Ever since he was a boy growing up in California, Dante Pettis has always been a bit of an entertainer on the football field.
There are enough snapshots from his days at JSerra Catholic High School and the University of Washington to fill multiple photo albums.
Pettis’ NFL success didn’t materialize the way he hoped after the Niners drafted him with the 44th overall pick in 2018. However, he added to his NFL record with a 51-yard TD reception that helped of the Bears to spark a 19-10 victory over San Francisco at a rain-soaked Soldier Field in the season opener.
It was just the wideout’s 53rd career catch.
While Pettis hopes to add to that total in the coming weeks — including Sunday at the Meadowlands when he faces a Giants team he played for in 2020-21 — he’s also focused on using his passion to photography and art to help those struggling with mental health.
Pettis’ foundation, CR18, was created for this very purpose.
“This is for artists — to help fund them,” said Pettis, who headlined a charity auction in Los Angeles before the Super Bowl last February. “It’s also about letting people know that art is an outlet. You don’t have to resort to unhealthy things.”
Weird push back
Pettis’ main focus when he was young was on sports. That’s not much of a surprise since his father, Gary, won five Gold Gloves while playing for the Angels, Tigers, Rangers and Padres from 1982-92.
“He was either throwing a basketball, a football or a baseball in the air,” said Dante’s mother, Peggy, who was a cheerleader for the Raiders in 1989-90. “He was always running around being crazy — or playing video games. He never wanted to come to dinner.’
The “artistic spark” was ignited during Pettis’ senior year in high school when he took a Shakespeare class. He loved plays and began to dive into books. The Alchemist (which he has read many times), The Catcher in the Rye, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, and Inexorables are among Pettis’ favorites.
During his time at the University of Washington (where he returned an NCAA record 9 punts for TDs), Pettis developed a love for photography. He likes to take pictures in big cities, something he was able to do quite often in San Francisco and New York.
As the 2018 draft approaches, though, Pettis said he’s caught a lot of buzz about his hobby.
“I thought, ‘That’s weird,'” said Pettis, who caught 15 TD passes as a junior and 7 more as a senior. “It’s no different than someone loving fishing or whatever…
“There was this big thing around my name: Well, how much does he like football because he’s an artist? I had to answer a lot of questions about it during the whole combining process.”
San Francisco actually traded up to select Pettis. He had a decent rookie season, catching 27 passes for 467 yards and 5 TDs, but fell out of favor with coach Kyle Shanahan in 2019 and was inactive when the Niners lost Super Bowl 54 to Kansas City.
Visitors to Pettis’ CR18 website are greeted with two messages: “Art is a universal language” and “United we create.” Then come four facts researched by Pettis’ team:
• 50% of students need mental health support
• Only 12% of schools are at the level of quality arts education
• 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis
• Engaging in 45 minutes of art-making significantly reduces cortisol levels.
Fellow Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney, who also loves photography and owns a Sony A-7 III camera, noticed an Instagram post of Pettis taking pictures and the two immediately clicked.
“Nothing else matters at this point,” Mooney said of how he feels while taking pictures. “You can see everything from a different perspective, through the lens.
“I’ll go down to the city, put on my hoodie, put on some music and just shoot. There is nothing else – neither football nor life. I’m just taking pictures.”
Pettis has a very close friend — so close he considers him family — who has fallen on hard times. Pettis’ suggestion of using art as an outlet had a dramatic effect.
“A lot of times when they were in a darker place, they used a lot of drawing or writing,” Pettis said. “They told me how much it helped them. They really felt like they got a lot of their emotions out on paper. Many people have not found a way to express themselves and get these emotions out.
“Art is one of the best ways to do that… It helped him a lot.”
“You must share”
Raised Catholic and with parents who understood the importance of giving back, it’s no surprise that Pettis has become so altruistic.
“My mum had multiple sclerosis so this was a huge fundraiser for me,” said Peggy. “We also give to the church every Sunday. Our children always saw you helping the less fortunate. Always. All four of my children know that even if you only have a little, you have to share with others.”
CR18’s auction in February raised money for an art school in California. The foundation also allocates money for scholarships.
Pettis’ team will be brainstorming and looking at what the next few months should look like. They are planning an event in Chicago which is currently scheduled for December.
Pettis used his connections in the art community to determine who would receive a grant.
“They’ll send me a couple of Instagram profiles or their website and I’ll just go through and pick somebody,” Pettis said. “Or I’ll send it to a couple of people on my team and say, ‘Yo. What do you think of this man?’
Pettis started last season on the Giants’ practice squad, then caught 10 passes (including a TD) for 87 yards in Weeks 6 and 7. Disaster struck the following week, however, as Pettis suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Kansas City.
In the offseason, the Bears “were the first team to call” and Pettis signed a one-year deal on May 12. His smooth route running impressed offensive coordinator Luke Getsey and the rest of the staff.
“He’s done a great job,” Getsy said in late August. “An opportunity was presented and he went out and took it by the horns.”
Pettis returned punts in the first three games and caught that momentum TD against the Niners. He’s been pretty quiet otherwise, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens when rookie Velus Jones Jr. and N’Keel Harry return from injuries. (Jones could play Sunday against the Giants).
No matter what, Pettis will continue to work hard because he knows not many WRs get a second chance, let alone a third. If he can show the Bears enough the rest of the way, perhaps a longer-term deal could materialize at some point.
But regardless of what his NFL future holds, he’s already shown his friends, family and many entertainers how he plans to spread the wealth away from the gridiron.
“I’m really proud of him,” Peggy said. “He wants to make the world a better place… He’s always been super compassionate. He is very quiet, but he has that part of him that wants to be a bright light in people’s lives.
“He just wants to help people.”