Dallas Desperados defensive back/wide receiver Will Pettis isn't just the most talented athlete in the AFL—he's the reigning U.S. Army Ironman of the Year, awarded to the league's most dynamic playmaker on both offense and defense. He might just be the fittest, too. "I don't know if other guys train harder than me or not," says the 6"0', 200-pound Pettis, "but being that I play both ways, and for almost the entire game, I have to be in the best shape of anyone else on the field."
MF: You're the reigning Ironman of the Year. Given the rigors of playing both sides of the ball, that's a pretty prestigious honor. What does it take to be an ironman in the AFL?
WP: With the rules change, now it's actually going to take more. It's going to take a special type of guy ... to be able to excel on both sides of the ball. Especially now they're bringing in more specialty players [with a free substitution rule implemented last season], I have to be that much better to hold the position.
If you had to choose between playing offense and defense, which would it be and why?
If I had to make a choice, I would choose offense. Once I finally got a taste of what it felt like to catch that ball and score a touchdown, it hit me. I don't think I'd want to give that up. Playing defense, you get opportunities to get the ball in your hands, but it's few and far in between. Luckily, I don't have to choose.
Everyone has their share of obstacles to get to where they are today. What's been yours?
All my obstacles have been self-imposed. I didn't grow up with the riches in the world, but I didn't grow up in the dumps either. I chose to go left, when I should have went right. And for a long time, I blamed everybody else for my mistakes. Running the streets and doing a bunch of stuff nobody should be doing. I got involved with drugs, using and selling.
It was 2001. I was on the road doing stuff that I just mentioned. I passed a state trooper. He had to be 30 yards from me. I was doing 80 on a 60 mph highway. It was bright, clear as day, and I didn't even see him. I didn't recognize he was the police until I passed him. I had two innocent friends with me, and I had a lot of contraband in the car that could have put me in a federal penitentiary for a long time. They turned around, and they rolled up on me. The first thought I had was, what am I going to tell my mother? My mother's heart is going to be broken.
The second thought I had was, Jesus, if you get me out of this situation, I will never do this stuff again. And I drove for another two minutes, and there was a stop sign. I turned left ... my heart was jumping out of my chest. They were on my bumper for a long time. They stopped, and I could see them looking at me from my rear view mirror. And then they turned right! I got back to Houston, my wife told me she was pregnant. It was Oct 1, 2001, and I went into a bible study, and I said "Jesus, if this is real, take it away from me." And within 10 days, it all went away.
Does that make your success now that much sweeter?
Definitely. After that, the next April, I did Arena 2 for Mike Buck and Ed Cunningham. I made $3,000 the entire season. In October, the Desperados called me. They wanted me to play receiver. In two weeks, I made all the money I made the entire season of Arena 2. In two weeks! That's when I was like, "Man, I'm here." That's when it was sweet for me then.
Given the two-way play in the AFL, would you say it's tougher to endure the AFL gauntlet than the NFL?
In the NFL, the field is bigger, it's much more complicated when it comes to plays, and you have so many more players on the roster. You have a lot of talent, where you don't have to use guys like myself unless it's an emergency situation. I'm sure there are guys in the NFL that are athletic enough to play both ways. I think I am not a football player ... other guys are football players. I think I'm an athlete.
If you could pick any player in the NFL to line up against, who would it be and why?
If I was a DB, I would want to line up against the best, like Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, or Plaxico Burress. Someone who you'd definitely need your A game to compete with. As a WR, I'd want to line up against a Champ Bailey. I think, if given a fair shake, I could get to hang with them, make plays against those guys.
For more on how dual threat Will Pettis trains twice as hard, pick up the April 2008 issue of Men's Fitness.