A Joyful Noise: Bryce Petty, Baylor Football, and Long Roads Home

“I feel old,” Bryce Petty declared in his postgame press conference, and indeed, the day after no. 10 Baylor’s 45-0 opening-week flogging of SMU, the Bears quarterback was walking not so much like a senior citizen as like a movie mummy. On Sunday night, in the game’s opening series, Petty took off on a run, then took a defender’s face mask to the spine. A Monday MRI revealed two cracks in Petty’s transverse processes.1

“It’s dumb,” Petty said Monday, lowering himself with the carriage of Boris Karloff into a chair. “If you can picture a spinal column, those little wings that come out? It’s those. Basically just there to break.”

Petty, overrun with adrenaline in the Bears’ first outing in their palatial new stadium, didn’t initially notice he was hurt, and stayed quiet once he did. He didn’t fool his coaches, though. Petty’s typical touch with the ball in Baylor’s ultra-aggressive offense is such that when he began missing open receivers, it tripped everybody’s alert wires. “We knew something was wrong,” Baylor coach Art Briles told assembled media after the game, “because that’s not Bryce. At all.”

Petty, thinking he’d just been bruised, was adamant about staying in the game. The staff, wanting him to make the most of his first chance at live reps since last season’s Fiesta Bowl loss, allowed him to play out the first half, and would have had a hard time pulling him out beforehand. “Putting those headphones on brought back memories,” said Petty on Sunday. “I really didn’t want to put those back on.”

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Petty is old, in fact, to be doing what he’s doing. He has already earned an undergraduate degree from Baylor, and will have his master’s by this winter. His peers from the recruiting class of 2009 are already in the pros. He celebrated his 23rd birthday months before taking the first snap of his final season of college ball, all because of a line of coaching dominoes that began falling in another riverfront stadium, six years ago and 900 miles away.

The three-star Midlothian, Texas, prospect had committed to Tennessee after attending an early camp with the Volunteers, and when the school ousted Phillip Fulmer in late 2008, Petty got a sneak preview of new coach Lane Kiffin’s preferred method for handling awkward departures: Tight ends coach Jason Michael,2 who’d recruited Petty to Tennessee, called him up and said, “We got some stuff going on up top, but not a whole lot I can tell you right now.” Petty said that’s the last he heard from the coaches there. “I never got a call from Kiffin. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we don’t want you,’ it wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we want you,’ it was just …”

It was just time for plan BU. Petty had cut off recruiting efforts after committing to the Vols, “but once I decommitted, Coach Monty3 was in the door next Monday. And he shot me straight, which was a nice transition.” That straight-shooting came down to what has since become one of the most epic sagas, by volume, in the land: Baylor wanted another quarterback, and wanted Petty, but didn’t need a quarterback right away. Coaches asked if he’d be willing to take a grayshirt.4 “At the time,” said Petty, “I was fine with it.”

Petty’s Tennessee future dissolved in late 2008; in 2009 he graduated from high school and enrolled in junior college classes in Midlothian, where he was “absolutely miserable. I did nothing but pout and moan and groan. That semester sucked. I took 11 hours, I worked out. January couldn’t come fast enough.” Petty arrived on campus in Waco for the spring 2010 semester and redshirted the subsequent season. He played sparingly in blowouts in 2011 behind Robert Griffin III, and saw Nick Florence get the QB1 nod in 2012. Understandably, he ground his teeth on the bench. Today, though, he appreciates the long view back: “I mean, if I didn’t take the grayshirt, if I didn’t take the redshirt, I wouldn’t have this year to play.”

He wouldn’t have been the guy taking the first snap or throwing the first touchdown pass in the Bears’ inaugural campaign in McLane Stadium. Shelved out of reach of meaningful playing time for four seasons, Petty is now regarded with emerald envy by teammates who graduated last year and will never see action in Baylor’s dazzling new football temple on the Brazos River. “Those guys are mad,” he said. “Oh, so mad.”

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As you’re heading up the stretch of I-35 between Austin and Waco, the Bears’ new habitat sneaks up on travelers. There’s a little rise in the road, and then there’s a suddenly appearing set of 8-foot letters in Goudy Bold5 reading “McLANE STADIUM” that look to be resting on nothing. Drive a couple hundred more yards and clear some viewing obstructions and blammo, there it is, bricks and glass and steel bound by roadway and waterway and teeming with green and gold.

The open end of the stadium faces the Brazos. There are marina slips for rent and families dragging their pontoon boats into vacant spaces on the riverbanks. What looks like a traffic jam on a concourse ends up being Baylor’s freshman class forming up for the Old Baylor Line, and when those duties are dispensed with, the student section files into field-level seats on the eastern sideline, prime stadium real estate that’s often sold for big bucks to monied alums at other power programs. On Sunday, in the stadium opener, Baylor players dashed through the student tunnel to their sideline through an honest-to-God midfield ring of fire that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a motorcycle stunt show. George W. and SMU alumna Laura Bush were on hand for the coin toss. There was a kiss cam on the video board, sponsored by Bob Mills Furniture and accompanied by Cascada. The winning kiss earned his-and-hers recliners. The overall effect was indelibly, overwhelmingly AMERICAN.

