State of the Hogs: Petrus remembered as one of a kind

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, July 19, 2019
Arkansas offensive guard Mitch Petrus (66) blocks for quarterback Ryan Mallett during a game against Alabama on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Petrus died of a heat stroke on Thursday, July 18, 2019, after working at a family farm in his hometown of Carlisle. He was 32.
Photo by Marc F. Henning
Arkansas offensive guard Mitch Petrus (66) blocks for quarterback Ryan Mallett during a game against Alabama on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Petrus died of a heat stroke on Thursday, July 18, 2019, after working at a family farm in his hometown of Carlisle. He was 32.

There will never be another Brandon Burslworth. He’s an Arkansas Razorbacks legend and a state treasure.

His life was chronicled well in the 2016 movie “Greater.” There were a few things in the film that stretched things a bit. Hollywood can do that.

You know the story: walk-on to All-American as an offensive guard, drafted in the third round by the Indianapolis Colts and then died just days later in a car wreck.

There should be another movie about a similar state legend. Mitch Petrus, a two-time first-team All-SEC offensive guard, died Thursday night from heat stroke.

The 32-year-old from Carlisle died at a North Little Rock hospital after working on the family farm on a day when heat advisories were posted in the area.

It prompted the same kind of outpouring of sympathy as the day Burlsworth died on April 28, 1999. Just over 20 years later, Razorback fans were mourning the loss of one of their favorites and not just because of his greatness as a football player.

The Petrus movie is perfect for the big screen. No one in Hollywood will have to stretch anything about Petrus. In fact, screenwriters will be amazed at the rich nature of the Petrus story. There is enough goofy fun to delight, and a Super Bowl cameo, too.

Burlsworth was an introvert. Petrus had the opposite personality - a loving extrovert who once asked me after an hour-long interview: “Did I give you enough good stuff?”

Oh, it was all good stuff from Petrus, all of the time. He overflowed with emotional energy that he could harness into great work in the weight room, on the field or just when he was around his friends.

Find the video clips posted by Wess Moore from Mitch’s work on the Fox 16 Fearless Friday high school football coverage in Little Rock. Petrus might be dressed in a Halloween costume, a hockey mask on Friday the 13th, or he could be rapping with the Little Rock McClellan band. High school coaches asked for Petrus to cover their game.

Many coaches can claim him as a player. He came to Arkansas under Houston Nutt, played under interim coach Reggie Herring, then under Bobby Petrino. Tom Coughlin was his NFL coach when the Giants won Super Bowl 46 at the end of the 2011 season.

They all said the same thing: a wonderful spirit for the game of football and for humanity. They all are saying the same thing today, so sad about what has been lost. Everyone loved Petrus.

“I’ll never forget when Danny (Nutt) brought him to our attention,” Houston Nutt said. “He came to us as a walk-on tight end/running back. Of course, we would move him to offensive guard.”

There was no trouble convincing Petrus to change positions.

“He thanked you for everything, every opportunity,” Nutt said. “He was the same about the move to the offensive line, because he was a people pleaser.

“It was the same that day as it was when we gave him a scholarship; just so thankful. Mitch Petrus would thank you for every meal, everything you gave him.”

Nutt said Petrus’ qualities were similar to Burlsworth.

“They were so different, but with that same great Razorback attitude and spirit; eager to please,” Nutt said.

“I was trying to explain to him the reasons to move him to the offensive line. He just said, ‘Coach, give me the playbook. It’s great.’ It was always the same with Mitch, just pure jubilation.”

Teammates gravitated to him. Former Arkansas quarterback Alex Mortensen, now at Alabama, was devastated when Stephen Parker, like a big brother to both, called Friday morning with the news. Parker played offensive guard three years before Petrus.

“I’d turned my phone off last night,” Alex said. “So when I woke up, there were all these phone messages all night.”

Parker said he got the call at 6 a.m. It was devastating news.

“He was like a little brother,” said Parker, a walk-on with a similar story to Burlsworth and Petrus.

“I think he saw in me what I had seen in others as far as walk-ons at Arkansas, that you could make it there,” Parker said. “Mike Markuson was an O-line coach who didn’t care if you were on scholarship or not, just what you’d do in the weight room and on the practice field. You worked, he would play you.

“So I encouraged Mitch, ‘Do it. You can play here under this coach. You will play if you earn it.’

“I just feel so badly today. It’s been 12 hours and all I can think about is why I didn’t spend more time with him the last couple of years. He was a good dude, a crazy country boy. Alex and I talk about him all the time. Why didn’t he do a podcast and tell his stories? They would have been awesome. Yeah, a movie would be great.”

