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Illinois offensive lineman Richie Petitbon warms up before a game against Michigan on Oct. 12, 2019. (Courtesy of University of Illinois Athletics)
Illinois offensive lineman Richie Petitbon warms up before a game against Michigan on Oct. 12, 2019. (Courtesy of University of Illinois Athletics) (Michael Glasgow)

Richie Petitbon has played in the Under Armour All-America Game and before more than 100,000 screaming fans inside the University of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. But neither of those rivaled the anxiety associated with performing in a production of “Footloose” at Gonzaga College High School in Washington.

“All I remember is, I’ve played in a lot of football games, but that opening night, that was the most nervous I’ve been in my life for anything,” recalled Petitbon, an Annapolis resident. “With all of those people out there, you’ve got to do it perfect. At least when you’re playing football, you’re playing, you know what I mean? This was the theater. You had to do it exactly how you did it every time or else people are going to notice. So I was definitely nervous.”

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Although the stage might not be his cup of tea, Petitbon is more than comfortable on the football field. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound redshirt senior has started at right guard in all 10 games for Illinois, which at 6-4 became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2014. The Illini, 4-3 in the Big Ten, will visit Iowa (7-3, 4-3) on Saturday at noon.

Petitbon, who graduated from Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies, has helped anchor an offensive front that returned four starters but graduated right guard Nick Allegretti, who was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the seventh round of the 2019 NFL draft.

“To have a guy like Richie transfer in and since the day he stepped on campus, really own that spot, that has been huge for them from a consistency standpoint and a reliability standpoint,” said Martin O’Donnell, an analyst for the Fighting Illini Radio Network and a former right guard at Illinois. “He really seems to have fit in with the offensive line guys and the other guys on the offense. I just think he’s played really well this year. He’s been really consistent, and he kind of anchored a position that really had to be addressed in the offseason, and it wound up really being a great situation for Illinois and a great situation, I think, for Richie.”

Illinois running back Reggie Corbin (2) gets a block from offensive lineman Richie Petitbon (74) during a game against Wisconsin on Oct. 19, 2019. (Courtesy of University of Illinois Athletics)
Illinois running back Reggie Corbin (2) gets a block from offensive lineman Richie Petitbon (74) during a game against Wisconsin on Oct. 19, 2019. (Courtesy of University of Illinois Athletics) (Craig Pessman/Craig Pessman)

Petitbon seemed destined for a path to football considering his grandfather Richie Alvin Petitbon was a four-time Pro Bowl safety who also was a longtime defensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins and his father, Richie Michael Petitbon, played linebacker for the University of Maryland.

But at Gonzaga, Petitbon was a four-year attackman for the varsity lacrosse team and a two-year forward for the varsity basketball team. Despite his size, however, he found few minutes on the hardwood, but rejoiced with his teammates when they captured the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title in 2015.

“I’m a 6-4, big, white guy who can’t jump. So I definitely couldn’t start for Gonzaga,” he said with a laugh. “I had some of my really good friends on that team, and it was just kind of that feeling of being part of a team and working towards a goal. Whether I was starting or not, it wasn’t about that. It was about being with a group of guys and going to practice every day. When it was all said and done, in my final year, we won the championship. So it was pretty cool.”

Petitbon said he had a similar mentality about playing the role of the main character’s disapproving uncle in “Footloose.”

“I just kind of sat there and thought, ‘This is my senior year. I need to take advantage of my last year here,’” he said. “I think that’s what I really wanted to do, and I ended up meeting some really great friends in the play. That whole group, that was family to allow me to come in and be a part of that play. A lot of those guys have been doing theater forever or just as long as I’ve been playing football. So for them to be able to allow me to come in and be a part of their family, it was really cool.”

Gonzaga football coach Randy Trivers, who took over the team in 2014, said he learned to appreciate Petitbon’s inquisitive nature to defy preconceived notions.

“He was a versatile human being that is multi-layered in terms of being a guy that is not your stereotypical football player,” Trivers said. “He’s a guy that’s intelligent, that’s charismatic, that has a lot to offer beyond the field. I think that’s what makes him such a respectable figure and a good, strong leader amongst his peers that we had here.”

A unanimous four-star prospect who chose the Crimson Tide over Boston College, Florida State, Iowa and Kentucky, Petitbon redshirted his freshman year and then served as a reserve offensive lineman for three more seasons. With his bachelor’s degree in hand last December, he decided to transfer to Illinois.

“When I was wrapping up my time, I was thinking that I could be done and go home or try to go to work or get started on whatever else I wanted to do,” he said, adding that Illinois coach Lovie Smith reminds him of Alabama coach Nick Saban. “But for me, football is my first love, and I grew up always with a football in my hands. Coming from a football family with my dad and my grandfather, I just thought I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t go out and take a chance and try to go somewhere else and play for my final year.”

Illini offensive line coach Bob McClain said Petitbon readily welcomed learning a new offensive system.

“He’s a technician,” McClain said. “If you tell him to step four inches, he’s going to step four inches. If you tell him his hat needs to be on this number, it’s going to be on this number. And he’s a hard worker. That’s kind of the culture of our group. They come with their hard hats on, and they carry their lunch pails, and that’s just the culture of our O-line, and he fit into that because that’s who he is.”

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O’Donnell, the former Illinois right guard who was named an All American in 2007, said Petitbon has gelled nicely with a trio of juniors in center Doug Kramer, left tackle Vederian Lowe and right tackle Alex Palczewski and sophomore left guard Kendrick Green.

“You’d never know from watching the film that Richie is a guy that just showed up on campus less than a year ago,” O’Donnell said. “You’d think he’s been in the program for a while with the way that he’s able to work with the guys next to him. I think it’s been really fantastic for the Illinois program to have a guy like him be able to come in and solidify that spot, and obviously you see the results on the field, too.”

Petitbon admitted that extending his family’s legacy in football to the NFL has been his personal objective. But he also insisted his more immediate priority is helping the Illini finish out the season with a bowl victory for the first time since the 2011 squad defeated UCLA, 20-14, in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

“I’m really right now focused on enjoying my last college season,” he said. “Whatever happens after that is going to happen. One thing Coach Saban says is, ‘You’ve got to be where your feet are.’ So I’m trying to be in the moment and enjoy my time.”

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