Survival Instincts

by Micah McDaniel

Oliver Petty ’12, M.A. ’13, knows the exact moment it hit him. He was 10 years old, sitting on a bed at the Red Roof Inn in San Dimas, California—his home for nearly a year—watching a basketball game, and he spotted a tattoo on his favorite player: “Only the Strong Survive.” It was then Petty adopted that survival mentality that guided him toward his future.

Both of Petty’s parents were drug addicts, and by the time he was six years old, he had lived in five foster homes. After his mom finished rehabilitation, they settled in an apartment in Pomona. Less than a year later, however, their apartment burned down, and for the next two years Petty and his family were homeless, living at times in a hotel, shelters, a van, and sometimes sleeping in a park. “I fended for myself and fought for survival, but I stayed strong,” said Petty.

In sixth grade, Petty moved in with his father, whom he had seen only a handful of times in the previous 12 years. This began yet another cycle of bouncing from house to house before settling in with a friend’s family in Moreno Valley prior to his junior year of high school. “I was frustrated and resentful, because I felt like I was in foster care again. I never got comfortable. But I always had football. That was the only consistent thing in my life, and that’s where I could get my anger and aggression out without being reprimanded.”

And it was football that brought him to Azusa Pacific. Petty heard of APU through a friend, and two weeks before the 2008 season began, Petty dropped off his highlight film with the coaches. At first, an assistant coach told him it was too late in the process, but they would keep Petty in mind for the following season. A few hours later, though, after the coaching staff watched the film, Petty was offered a roster spot.

He showed up to preseason camp with only his car and a couple of bucks in his wallet—little did this first-generation college student know, but he finally had a home. “It was overwhelming, because I didn’t know how anything worked. I didn’t even know I had to stay on campus during camp. And I had nothing. My roommate had an extra sheet he let me use that first night. That first camp was tough, but I got through it.”

On the field, Petty battled injuries his entire career and did not get much playing time. He became so discouraged that he tried to transfer on three occasions.

Yet, each time he chose to stay. “I felt like I had come this far, I should just stick it out and fight through it. That’s what I’ve done my entire life. I couldn’t just give up. I was supposed to be at APU.”

“I think the most important thing Oliver discovered at APU is that he was more than a football player,” said head coach Victor Santa Cruz. “He found out that football can be taken away. Oliver was striving to be a strong man, but he didn’t know what true strength was, and our promise to him was that we’d stand firm with him and build a champion. The team and the school poured love and care on him like only this community can. The statistics didn’t support Oliver, but we were able to help him reframe his world and his view of himself. As a result, he’s changing the world.”

Petty entered college with a GPA barely high enough to be eligible and only one goal in mind—the NFL. But with the help of professors Roxanne Helm-Stevens, DBA, chair and professor in the Department of Management and Graduate Programs, and Edgar Barron, Ed.D., chair and assistant professor in the Department of Leadership and Organizational Psychology, along with hard work and long nights in the library learning how to be a good student, Petty graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in five years. He now owns his own company—Only Thoughts of Ownership—telling his stories to underprivileged students and encouraging them to persevere and break the negative cycle of their lives.

“I became a man at APU,” said Petty. “What I needed as a person, I found here. The principles Coach Santa Cruz taught are the same principles I live by today: hard work, perseverance, sacrifice, character, integrity, massive action. They helped me understand who I am and what I needed to do in the classroom. I wasn’t gifted, and it took me twice as long, but I graduated twice before anyone in my family graduated once. I had so many obstacles and challenges to overcome, but every time I stayed strong and survived.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to repay Coach Santa Cruz and Drs. Helm-Stevens and Barron for what they did for me. APU turned me into who I am today—it shaped my story and my message.”