Mortensen was emotional as he tried to talk about Petrus. His voice cracked, almost exactly what I got from Chris Mortensen, his father, in another interview an hour later.

Alex recalled being desperate for camp coaches at Alabama two years ago when the NCAA ruled high school coaches with potential recruits could not work for the summer at colleges.

“I called Mitch and Parker and they stayed on my couch for a few weeks and worked a series of camps,” Alex Mortensen said. “Mitch was the star of the show. I can’t tell you how many guys would come to me and tell me what Mitch had done.

“It was really perfect for him because he had unbelievable energy. He could light up the field, a room, anywhere he was at. And, it was the same every day. He had qualities that were obvious - will, determination and such a big heart.

“Over and over, our other coaches at the camp would say, ‘How did you find this guy?’ He was so good with the kids, with so much energy. It was contagious. Everyone thought he should get into coaching.”

Parker said he helped Petrus a few years ago when there was a job opening for a head high school job.

“Mitch had never coached,” Parker said. “I told him, ‘You are going to have to put together binders for your offense and defense,’ and we worked on it. I don’t know why he thought they were going to hire him, but he thought he could do it.

“There was always talk that he should coach. I did work with him at that Alabama camp working with O-line kids. It was pretty hilarious. Mitch was showing technique and he knocked a few on their butt; just rolled them. But it was all just his enthusiasm to teach. I do think he should have coached.”

Petrus was hopeful, said Tim Horton, now at Vanderbilt as running backs coach. Horton got to Arkansas in 2007 just after Petrus was converted to the offensive line.

Petrus was All-SEC in his first season on the line in 2007. He made first-team all-conference again as a redshirt senior in 2009 after redshirting the year before.

Petrus was one of six Arkansas players to be named to the All-SEC first team multiple times. The others were Darren McFadden, Ken Hamlin, Shawn Andrews, D.J. Williams and Jonathan Luigs.

“I didn’t get to coach him in the backfield, but I was there with him for three seasons as he played in our line,” Horton said. “He bulked up and was outstanding and what he always had was the ability to run. He was so strong, but he could run like the wind.”

Horton recalled hearing the results from the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine when Petrus tied the record with 45 lifts of the 225-pound bar.

“None of us were surprised,” Horton said.

Parker sure wasn’t surprised at the lifts at the combine. Petrus was legendary in the UA weight room.

“He was country-boy strong when he got to Arkansas, just farm-boy strong,” Parker said. “So he was a natural in the weight room and he’d work. That’s where you find out who is going to play.

“So I set some records in the weight room and Mitch broke them. I had done 385 (pounds) in the power clean. A couple of years later Mitch did 405. I got the call on that. Really?

“Mitch was a freak athlete. He came as a running back, but he put on 25 chunk pounds every year. I know at the end of his time at Arkansas he got the bench record at over 500 and the clean at over 400, and he never lost his speed. He worked his butt off.”

That’s part of the Petrus story, but it’s just as much about character and loyalty among his coaches and friends.

“Sure is,” Parker said. “Good character, as good as you ever would find.

“Now he did things that would make you think twice, like he had a stretch where he got into heavy metal when he was with the Giants. He had guitars and he might play all night. I know some of us told him he might ought to concentrate on the football more than the music. He was determined to get good at it.”

Chris Mortensen said he visited Petrus at his apartment in New Jersey when he was with the Giants.

“I was a little surprised when he showed me the guitars,” Mortensen said. “He wanted me to come by so I did.”

The flirtation with heavy metal was one of the few things anyone could find to offset the amazing character. Horton admired that aspect of his former player.

“You talk about trying to be the same day in and day out,” Horton said, “well, Mitch didn’t have any bad days. I’m talking about on or off the field.

“This is tough news. I talked with Houston (Nutt) this morning. We are all just floored.”

It made everyone’s day bad, but only until they started telling Petrus stories.

“I got to Alabama in 2011 as a (graduate assistant) and in my first week one of our players, our center, William Vlachos, asked me if I knew Mitch, since he figured out I’d been at Arkansas,” Alex Mortensen said. “Of course, I told him how well I knew him.”

Alabama won two national titles while Vlachos played on the O-line. He bubbled with questions about Petrus.

“William wanted me to tell him all about Mitch,” Mortensen said. “He said every week when they’d get tape of the next opponent, he went through it looking for Petrus clips.

