Laser focused: How Bears WR Pettis uses passion for art to to help those struggling with mental health
Ever since he was a boy growing up in California, Dante Pettis has always been a bit of an artist on the football field.
There are enough snapshot moments from his days at JSerra Catholic High School and the University of Washington to fill numerous photo albums.
Pettis' NFL success hasn't materialized quite the way he hoped after the Niners drafted him with the 44th overall pick in 2018. He did, however, add to his NFL scrapbook with a 51-yard TD reception that helped spark the Bears to a 19-10 victory over San Francisco on a rain-soaked Soldier Field in the season opener.
It was just the wideout's 53rd career catch.
While Pettis hopes to add to that total in the coming weeks -- including Sunday at the Meadowlands when he faces a Giants team he played for in 2020-21 -- he's also laser focused on using his passion for photography and art to help those struggling with mental health.
Pettis' foundation, CR18, was created for this very purpose.
"It's for artists -- to help fund them," said Pettis, who headlined a charity auction in Los Angeles before last February's Super Bowl. "It's also to let people know that art is an outlet. You don't have to resort to unhealthy things."
Strange push back
Pettis' main focus when he was young was on sports. Not a big surprise there as his dad, Gary, won five Gold Gloves while playing for the Angels, Tigers, Rangers and Padres from 1982-92.
"He was either throwing a basketball, a football or a baseball up in the air," said Dante's mom, Peggy, who was a cheerleader for the Raiders in 1989-90. "He was always running around being crazy -- or he was playing video games. Never wanted to come in for dinner."
The "art spark" was lit during Pettis' senior year of high school when he took a Shakespeare class. He loved the plays and started diving into books. "The Alchemist," (which he's read numerous times) "Catcher in the Rye," "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," and "Relentless" are among Pettis' favorites.
During his time at the University of Washington (where he returned an NCAA-record 9 punts for TDs, Pettis developed a love for photography. He loves taking pictures in big cities, something he was able to do quite often in San Francisco and New York.
As the 2018 draft neared, however, Pettis said he caught a lot of flak for his hobby.
"I was like, 'This is weird,'" said Pettis, who caught 15 TD passes as a junior and 7 more as a senior. "It's no different than someone liking fishing or whatever. ...
"There was this big thing around my name: Well, how much does he like football because he's an artist? I had to answer a lot of questions about that throughout the whole combine process."
San Francisco actually traded up to select Pettis. He had a decent rookie season, grabbing 27 passes for 467 yards and 5 TDs, but fell out of favor with coach Kyle Shanahan in 2019 and was inactive as the Niners' lost Super Bowl 54 to Kansas City.
Visitors to Pettis' CR18 website are greeted with two messages: "Art is a universal language" and "United We Create." Then come four facts researched by Pettis' team:
• 50% of students are in need of mental health support
• Only 12% of schools are at the level of quality arts instruction
• 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis
• Engaging in 45 minutes of art-making significantly reduces levels of cortisol.
Fellow Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney, who also loves photography and owns a Sony A-7 III camera, noticed an Instragram post of Pettis taking pics and the two immediately clicked.
"Nothing else matters at that moment," Mooney said of how he feels while taking photos. "You can see everything from a different point of view, through the lens.
"I'll go down to the city, put my hoodie on, put some music on and just take pictures. There's nothing else -- no football, no life. Just taking pictures."
Pettis has a very close friend -- so close he considers him family -- who was having a difficult time. Pettis' suggestion to use art as an outlet had a dramatic effect.
"A lot of times when they were in a darker place they would use a lot of drawing or writing," Pettis said. "They told me how much that helped. They really felt like they got a lot of their emotions out on paper. A lot of people haven't found a way to express themselves and get those emotions out.
"Art is one of the best ways to do that. ... It helped him a lot."
'You need to share'
Growing up Catholic and with parents who understand the importance of giving back, it's no surprise Pettis has become so altruistic.
"My mom had multiple sclerosis, so that was a huge fundraiser for me," Peggy said. "We also give to the church every Sunday. Our kids always saw that you help the less fortunate. Always. All four of my kids know that even if you only have a little, you need to share with others."
CR18's auction in February raised money for an arts school in California. The foundation also puts money aside for scholarships.
Pettis' team will drive ideas and go over what the next few months should look like. They are planning an event in Chicago that is currently set for December.
Pettis uses his connections in the art community to determine who should receive a donation.
"They'll send me a couple Instagram profiles or their website and I'll just go through and pick someone," Pettis said. "Or I'll send it to a couple people on my team and say, 'Yo. What do you guys think about this person?'"
Pettis started last season on the Giants' practice squad, then caught 10 passes (including a TD) for 87 yards in Weeks 6 and 7. Disaster struck the next week, though, as Pettis suffered a season-ending shoulder injury at Kansas City.
In the offseason, the Bears "were the first team to call" and Pettis inked a one-year deal on May 12. His smooth route running impressed offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and the rest of the staff.
"He's done a great job," Getsy said in late August. "An opportunity was presented and he's gone out and taken it by the horns."
Pettis returned punts in the first three games and caught that momentum-turning TD vs. the Niners. He's been pretty quiet otherwise, so it will be interesting to see what happens when rookie Velus Jones Jr. and N'Keal Harry return from injuries. (Jones may play Sunday vs. the Giants).
No matter what, Pettis is going to keep working hard because he knows not many WRs get a second chance, let alone a third one. If he can show the Bears enough the rest of the way, perhaps a longer-term deal could materialize at some point.
But regardless of what his NFL future turns out to be, he's already shown his friends, family and plenty of artists how he plans to spread the wealth away from the gridiron.
"I'm really proud of him," Peggy said. "He wants to better the world. ... He's always been super compassionate. He's very quiet, but he does have that part in him that wants to be a bright light in people's lives.
"He just wants to help people."