granted, throwing himself into athletics with reckless abandon at a young age.

Pettway played football, basketball, soccer and ran track. The only sport he stopped playing before enrolling at Auburn was soccer, which he didn’t give up until his sophomore year of high school.

If you got to practice and told all the kids to go dig holes around the field, Kamryn is a guy that would go grab a shovel.

Former Prattville coach Jamey DuBose

“If you got to practice and told all the kids to go dig holes around the field, Kamryn is a guy that would go grab a shovel,” said Central coach Jamey DuBose, who coached Pettway at Prattville.

Coach after coach would tell him to slow down, but Pettway wouldn’t listen.

“He never stopped,” Orlando Pettway said. “Never stopped.”

The steep medical hurdles Kamryn Pettway climbed to get on the field also changed his perspective on what other athletes would consider serious injuries.

There was a broken hand in seventh grade and a torn meniscus his sophomore year in high school.

Pettway scored four touchdowns after having a cast put on his arm in middle school. The meniscus injury required surgery at the start of Lanier’s basketball season, but Pettway declared himself healthy less than two months into a rehabilitation process that normally takes up to three.

“That was insane,” Orlando Pettway said. “I wanted to kill him.”

Orlando Pettway attended the game expecting to cheer on his son’s teammates. He arrived a few minutes late to find Kamryn Pettway on the court.

“I grabbed him at halftime and asked him what in the world is going on?” Orlando Pettway said. “All he said is he wanted to help his team win a city championship.”

Through it all, Kamryn Pettway has always come back to those 48 hours on the bed at Baptist Hospital.

“He will bring it up from time to time, remind us it’s on his mind,” Orlando Pettway said. “I think he views it as a gift from god, that he’s allowed to still be playing.”

Pettway finds himself in the unlikely position of competing for Auburn’s starting tailback position as the team prepares for its season-opener against Clemson.

The former running back transitioned to fullback at the end of his freshman season.

Auburn had a glut of running backs, but lacked depth at the H-back spot. Pettway approached the coaching staff about switching positions leading up to the Outback Bowl.

The trial run paved the way for Pettway to land a starting role the following fall. He battled injuries last season, but the coaching staff had no regrets about putting the bruiser in a blocking role.

“He has improved each week,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said towards the end of the season. “He provides that physical edge when he's healthy.”

Pettway thought he would end up blocking for Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas and Jovon Robinson for a long time to come.

The offseason played out differently than anyone expected starting with Barber’s decision to enter the NFL Draft with two years of college eligibility left.

Barber’s career move left Auburn coaches searching for depth at running back during spring practice. They found it by shifting Pettway and fellow fullback Chandler Cox a few steps over.

Pettway was still a long way away from returning to the role in a full-time capacity with the sophomore estimating 75 percent of his reps during camp came at fullback.

Spring Practice

Pettway’s evolving role in Auburn’s offense suddenly cleared up on the first day of training camp on Aug. 3.

The one-two punch of Thomas transferring to Jacksonville State and Malzahn kicking Robinson off the team forced the coaching staff to shift Pettway to running back fulltime.

“We feel very good about him,” Malzahn said minutes after announcing Robinson’s dismissal. “He's the guy that probably did the best job or one of the best jobs at tailback in the spring. We feel very good about him.”

The news felt like vindication for Pettway’s father given the advice he gave his son early last season.

Kamryn Pettway called his father up following Auburn’s 45-21 loss at LSU frustrated at his role in the offense. It was the one and only time Orlando Pettway heard his son complain.

“Kam really wanted to go back to running back,” Orlando Pettway said. “Everybody was telling him he was too big, but he said the SEC was filled with big backs. It’s the only time he ever said anything. It was his moment to vent.”

Orlando Pettway spent much of the conversation just listening to his son, but when Kamryn Pettway eventually asked, “do you think I should go to the coaches?” Kamryn Pettway got the advice he needed to stay the course.

“He just needed to keep doing what he was doing,” Orlando Pettway said. “I told him to be patient. It it’s (running back) not for you that means God has another plan. I don’t think it’s coincidental that it’s come back around for him now that he waited his turn.”

A-Day

Auburn is placing a heavy burden on a running back with zero career carries. The sum of Pettway’s production in two years is a 12-yard catch against Arkansas.

How can the coaching staff be so confident in a player more than 900 days since he last carried the ball? Those who have coached Pettway don’t think the faith is misplaced.

“He’s played running back his whole life,” DuBose said. “It’s not like you forget how to ride a bike. It’s not like he’s playing a brand new position.”

He’s fought all his life for this. It’s exciting for him. He’s worked very hard to get to this moment and he kept the faith. He’s ready.

Orlando Pettway

DuBose compared Pettway’s situation to a player coming back from a severe injury.

“All you need to do is get back in the grove,” DuBose said.

DuBose doesn’t see anything wrong with Auburn relying on Pettway for 20 carries a game. He could also envision him flourishing in a two-back rotation with Kerryon Johnson.

“They are really different style backs,” DuBose said. “If you are a team in the SEC I really think you could do a lot worse.”

Prattville coach Chad Anderson rattles off Pettway’s skill set emphasizing the running back’s size as most coaches do.

Anderson fondly remembers Pettway bouncing off would-be tacklers as an upperclassman for the Lions — totaling 2,500-plus rushing yards and 29 touchdowns — and doesn’t see why it will be different for the now 240-pounder in the SEC.

“You know I talked to an NFL guy who said there’s a 100 percent injury rate in the league whether it’s a bruised shoulder, sprained ankle, there’s always something,” Anderson said. “I imagine it’s the same way in the SEC West. His size is going to help him be able to absorb that kind of beating.”

Pettway’s current offensive coordinator offers a similar scouting report.

“He’s instinctive, he’s natural,” Rhett Lashlee said. “He’s a big load. He goes north and south better than any back I’ve ever seen.”

Fan Day

Pettway’s aggressive run style might be imposing, but for his mom there’s no winner when she sees her baby collide with an opposing defender.

“It’s so hard,” Washington said laughing. “It took me a long time to get used to it when he started in little league considering what he went through. He would be running down the sideline and momma would be right there with him.”

Washington understands the expectations Auburn is placing on her son’s shoulders this season, but it’s impossible for her to measure Pettway’s success as fans will in yards gained or touchdowns scored.

“It’s never how I looked at it, that’s never been my focus,” Washington said. “I’m so proud of every step he’s taken given what he’s gone through.”

It’s one reason why of the many family and friends Pettway will have in the stands on Sept. 3 his father won’t be one of them.

Orlando Pettway attends many of his Kamryn’s games, but just talking about his son carrying the ball for the first time in more than two years gets the elder Pettway choked up.

“It’s something I want to savor for myself,” Orlando Pettway said. “He’s going to be living his dream. This one is different, you know? People think he’s at running back just because Auburn had no choice. I think he’s going to prove all those naysayers wrong.”

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