© Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
Dante Pettis is new to the NFL, but he can’t stop thinking about life after it.
When 49ers practice ends, and Pettis goes home, he enters his comfort zone. He plays with his two cats, Mowgli and Bagheera, names drawn from the Disney classic Jungle Book. He pops in FIFA ’19 or joins a Call of Duty party with fellow receivers Kendrick Bourne and Richie James. As the night winds down, he may edit photos stored on his camera or read one of the three books he recently bought. Pettis’ mind wanders to photographing safaris, writing movies, and launching an art foundation.
The 49ers rookie receiver makes no secrets about these interests. He loves football, but it does not consume him, nor will it. He wants to be known for more.
Most NFL teams saw that as a red flag.
Throughout his pre-draft meetings, dozens of coaches, general managers, and owners grilled Pettis with questions about his interests, with a consistent undertone: how much does football mean to you?
“When I started getting those questions like that, I was like, ‘What the heck? I didn’t know you couldn’t like both (art and football),’” Pettis told KNBR. “If I could tell they already had their mind made up, I was like, ‘All right, dude, whatever. Obviously, you are not going to support me as a person. I don’t want to play for you guys.’”
Pettis approximates that all but three NFL teams viewed his artistic interests as a hindrance. That annoyed him. After all, he says, he had achieved everything in his football career while maintaining those loves.
The 49ers were one of the few teams that asked about Pettis’ interests with curiosity, rather than skepticism. He had dinner with 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, general manager John Lynch, wide receiver coach Mike Lafleur, and vice present of player personnel Adam Peters. Pettis clicked with the 49ers brass and respected the manner in which they questioned him. He hoped the 49ers, or one of the other two teams he connected with, would draft him in late April.
“If a team isn’t that comfortable with what you like outside of football, I feel like it would be pretty tough to play for them,” Pettis said.
The 49ers coveted Pettis, an NCAA record-setting return man and first-team All-Pac 12 receiver at Washington, so much that they traded up 15 picks to draft him No. 44 overall. His non-football interests were never seen as abnormal.
“What’s really cool about Dante, yeah, he’s got the blue hair, yeah he’s artistic, I don’t know. That’s who he is,” Shanahan said in August. “He doesn’t care what you think. He’s not doing it for someone else. That’s who he is and that’s all you’ve got to be in this league. Just be yourself and guys respect you. He’s the same person every day and he doesn’t care what people think about him. I think people respect him a lot for that.”
One of the positives of Pettis’ rookie campaign is his fitting seamlessly into a locker room that several 49ers dub as the closest they have experienced.
“The locker room, nobody really cares what you’re into,” Pettis said. “Obviously, it comes from the people in charge. They want us to be human beings, not just football players. I think it kind of trickles down.”
On the field, Pettis’ rookie year started slow but ended on a promising note. In Week 4, he injured his knee, which sidelined him for four games. Slowly, he regained full health, and he started to shine. He entered Week 16 riding a four-game stretch with per-game averages of 4.3 catches, 84.5 yards, and one touchdown. Then Pettis suffered an MCL sprain last Sunday, ending his season with one game remaining. In the seven complete games he played this year, Pettis compiled 24 catches for 446 yards and five touchdowns.
Pettis has spent his rookie season balancing the pressures of being a second-round pick, learning a byzantine offensive playbook, and tuning out the trolls. His growing fame has naturally attracted more social media followers and commenters. Pettis frequently reads comments telling him to focus on football. He tries ignoring them, but sometimes he can’t help himself.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, I have literally been at football for eight hours, whatever, studied another two hours,’” Pettis said. “’I am home and have three hours to myself. I have put my work in for the day. I can do this now.’ They don’t get that. It’s really frustrating. I am like, I want to say stuff, like, ‘No look I have done all of this.’ But it’s pointless. They are going to think what they think.”
Unless you know about Pettis, you probably wouldn’t know he played football by glancing at his Twitter profile.
Every couple months or so, he changes his Twitter name. Early in the season, he went by “Finn the Human,” an Adventure Time character. Then, he switched to “Peter Pan,” one of his boyhood idols and inspirations. Now, he goes by “DP18,” an acronym representing his initials and playing number.
