Facing one of the toughest decisions of his life in January, Carson Petitbon ordered motivational books to guide him as he considered where he would spend his final year of high school. He dissected the minds of legendary athletes such as Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, but the quarterback didn’t feel confident until he finished Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist.”
Petitbon has faced high expectations his entire life. His grandfather, Richie Petitbon Sr., starred in the NFL between 1959 and 1972 and helped Washington win three Super Bowls as its defensive coordinator before serving as its head coach in 1993. Carson’s father, Richie Petitbon Jr., played linebacker at Maryland in the 1980s. Carson’s two brothers also played Power Five college football.
With guidance from “The Alchemist,” which conveys a theme of pursuing your legacy, Carson Petitbon transferred from Gonzaga to St. Mary’s (Annapolis) to create his own path and belonging. Behind Petitbon, St. Mary’s (9-0) can complete its first undefeated regular season since 1968 with a win at Severn on Friday afternoon.
“He’s sort of almost taken on being a coach on the field,” said Chris Baucia, Petitbon’s quarterback trainer. “With the last name Petitbon, that runs deep.”
Petitbon has long intertwined football with his closest relationships. His introduction to the sport came as a 2-year-old, when he and his father hid behind couches in their Annapolis home before they would jump and throw the ball to each other. He played knee football with his brothers, Richie Petitbon III and Luke, in games that became so noisy that their parents grew angry.
Petitbon helped coordinate two-on-two football games in his driveway and established traditions of family games on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The contests adhered to one rule: The Petitbons competed on the same team. Petitbon was the water boy on his brothers’ squads, including when they attended Gonzaga in Northwest Washington, where Petitbon wore a purple-and-white wig to games.
Every Sunday in the fall, Petitbon donned a Redskins jersey and called his grandfather to ask his thoughts on that day’s games. When they didn’t attend Washington’s games, the Petitbons ordered buckets of Popeyes chicken as they watched on TV. Richie Jr. estimated the family discusses football 60 hours per week.
“At the end of the day,” said Carson Petitbon, who has accounted for 1,756 yards and 24 touchdowns this season, “all you have is yourself and your family.”
As a 10-year-old, Petitbon began playing for the Peninsula Athletic League Hawks, who donned burgundy-and-gold jerseys and were coached by Richie Jr. Though Richie Sr. played quarterback at Tulane in the 1950s and safety in the NFL, his ensuing family members selected different positions. Richie Jr. played linebacker; Richie III and Luke chose offensive lineman.
Carson Petitbon loved leading his teammates as their quarterback. On game days, he wore his jersey from 6 a.m. until he slept at night. Richie Jr. called Petitbon the “Porsche” of the family because he often caught defenders off-guard with pump fakes before running for touchdowns.
Petitbon’s desire to create team camaraderie was predictable to his parents. When he was in preschool, Petitbon organized the classroom and desks every morning before directing classmates to their seats.
As Petitbon built friendships at St. Mary’s Middle School, his brothers commuted roughly 30 miles to Gonzaga, where they became stars and collected dozens of college scholarship offers. Petitbon didn’t consider attending a different high school. While he also played basketball, Petitbon’s passion for football blossomed during his freshman year in 2019 playing alongside Luke, who’s now a redshirt sophomore at Wake Forest.
Petitbon studied schemes on the Madden video game series while playing as his role model, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. He developed a photographic memory, reciting playbooks and other monologues, including William Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech and Al Pacino’s team address in “Any Given Sunday.”
He called his grandfather weekly to discuss coverages. He learned to motivate his teammates by asking Richie III how Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa spoke to players when he attended Alabama from 2015 to 2018.
Petitbon started as a sophomore in a season condensed by the coronavirus pandemic. In the Eagles’ finale against St. John’s in April 2021, Petitbon threw a game-winning 60-yard touchdown pass with 79 seconds remaining. Gonzaga finished 5-0.
Even as he thrived at Gonzaga, Petitbon stood in the student section at St. Mary’s basketball games. He considered transferring after his junior season.
Gonzaga started 4-3, and against Good Counsel on Oct. 16, 2021, ligaments in Petitbon’s left big toe tore when he was tackled. He endured Grade 3 turf toe and missed the remainder of Gonzaga’s 5-6 campaign — the Eagles’ first losing record since 2008. He told his parents he wasn’t having fun.
Gonzaga’s coaches, Petitbon said, wanted to stage a quarterback competition entering this season. Petitbon wasn’t willing to risk sitting his senior year. After he settled on transferring, partially based on what he read, St. Mary’s coaches and players welcomed him.
“As soon as Carson told me that he was transferring,” said St. Mary’s wide receiver Casey Smith, Petitbon’s childhood friend, “I was immediately like: ‘Oh, we’re winning the championship. Our offense will not be able to be stopped.’ ”
When Smith entered the weight room for the Saints’ first workout in June, he was shocked to see what Petitbon achieved in minutes. Petitbon had memorized every teammate’s name and stored their numbers in his phone. Even Smith, who had attended St. Mary’s for three years, didn’t know some of the players.
Petitbon, 18, assembled workouts with teammates at local fields. On days they didn’t train, he invited friends on his family’s boat and to jet ski on the Chesapeake Bay behind his home. On his first school day at St. Mary’s in August, Petitbon awoke at 5 a.m. and focused on his homework after the 10-minute drive home from practice.
“You just see that kid,” Richie Jr. said, “and that happiness and that joy come back to his life.”
St. Mary’s emerged as one of the D.C. area’s top teams Sept. 17, when Petitbon rushed for a five-yard touchdown for an overtime victory over Loyola Blakefield. When a videographer approached Petitbon in Towson, he became his first family member to point to the royal blue “St. Mary’s” print across the front of his jersey.
Before most games, Petitbon eats pizza and pasta with teammates and holds players-only meetings. In October, the school’s 130 seniors visited Petitbon’s house for photos and food before homecoming. In his backyard, Petitbon convened his offensive teammates in formation for a photo.
“If we were defeated, lost every game, I would still be happy,” said Petitbon, who aspires to play in college, “because I’m with all my friends.”
At a late October practice, Petitbon gathered teammates for a pick-up three-on-three game. After a few snaps, coaches yelled for players to gather at midfield. Petitbon was enjoying competitions reminiscent of his childhood.
“Next play wins,” Petitbon told his teammates.
When a teammate dropped a pass, Petitbon smiled and sighed while looking toward the sky. Then he ran to midfield for seven-on-seven drills. After he threw a 40-yard pass to Smith for a touchdown, Petitbon requested an extra play. He called the reserves into the huddle.
“Did you see that play?” Petitbon instructed. “We’ll run the same thing.”
Against St. Paul’s in Brooklandville the ensuing afternoon, Petitbon began the victory with a 48-yard touchdown pass to Smith on that same route — a play they’ve connected on since they were kids.
After every game, Petitbon leaves the field with his teammates. When he removes his helmet in front of his family, he reveals a grin.
“That,” Richie Jr. said, “is happiness.”