IRVING, Texas – Will Pettis walked gingerly through the Texas Stadium locker room Monday afternoon, still stiff from severe back spasms but hurting equally internally from the Dallas Desperados’ 66-59 second-round loss to Columbus some 36 hours earlier.
Like most of his teammates, he had trouble assembling into words how the top-seeded Desperados, owners of the best single-season record in AFL history (15-1), surrendered a 10-point halftime lead at home to the National Conference’s sixth seed and never recovered. Every reporter’s question probably caused a twinge in his back or a churn in his stomach.
Pettis didn’t talk extensively about the upcoming Ironman of the Year announcement either, despite his position as a leading candidate for the fourth straight season. He’d gladly trade his six AFL Ironman of the Week selections and two Ironman of the Month honors for a chance to play Georgia in Saturday’s conference title game.
“It doesn’t compare to having an opportunity to win a championship,” he said.
While it’s little consolation for a season that ended so suddenly, Pettis has finally received official recognition as the league’s best two-way player. The Desperados WR/DB edged four other candidates for the U.S. Army Strong Ironman of the Year award on Thursday, a fitting crescendo to last week’s third consecutive All-Ironman Team selection.
Pettis has made a strong case for the award since his second year in Dallas, when he finished the 2004 season as the only AFL player with more than 3,000 all-purpose yards (3,017). But his performance in 2007 might have been most deserving given the AFL’s new free substitution rule that slowly deterred two-way play.
“I think that in itself says that I am a real Ironman in this league,” Pettis said. “You’ve got quality guys like (Chicago Rush WR/LB DeJuan) Alfonzo, a guy that was nominated as well (who) plays both ways. A good player, plays hard. So it’s good to be in that type of company.”
Desperados head coach Will McClay monitored Pettis’ number of plays throughout the season but couldn’t justify shrinking his role to only one side of the field.
“I didn’t know where to use him and what to do,” McClay said. “Clint (Dolezel) and I both got in arguments, ‘Well, he’ll play on offense. No, he’ll play on defense.’ When it came down to game time, he was a player that allowed us to have some flexibility at different positions on the team because he did everything at such a high level.
“We came to a compromise and used him and just were smart with what he did, because there’s nobody like him.”
Pettis finished second in the league with 2,781 all-purpose yards and now ranks 12th all-time with 12,565. He led the Desperados in every major receiving category with career highs in catches (130), yards (1,471) and touchdowns (40). He averaged 21.2 yards per kickoff with four touchdowns, and his 59.5 tackles and three interceptions ranked third on defense.
He also toppled single-season franchise records for points (254), total touchdowns (46), receptions (124), receiving touchdowns (40) and games of 200 or more yards (7).
While most players across the league settled into a traditional one-way role, Pettis’ all-around brilliance shone brighter than ever.
“He is the best football player in this league because no one has a bigger impact on offense, defense and special teams,” McClay said. “No one in this league that I’ve been around carries himself the way he does as a family man on and off the field. He’s a great example of what the Arena Football League is all about.
“It’s players like him that take care of their business, come to work every day and play with a great deal of passion, and he does it at a higher level than anybody else.”
But Pettis’ finest season ended cruelly and prematurely last Saturday as the Desperados trailed Columbus 52-38 early in the fourth quarter. Trainers and teammates had to help him off the field with back spasms following a kickoff return, and the Desperados never erased their deficit in the final 12 minutes without him.
Pettis and his teammates are slowly accepting their early playoff exit. The league’s top Ironman, who actually rejected overtures from the Atlanta Falcons to come to training camp on a minimal deal, plans to take a couple of months off before he starts working towards accomplishing the rest of his goals.
“I want a championship,” Pettis said. “I also want to win the other awards. I want to win Defensive Player of the Year and I want to win Offensive Player of the Year, and I want a championship. God willing, we can get those things accomplished here in the next three years.”