That anonymity is one way Pettis detaches from his NFL persona. He draws inspiration from athletes showing their personal sides. Pettis points to LeBron James’ series of video projects, from Bleacher Report’s “UNINTERRUPTED” to HBO’s “The Shop,” as paradigms.
“That stuff is cool because it lets people know you don’t just play sports,” Pettis said. “You do stuff outside of it.”
Pettis wants to show his non-football tastes as much as possible.
He is a relentless reader. Pettis is currently reading The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who also authored Pettis’ favorite all-time book, The Great Gatsby. Pettis was a creative writing major at Washington. He typically writes for 10 minutes before bed each night, whether poetry, short stories, or ideas for the movie he hopes to create someday. He loves music, and though he laments he can’t sing, he still plays the guitar, ukulele, and a bit of keyboard. He’s an unabashed cat lover, largely because of their intelligence and independence. (His favorite touchdown celebration mimics a cat cleaning itself.)
Pettis’ most recent craze is photography. In October of his junior year at Washington, he bought a Canon EOS 70D camera. He has kept his camera in his car at all times ever since.
Two months after he bought his camera, that love manifested into a separate Instagram account with another Disney-inspired moniker: “Christopher Robin.” Pettis has been a Winnie-the-Pooh fan since he was a kid.
“I just love the idea of him going to a different place and having his own world,” Pettis said. “All of his friends are there. All of his creative, imaginary stuff, and I just love that idea. Art itself is an escape from reality, I guess you could say. I think it holds true to me. Football is very intense. If you don’t have an outlet, stuff gets kind of crazy. That’s my outlet.”
Pettis aspires to shoot an African safari, where many of his loves — photography, wild cats, and a boundless feeling of freedom — are conjoined into one journey. His goal is to shoot for National Geographic, which he does not view that as a post-football endeavor.
“This offseason, if they were like, we could do something,” Pettis says, “I would be like, ‘All right, dope. Where are we going?’”
That creative expression fuels Pettis’ closest friendships. He and several friends operate a vlog called ‘Jerry TV,’ which has its own Instagram page and YouTube channel. That group includes Pettis’ older brother, Kyler, who stars in the hit soap opera, Days of Our Lives.
Their father, Gary, a five-time Gold Glove center fielder and currently the third-base coach for the Houston Astros, says he doesn’t know where the creative gene in his sons originated. But he always encouraged them to pursue their own interests, whether that included sports or not.
“Whatever your outside interest is, it doesn’t mean you are not bought into playing football,” Gary told KNBR. “(Pettis) has always bought into football.”
“It was always baseball for me. So, to see the different personalities and the paths (his kids) have taken to do different things is really special. The thing about Dante is whatever he is doing outside of football, he is doing it for himself. That’s what makes him feel good.”
Pettis tries to soak up every second of free time he gets. Prior to training camp in late July, he drove along California State Route 1 from Orange County to take photos of the coastline. The drive to Santa Clara, which takes about six hours without traffic, took Pettis 12 hours.
“I was stopping like every five minutes,” Pettis said. “It was awesome.”
When Pettis has more time, he travels.
He used the bye week to photograph New York City. During his time there, he met with representatives of Visionaire, an art publication. He collaborated with the Players Tribune, an online publication that gives athletes a platform to write stories firsthand.
That concept has long appealed to Pettis. On Nov. 15, he published a 2,426-word piece — titled “The Art-Impact-Love Plan” — elaborating on his love for art and all that he hopes to accomplish outside of football. He explained his adoration of cats, photography, movies, and writing.
Pettis’ mission in publishing that piece was to encourage others to express themselves without fear of derision. He has since received messages from readers thanking him for sharing his story.
“I am hoping someone sees my photos, and maybe they are in a bad place or whatever,” Pettis said. “They are like, ‘Dang, art is a cool outlet.’ (It) doesn’t have to be photography. It can be drawing, singing, writing.”
Pettis plans to start an art foundation, potentially as soon as the upcoming offseason. His idea is twofold. The first is to award scholarship money to a high school student for winning an art contest. The second is to preserve art classes, which are being cut across the country, by funding after-school programs.
Pettis has always had these ambitions. Now that he has the resources and platforms to pursue them, he sees no need in waiting around.
That does not mean he doesn’t love football. He just knows there is more to life.
“I think art can change people, like have a positive impact,” Pettis said. “It has had a great impact on my life.”