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Former Navy FB Eric Kettani left a lasting image with Patriots owner

FootballNew England PatriotsWashington RedskinsBaltimore RavensNFLBilly Cundiff

The painting is hung prominently in the private office of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Titled "Wide Left," it shows an oversized football, a tiny goal post and the final score of 23-20, collectively representing the end of last year's AFC championship game won by the Patriots on former Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff's botched 32-yard field goal attempt in the waning seconds.

The artist who created the colorful 4-foot-by-4-foot painting laughs at some of the irony of what transpired since he gave it to Kraft last summer. A little more than a month after Eric Kettani, then trying to win a spot on the team, presented Kraft with the painting at a ceremony during training camp, the former Navy fullback and budding artist was cut.

After being brought back a few days later, Kettani was cut again the following week and joined the practice squad of the Washington Redskins for the 2012 season. While rooming with Nick Sundberg, the team's long snapper, near the practice facility in Ashburn, Va., Kettani became friends with Cundiff, then trying to resurrect his career after getting cut himself by the Ravens.

Kettani said he never mentioned the painting to Cundiff, though Sundberg was aware of it and constantly kidded Kettani about it. Kettani isn't sure whether Cundiff, who was eventually cut by the Redskins early in the season, knew of the painting's existence.

"We did not actually talk about it," Kettani said Monday by cell phone from Jacksonville Beach, Fla., where he has lived since being on active duty in the Navy and where he painted "Wide Left."

"I felt really horrible about it once I got to know him and his family. But the painting wasn't really about him, it was about the AFC championship game experience for the Patriots."

Now a year later, as the Ravens and Patriots prepare for another not-so-friendly reunion Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Kettani is being reminded of what remains his most notable piece of art.

Shortly after Ravens rookie kicker Justin Tucker made a game-winning, 47-yard field goal Saturday in Denver to beat the Broncos in double-overtime, Kettani started receiving text messages about "Wide Left."

"One of them said, 'I bet your painting gets some media attention'," Kettani said with a laugh.

Kettani, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 2008, had been with the Patriots for the first seven weeks of the 2011 season before being ordered by the Navy to return to active duty in Mayport, Fla. He finally got a chance to renew his NFL career without interruption after working out an agreement last summer to forego his last two years of fulltime service in the Navy by agreeing to spend seven years in the reserves as a recruiter and speaker.

Kettani, who had taken some art classes back in high school in Ohio, said he "had dabbled in it" while at Navy, but had started painting regularly when he and professional painter Adam Brett found themselves living together for two weeks at the at the Jacksonville Beach home of a mutual friend.

The 40-year-old Brett said he painted every day from sunrise until late at night and after a few days of Kettani watching him, he invited his fellow houseguest to join him.

"The next thing I knew, we were both out there, religiously. He had more passion than I ever thought anybody could ever have right off the bat," Brett said. "He had the same work ethic that he probably demonstrated when he was at Navy. He applied that same work ethic to his craft, trying to get better."

Brett said Kettani is something of a natural.

"I told him that what basically takes people years to develop he was doing it in a week or two weeks," Brett said. "It was in him, it was just a matter of him having a forum and somebody pushing him along. He started learning from me, but after a while, I was learning from him as well."

Brett's influence as an abstract expressionist artist can be found in the 50 pieces Kettani has produced or has been commissioned to paint, with part of the proceeds going to the Wounded Warriors Project. Kettani is grateful for meeting Brett.

"He's an amazing artist, he really taught me a lot of what I know," said Kettani, who recently sold a piece called "A Decade of Dominance," as well as several prints, depicting Navy's now 11-year winning streak over Army. "People say it's therapeutic, and it really is. It's relaxing. You're creating something that wasn't there before."

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo had no idea that his former bruising fullback was a painter, but he isn't surprised. An economics major, Kettani was a hard-nosed player with a quick wit, suggesting after the Midshipmen beat Army his senior year that the Black Knights' camouflage game uniforms didn't work that well.

"He's a talented kid. He was a well-rounded kid," Niumatalolo said. "There are a lot of different planes to him."

Kettani has sold several pieces to his current Redskins teammates and will help put on a show for charity this spring with long-time Washington tight end Chris Cooley, who owns an art studio in Leesburg, Va. Along with his fledgling career as a painter, Kettani started his own clothing line last year called "State Roots." Even Robert Griffin III, the team's uber-talented but now injured rookie quarterback, bought one of Kettani's T-shirts.

The three-year contract he recently signed with the Redskins gives the 25-year-old Kettani hope that he can finally get a firm hold on playing in a league where fullbacks are becoming more rare — if not totally extinct.

"I had a great time there [with the Redskins] and being on the practice squad I got a chance to showcase my skills," said Kettani, one of only two Midshipmen to rush for over 2,000 yards in his college career.

Kettani can see himself becoming a more serious painter after his playing days are over. He hopes that doesn't happen soon but understands the odds against him having a long NFL career.

"I take things day by day," he said. "When I was with New England, I started all four preseason games and then I was the last cut. The NFL is a business. Things can happen. I just take it day by day and get ready for next season."

Though Kettani is no longer with the team, Kraft is appreciative of what he has left behind. In a December interview with the Washington Post, Kraft said of Kettani's painting, "I was just so overwhelmed. It meant so much to me that while he was on reserve, he found time to create it. To be honest, seeing it there serves as a special memory of a special season."

Kettani even inscribed the initials of Kraft's late wife, Myra, into the top-right corner of the piece.

"When [Cundiff] missed that kick, the whole building felt like it was Myra blowing the kick left," Kraft said in the interview with the Post. "This painting is a way for me to hold on to her memory. It really is special to me."

Kettani said he will be pulling for the Patriots on Sunday.

"They gave me a shot and I really appreciated it," he said.

Part of that appreciation can be found in Kraft's office at Patriot Place.

Just don't tell Billy Cundiff.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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