“To hear one linemen talk about another one is interesting. I do think it’s hard to get noticed when you are playing in the interior. But other linemen see everyone and study them. William said Mitch played the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”

That resonates, but it’s exactly what others have always said.

“I heard that from the Giants,” Chris Mortensen said. “I took an interest in Mitch because he’d come to our house with Alex. When it became clear that he might be able to play in the NFL, he’d pick my mind about what he should be doing and I tried to help him.”

Coughlin, like most in the NFL, is friends with Chris Mortensen, so Chris phoned him ahead of the combine to mention he might be interested in some of the things about Petrus that made for a special player.

“I told Tom that Mitch was one of my son’s best friends and that he was spending time to get schooled up on the sophistication of the NFL offenses,” Chris Mortensen said. “Tom already had the scouting book on Mitch. Tom knew of this thirst for knowledge and his high-quality characteristics.”

Chris Mortensen said they are “Burslworth-like” in many ways.

“Clearly, Brandon was drafted higher,” Mortensen said. “Mitch was a fifth rounder, but their background as Arkansas high school kids who walked on and excelled in the SEC are similar. They played the same position.

“And, because my son was close to Mitch, I became close, too. I’d follow him with the Giants, go by to see him. Obviously, he played in the Super Bowl, so I watched him closely in that game, probably more closely than you might watch an offensive guard.

“That offensive line with the Giants that year was all veterans and I talked to them about Mitch. They loved him, took him under their wing.”

Some of Petrus’ former Giants teammates took to social media Friday to remember him.

“Mitch was not only great teammate, he was also a great friend,” wrote Rich Seubert, a 10-year veteran of the Giants. “You will be missed by many buddy.”

Petrus’ New York teammates loved the same things about him that someone from afar at Alabama saw.

“Yeah, they picked on him because he was a rookie, but they really did love him and quickly,” Chris Mortensen said. “They loved that motivation and drive. And, he started three games because of injuries and was in the game at the Super Bowl and did well. I watched it all.”

The thought of coaching never left Petrus, who got a degree in agriculture business at Arkansas.

“I know there were thoughts about becoming a GA at Arkansas, but it never worked out,” Chris Mortensen said. “That’s a shame because I think that was his calling.”

But it could be that TV journalism was working out. He was wildly popular with fans of the Fearless Friday weekly show hosted by Moore.

“Larger than life is how I’d describe Mitch,” Moore said. “And, he would make me a little nervous because he’d push the envelope with his big personality.

“On our game coverage for high school football that personality would come through. He scared me with some of the things he’d do, like wear a wig, a costume or a mask. He was not the traditional reporter.”

It became a highlight, with coaches a little nervous to come on with him after game. But, the coaches did it every time.

“That is what amazed me, how many times I’d get an email from a coach to ask when I was sending Mitch to his game,” Moore said. “We had all of these professional reporters, but the coaches wanted Mitch.

“It’s interesting because those clips of Mitch would go viral on the Internet. You’d find out how many friends he made in the NFL. Mitch was bigger than Arkansas. I found out.”

All true, but Alex Mortensen just wanted to grieve over the loss of a friend.

“Loyal and like a brother,” Alex described Petrus. “He was always the same. You would wonder when he’d run out of energy, but he never did. We always talked about that, Stephen Parker and I. How can Mitch be like that every day? But he was like that nonstop.”

Nutt said it was incredible to watch.

“We’d run gassers and Mitch would come to me and want to run with the backs and receivers, not the linemen,” Nutt said. “It’s hard to describe what that means to your team. He never wanted to let his teammates down.”

Parker felt that, but did recall one meltdown that needed a correction. It came in a 27-10 victory at No. 2 Auburn in 2006.

“We were using Mitch as a blocking back and he got excited and got a 15-yard personal foul for blocking down field after the whistle,” Parker said.

“Then, he was coming back to the huddle mad at the ref and talking. He was about to get thrown out of the game. I was trying to get him to stop. Finally, I just reached out and gave him an open palm slap to the ear hole to get his attention.”

Petrus went to the ground.

“Mitch got up and asked what just happened and I told him,” Parker siad. “I was just trying to get him to stop, just to shut up.

“You know he could get a little crazy. I know I’m not normal, but Mitch was one of the few that would make me look normal.

Sports Illustrated did a story about that. Auburn had a back they were there to feature, but they ended up dropping that story and coming to our locker room to talk to me about what I had done to Mitch.”

It might be the first scene from the movie. Or, there could be about 20 other good places to start. I’ll be in the front row to watch and it will be wonderful, maybe better than “Greater.”

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