“The first time I got over here,” said Briles after the game, “I said, ‘Shoot, I don’t plan big enough, dream big enough, or foresee big enough.’”

“I told my mom last night,” Petty said Monday, “this is what a college football game feels like.”

Like Petty, McLane Stadium took a circuitous rout to becoming the beating heart of Baylor football. The land the stadium occupies came into the university’s possession as part of Baylor’s failed 2009 bid to host the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Griffin won the Heisman Trophy in 2011, elbowing the Bears into the national spotlight, and the next year former Astros owner and Baylor grad Drayton McLane jumped into the funding fray with a multimillion-dollar gift. Without any one of those elements, who knows what might have happened. With all three transpiring in the last half-decade? Monday afternoon in his office, Briles chuckled: “How ’bout that?”

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Across the river from the stadium, in the university’s Simpson Athletics and Academics Center, Briles’s office features a wall of windows overlooking one of the practice field end zones, and gives him a bird’s-eye view of players entering the building for brunch from the parking lot. He’s pleased with the gaits of receiver Antwan Goodley, who aggravated a preseason quad injury and was pulled early from Sunday night’s game, and linebacker and defensive captain Bryce Hager, whose presence was dearly missed in 2013 after a groin injury truncated his season. The halls outside of Briles’s office are festooned, door-to-door and floor-to-ceiling, with photo murals of Baylor football scenes, refreshed every summer with updated glories from the year before. Across from Briles’s door, a near life-size Petty rears up from the baseboards, balaclava-clad against a bitter wind and battling Texas in the 2013 game that would clinch the Bears’ first Big 12 title. It’s a long, long way from Briles’s modest initial expectations of becoming “a respectable, credible football team. Because, you know, at that time, we really weren’t.”

They really, really weren’t. When Briles, less than a decade removed from coaching high school ball in Stephenville, Texas, was plucked away from the Houston Cougars following the 2007 season, Baylor hadn’t seen a winning season since 1995, hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1994, and hadn’t won a bowl game since 1992. The Bears’ last league title was a shared Southwest Conference championship in 1994; their last outright league championship was in 1980. Briles’s Bears won four games his first year, four games his second year, and scrabbled into a 7-6 season and a Texas Bowl loss in 2010.

The moment at which Baylor football blew past credible and blasted its way onto the national radar is a fixed one: the first Friday of the first week of the next season, September 2, 2011, at the old Floyd Casey Stadium, when Baylor knocked off defending Rose Bowl champ TCU. Petty remembers wondering where in the world the guy quarterbacking the team had teleported in from. “That was not the same Griff from the year before, or the year before that,” Petty said. “That whole offseason, it was like we were waiting for something to spark. We knew that we had the talent. We just needed to prove to everybody else what we knew was in that locker room. And it was just a huge transformation from the year before. It was just … ‘man, this is a team.’”

Two years later, in 2013, Petty won the starting job. Three months after that, the Bears claimed their first Big 12 championship. Less than a month after that, Baylor would be reeling from a Fiesta Bowl loss, whiplashed by the unfamiliar sensations of the world outside the underdog house. “Everything changed for us,” said Petty, “after we beat Texas. We were paired with UCF, and to be honest with you, I knew right then and there we were in trouble. Everyone going, ‘Oh, it’s [just] UCF?’ No. You can’t treat anybody like that. It changed our mentality of ‘Baylor’s always the hunted.’ UCF, no one ever gave them a chance. We learned that people are gonna give us their best game, every time we play them.”

That’s the kind of violent course correction that leads a team to grouse in the locker room after opening the following season with a 45-0 victory. “We played sloppy,” Petty said of the Bears’ performance versus SMU. “It was a win, so guys were happy, but it wasn’t the kind of happy that it should’ve been. I think, really, if you’re talking about a true transformation, that’s it. We’ve always just celebrated, ‘Hey, it’s a win, it’s a win, it’s a win.’ Now it’s, ‘We’ve got a win, but we’ve got a lot of stuff to work on.’”

Petty’s transverse processes injury is, at this point, all about pain management and ample back padding. While he expects to start in Week 2, don’t be surprised to see Petty take some practices and series off over the next few weeks while his dumb bones heal up and Baylor contends with the likes of Northwestern State, Buffalo, and a bye week. But know that his back will be the only thing Petty attempts to relax. “These next few games, they’re not slack-off games. No one’s gonna walk out there anymore and just say, ‘Oh, it’s Baylor.’”

It’s an astounding ascendance to behold from the early days of Griffin’s Heisman season. For all he did for Baylor, RG3 never played on a team that made a BCS bowl or hefted a league trophy. He did make the trip back to Waco this past weekend for the unveiling of his statue in the plaza outside, and just like in 2011, he was everywhere at once: flashing that maniacal grin for the student section, guest conducting the marching band, and giving a pregame invocation:

“We love you, Father God, and once again we say, Wow!

“This is amazing.”

Filed Under: College Football, Baylor Bears, Bryce Petty, Art Briles, Robert Griffin III, Big 12, Heisman Trophy, Fiesta Bowl, Tennessee Volunteers, Lane Kiffin, McLane Stadium, Stadiums, Waco, Football, NCAA, NCAAF, Holly Anderson

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Holly Anderson is a staff writer at Grantland.

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