Shortly before kickoff Saturday of the Auburn at Alabama game, the Crimson Tide will continue the tradition of honoring senior football players before their last home game.
Each senior will be on the field with his family. They will hear their name announced.
One of those seniors this year is Decatur’s Deonte Brown. Standing next to the Crimson Tide’s starting left guard will be his father Al Pettus.
“I’m so proud of my son. He’s a great kid,” Pettus said. “He’s not a perfect kid. He’s made some mistakes, but he’s not a bad kid.”
It’s a time to celebrate the great college career of the former Austin Black Bear. In five years with the Crimson Tide, Brown, who is 22, has dealt with some low points that would have perhaps caused many others to pack up and go home.
Right now Brown (6-foot-4, 350 pounds) is reaping the rewards of patience and hard work. He’s part of one of the best offensive lines in the country. The Alabama offense is on a pace to set many school records as it competes for its first national championship since 2017.
The team success has meant individual success. On Nov. 13 it was announced that Brown had accepted an invitation to play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl on Jan. 30. The game is a major steppingstone to a possible career in the National Football League.
It’s been quite a ride for the young man who played on his first football team in the city of his birth in Columbus, Ohio.
“Deonte was always the biggest player on his team,” Pettus said. “Anytime he played in a game or signed up for a team, I had to have his birth certificate with me to verify his age. A lot of people didn’t think he could be so big at such a young age.”
Brown’s first team in Ohio was called the Seminoles. He was 7 years old. It was a league where no one over 125 pounds was allowed to run with the ball. Pettus said Brown weighed closer to 150 than 125.
“He couldn’t run with the ball, but he could block and tackle,” Pettus said. “I’m a sports fanatic and so is Deonte. He always wanted to play football. He loves to compete. Playing for the Seminoles was a great experience. ”
Pettus, who is 76, grew up in Decatur and graduated from Lakeside High School in 1962. He was a 6-1 center on the school’s basketball team. His oldest son, Alphonso Pettus, Jr., was a running back on Austin’s 1983 team that advanced to the Class 4A state championship game. He went on to play football at Wyoming.
Al lived in Ohio for many years. In 2005, he gained custody of Deonte and Deonte’s sister, Alisha Pettus. Three years later they moved to Decatur.
“I was a single father and needed help raising my kids,” Pettus said. “I moved back to Decatur to get closer to my family.”
A big part of the family help has come from Al’s sister, Wanda Ellison. She’s been like a mother to her nephew and niece. Their birth mother is deceased.
One of the first stops Pettus made after moving his family to its new home was to Decatur Youth Services. Brown was invited to join a group call “Boys to Men” headed by Brandon Watkins, who is now the DYS director.
“He was a big ol' bear with a heart of gold,” Watkins said. “He was quiet and shy, but he seemed to enjoy being a part of the group. I know the other kids enjoyed being around him.”
According to Watkins, “Boys to Men” is a club with between 25 and 30 members. The goal is to expose them to life lessons to help improve their future. The lessons include proper etiquette, how to dress for a job interview, which classes to take in high school in preparation for college and how to prepare to take the ACT test. They also take trips to visit college campuses.
“Most of the kids don’t have a family member who went to college,” Watkins said. “When we take these trips to colleges, most of them are blown away by what they see. It inspires them and I would say as many as 80 percent find a way to go on to college.”
Watkins said that after seeing Brown play football at Brookhaven Middle School, he told Pettus not to worry about getting his son in college.
“I told him Deonte was going to be playing football in college and probably in the NFL someday,” Watkins said.
Young pup at Brookhaven
The first time Austin head coach Jeremy Perkins saw Brown play football was as an eighth grader at Brookhaven in 2011.
“He was 6-4, around 240 to 250,” Perkins said. “You could tell he had some athleticism, but it wasn’t a high level of football I saw. He really didn’t seem to know what he was supposed to be doing.”
After the season ended, Perkins had Brown join the football program at Austin in the off-season weight room program. He played on the varsity as a freshman before becoming a three-year starter at left tackle for the Black Bears.
“Deonte did a lot of learning and growing in his four years,” Perkins said. “He was certainly a force for us.”
The Black Bears went 24-21 in Brown’s four seasons at Austin. In his senior season in 2015, the Black Bears finished 10-4 and lost in the Class 6A semifinals to Clay-Chalkville, 45-35.
Brown was a two-time first-team Class 6A All-State selection. He was the Class 6A Lineman of the Year in 2015 and also a Super 12 selection.
A key part of Brown’s game is his upper body strength. Perkins describes Brown as being “freakishly strong.” While most players need to put a shoulder into a defender to block them, Brown can knock them on their back with a two-handed shove.
Perkins uses video from a game at Florence in 2014 for an example. The running play is going around the left tackle. Brown’s job is to stop the first defender he sees. A Florence linebacker quickly comes into view and then just as quickly is knocked to his backside by a shove from Brown. It was like someone crossing a busy street and forgetting to look both ways before getting hit by a passing truck.
