Sunday, May 13, 2007

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Alton Pettway believes there is a certain symmetry to his football life. He believes that he was born to be a Ram.

The undrafted rookie defensive end out of Albany State was born and raised in East St. Louis, has the first name of a Metro East suburb and even has an uncle named Saint Lewis. If that wasn’t enough, Pettway’s college team was known as the Rams.

So it was almost an easy decision as to with whom he would sign after going undrafted. The Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars showed interest in potentially drafting him, but when they didn’t, the choice was easy.

“It really didn’t matter because I’m a Ram,” Pettway said. “I was an Albany State Ram and now I’m a St. Louis Ram.”

After spending the first 12 years of his life in East St. Louis, Pettway and his parents picked up and move to Bay Minette, Ala. There, he developed a fondness for Alabama and Auburn football, the only real games in town. He was too young to be upset about leaving St. Louis, but had a feeling he might return one day.

“It wasn’t that big a deal because I was so young,” Pettway said.

Like most kids, Pettway’s love of football extends to the realm of video games. More specifically, Pettway loves the annual release of NFL simulator “Madden Football.”

And, like many game enthusiasts, Pettway generally takes the time to create himself on the game and use his video-rendered version to beat up on his opponents. Ironically, Pettway’s team of choice on the game is the Rams.

Because Pettway was a star defensive end at Division II Albany State, he had to find a place to put his video-game alter ego. Naturally, he replaced Rams’ star end Leonard Little.

“I play Madden a lot,” Pettway said. “In the (game), I usually substitute him out and put me in.”

So, it works out well that Pettway is in his first rookie minicamp with, who else, but the Rams. Making it more enjoyable for the young hybrid defensive end/linebacker is the fact that Pettway’s locker is next to Little’s.

When Little came to the Rams out of Tennessee, he had a much higher profile than Pettway, but there are plenty of similarities. At 6’1, 242 pounds, Pettway fits the mold of an undersized defensive end and an oversized linebacker. That same description followed Little to the league.

Like Little, Pettway has an innate ability to rush the passer, though. He is working this weekend exclusively as an end, but if he can make a push for the roster, it will likely come as a pure edge rusher who would work on third down.

Pettway made his way in football doing the same thing Little does for the Rams, getting after the quarterback. After drawing interest from Division I schools such as Mississippi and Alabama-Birmingham, Pettway settled on tiny Albany State because of grade issues.

Once he got there, Pettway immediately made a name for himself as a pass rusher. By the time his senior season arrived last season, Pettway was one of the most dominant players in Division II.

Pettway earned the Harlon Hill Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in Division II after racking up 14.5 sacks last season.

While Pettway doesn’t boast the best speed around, he finds other ways to get to the quarterback.

“I play mostly with leverage,” Pettway said. “I am kind of a small guy. Most guys are bigger so I use that against them. I use leverage and quickness and I try to mimic whoever I am going against and what they do. I find their weakness and make it my strong point.”

Instead of simply running around tackles, Pettway has a bit of a different style. He uses short, choppy steps much like a running back getting ready to juke a defender. That allows him to change direction quickly and make his blocker miss.

Although Pettway is a bit of a long shot to make the roster - like most undrafted free agent rookies are – he does have the advantage of competing for a spot that seems to be unclaimed at this point.

The Rams don’t have a true fourth defensive end and also have a need for someone to fill the buck end position. The team re-signed Raonall Smith in the offseason, but would like to have some competition for Smith in training camp.

Because of Pettway’s ability to get after the quarterback, it’s a safe bet that he will at least be given an opportunity to compete for those spots. For now, his focus is on making a strong first impression.

“I look at it as I have one foot in the door,” Pettway said. “I look at it like that. All I have to do is take a couple more steps and I’m good. I may have played D-2 ball, but I feel like I am on the same level as the rest of these guys. All I am here to do is showcase my talent and prove to the coaches I am supposed to be here.”

If he does that, his return home could be a permanent one.