Every now and then, while Richie Fontaine Petitbon ambled through his grandfather’s house in Vienna, a glimmering gold ring would grab the toddler’s interest.
As he further examined the piece of jewelry protruding from his grandfather’s finger, its face encrusted with red diamonds and embossed with the words “World Champions,” a curious Richie would pepper him with questions about the ring’s significance.
“Babe,” his grandfather would respond, using a term his players heard often during his years as the Washington Redskins defensive coordinator and head coach from 1981 to 1993. “That’s a Super Bowl championship ring.”
It wasn’t until some years later that the man Richie knew as “Grandpa Football” would become better known to him as Richie Alvin Petitbon, the former All-Pro safety for the Chicago Bears and mastermind of the vaunted Redskins defense during their three Super Bowl wins. By then, “Little Richie” was just beginning his own journey, one rooted in his namesake’s career passion but made distinct by the 16-year-old’s physical prowess and blossoming stock within football circles.
Since becoming Gonzaga’s left tackle last season, Petitbon has garnered offers from Alabama, Florida State, Louisiana State, Maryland and Wisconsin. At 6 feet 4, 290 pounds, he has the size and athleticism college coaches laud. Petitbon has played attack on Gonzaga’s lacrosse team, earned MVP honors on the junior varsity basketball squad and thrown a football more than 50 yards.
Squeezed within the teenager’s tight schedule are weekly phone conversations with his grandfather, 20-minute talks that touch on footwork, mechanics and the like.
“It’s real laid back, and he’s never overbearing,” Petitbon said. “I know most people see him as the old Redskins coach, but for me, it’s just great talking to my grandpa. His advice is always hustle on every play, block downfield and compete in everything you do.”
Last year, Little Richie’s father, who is named Richie Michael Petitbon and played linebacker at Maryland, surprised the eldest Petitbon with an iPad. The motive behind the gift was so his father could review Gonzaga’s game film via an online video analysis tool.
The first time they fired up the program, the 75-year-old Petitbon began looking around and under the tablet for a place to put in a VHS tape. Ninety minutes later, after multiple explanations on software and inquiries as to where that Siri lady came from, Petitbon was in his element, studying the intricate details as football plays unfolded before him.
“Back in the old days, I would be what you call illiterate,” said Petitbon, who still lives in Vienna and attends most of his grandson’s home games. “I’m not too big on computers, but my wife is. It’s better for me to watch on the computer because sometimes it’s difficult to get a good seat or if they are on the road.
“Thing is, kids like to have fun,” the eldest Petitbon continued. “They’re not trying to be corrected on everything, and I’m not trying to impose what I think on anybody. It’s not so much what you do at the point of attack as it is whether you hustle or work hard. Those are things I think you can’t teach, and Little Richie has those things.”
Intangibles have rarely been an issue for Little Richie — or RP3, as his dad sometimes calls him. As an eighth grader, Petitbon weighed 215 pounds and could play everything from quarterback to linebacker, leading the top private schools to clamor for his football services. The Petitbons initially nixed Gonzaga from that list, citing the long drive from Annapolis to the District. But when first-year Coach Aaron Brady sent an assistant to watch Petitbon practice, followed by a tour of the school, the family had a change of heart.
“You know that kid you grow up with that’s good at everything? That’s Richie,” Brady said. “Thank goodness he came here.”
Fueled by the multiple glasses of chocolate milk he chugs each day and motivated by a desire not to let his team down, Petitbon has evolved into a dependable force for the Eagles (2-2), who have rushed for 810 yards in four games entering Friday’s matchup with top-ranked Good Counsel (3-1).
“He’ll come in the huddle and say to run behind him, and on the next play, there’ll be a hole big enough to drive a truck through,” Eagles tailback Robbie Walker said. “He’s a very powerful guy, and I trust him.”
As Petitbon helps plow the Gonzaga offense ahead, his grandfather intently watches from the crowd. Since hanging up his coaching cap in 1993, the eldest Petitbon doesn’t feel the need to yell or exhort much from the sideline. But every now and then, as his grandson takes his stance on the line, a formation or play will catch Grandpa Football’s eye.
“Babe, we’re going to be all right,” he’ll say to no one in particular. “I think we’ve got something here, babe.”