The linebacker was Errol Thompson, who is now a senior starting linebacker at Mississippi State.
“We never talked much about playing college football,” Pettus said. “Then after a game at Muscle Shoals, their head coach (Scott Basden) told Deonte that he was the best left tackle he had ever seen in high school. That next week we got a phone call from Tennessee.”
Shortly after that the father and son visited Tennessee. Then there were trips to Auburn and Mississippi State. On Jan. 15, 2015, Alabama head coach Nick Saban visited Austin.
“That was Deonte’s birthday,” Pettus said. “I don’t know if Coach Saban planned it that way, but it sure made Deonte feel good about Alabama.”
A visit to Tuscaloosa soon after that turned the Tide for son and father. Brown committed to Alabama before his senior season.
“Deonte needed a place with structure,” Perkins said. “Coach Saban and Alabama have done a great job with him. To go along with that, Deonte deserves a lot of credit for making the most of his opportunity.”
Rough start in Tuscaloosa
Brown was a four-star recruit and considered one of the top 10 offensive guards in the country during his senior season at Austin. He found out the recruiting rankings didn’t mean anything when he arrived in Tuscaloosa in May of 2016.
According to Pettus, Brown was north of 400 pounds when he reported to Tuscaloosa. He redshirted that season. He got on the field in 2017 as a blocker for field goals and extra points.
Brown’s breakout season came in 2018. The sophomore got his first career start vs. Tennessee. Against LSU, he earned one of the team’s offensive player of the week honors. Alabama had 576 yards of total offense. Brown had four knockdown blocks and committed no penalties.
In the SEC Championship game against Georgia, Brown helped block for 403 yards of total offense as the Crimson Tide rallied from 14 down to beat the Bulldogs. He had two knockdown blocks while not giving up a sack.
Then suddenly Brown’s season was over. He was suspended for the playoff games against Oklahoma and Clemson. The suspension extended to the first four games of the 2019 season.
There’s never been an official explanation for the suspension or if it came from the school or the NCAA.
After missing the first four games of the 2019 season, Brown started eight of the team’s last nine games. The offensive line ranked third in the country, allowing just 0.92 sacks a game with just 12 sacks on 406 pass attempts. The Crimson Tide was second in the country in scoring (47.2 points per game), third in passing (324.2 yards) and sixth in total offense (510.8 yards).
“I have gone to just about all the home games in Tuscaloosa,” Pettus said. “The only road game I have seen was last year at Auburn. I had to see that game. Deonte was going to be lining up against Derrick Brown all day. I had to see that game in person.”
Derrick Brown was Auburn’s unanimous consensus All-American defensive tackle. He would be the seventh pick in the NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers.
“Any NFL team that wants to know how good Deonte is should just watch film of that game,” Perkins said. “Deonte had a great game.”
No. 14 Auburn beat No. 8 Alabama, 48-45, at Jordan-Hare Stadium, but Deonte Brown won the battle with Derrick Brown. He earned offensive player of the week honors from the Alabama coaches for holding the Auburn lineman to just 1.5 hurries and no sacks without committing a penalty. Alabama quarterback Mac Jones threw for 335 yards and four touchdowns.
“Derrick Brown is an All-American and he got by Deonte just twice all day,” Pettus said. “After one of those times, I saw Deonte pound his fist in the ground. That’s something I’ve never seen him do.
“I watch a lot of NFL games. When I see teams using two players to try and stop Derrick Brown, I think my son Deonte can do that all by himself.”
After Brown accepted his invitation to the 2021 Senior Bowl, Jim Nagy, the game’s executive director tweeted, “This is the only man that held his own versus last year’s No. 7 overall pick Derrick Brown. That’s the tape you want to watch.”
Saturday’s game with Auburn won’t be the last game for Alabama this season. They are scheduled to play at Arkansas on Dec. 5. Then they have the lead to represent the West Division in the SEC Championship game, and they are the front-runner for the College Football Playoff.
That’s a lot of college football left before it's time to think about the NFL. It’s not too early for some websites to offer guesses on the 2021 NFL draft. Profootballnetwork.com has Brown going to the 49ers in the second round with the 44th pick. Walterfootball.com has the Eagles taking Brown with the 51st pick.
“It’s exciting to see Deonte finishing strong and seeing the fruits of his labor come through,” Perkins said. “Everybody at Austin loves Deonte and takes a lot of pride in our connection to him.”
Saturday will be two days past Thanksgiving, but Pettus will be giving thanks when he stands on the field at Bryant-Denny with his son, who received his degree in May.
“There are just so many people who have been so wonderful to my family,” Pettus said. “Moving back home to Decatur was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
“My wish is that one day Deonte can return and give back to this community that has meant so much to our family.”