John Pettit has two tattoos that honor his younger brother, Stephen. Stephen, a 15-year-old ice hockey player at Archbishop Ryan, is still too young to don any ink of his own, but should he decide to go down that road, his personal motto would seem more than fitting.
Can’t means won’t.
Since birth, Stephen Pettit has dealt with an affliction known as Erb’s palsy, which causes partial or complete paralysis of the arm due to an abnormal or difficult childbirth.
He was born two weeks before his mother, Sherry’s, due date. At one point, while she was waiting to deliver Stephen, his heart rate dropped to zero. The doctors had to act quickly.
“They just could not get him out,” Sherry recalled as she sat on a basement couch of the family’s Millbrook home, located between Calvary Athletic Association and the Franklin Mills Mall.
Doctors were able to extract Stephen, but not before the nerve damage to his left arm was done. Fifteen years later, it hangs limply but not incredibly noticeably. It’s not until he takes off his shirt that it’s clear something is amiss, with his collar bone protruding awkwardly through the shoulder blade. Treatment options include letting it heal on its own (when applicable), surgery or extensive rehabilitation. Stephen’s doctors optioned for the latter, beginning stretching exercises right away. Now, after years of physical therapy, he is able to push his arm up to a 90-degree angle.
The Pettit’s are a self-defined hockey family. Stephen has played since he was 2 years old, following in the footsteps of older brother John, now 20 and a student at Temple University. John played hockey growing up for various club teams, and later for the Raider ice hockey program. Their father, also named John, didn’t start playing in men’s hockey leagues until his late teens, but he’s been involved with coaching for more than two decades, including many of his sons’ teams. At their home, photos of the Pettit brothers playing hockey are interspersed with Flyers memorabilia (the family has season tickets) on the basement’s walls.
Despite his physical affliction, Stephen hasn’t slowed down, whether it’s on the ice for Ryan or playing roller hockey for one of his club teams (namely the Grundy Senators and DVHL Blazers). He also enjoys playing baseball, basketball and running track, though hockey is his first and most pronounced love.
“It bothers me at times,” Stephen said of his arm, removing his T-shirt to show his left arm. “I don’t really feel much at all in the elbow, but there are certain spots where it hurts if you touch it. There’s not much range of motion or strength, but I always try hard no matter what. Plus, you can’t really notice it under all my gear.”
“His arm doesn’t really move the same as yours or mine,” the elder John Pettit said. “It loses its range, and he can’t really straighten his shoulder blade. He kind of moves the arm in different directions. Luckily, the arm grew, so it hangs a bit instead of being all shriveled up. He jumped right into hockey, at the highest levels against usually older kids.”
Part of that was having both a father and older brother to teach Stephen the necessary skills to be a fundamentally polished hockey player. There are a few basketball hoops located in the Pettits’ cul-de-sac, but their home is easily identifiable due to the hockey nets sitting in the driveway.
The brothers grew up competing with and against each other.Stephen’s older brother sports side-by-side tattoos on his left arm and the left side of his back, symbolizing Stephen’s Erb’s palsy. Both feature hearts, one of which reads “Heart means everything,” the other “Never give up.”
“We’re best friends, we do everything together,” John said of his younger brother. “Now that he’s older, he hangs out with my friends and me a lot more. Even though I’m his big brother, I look up to him.”
Both brothers are defenders by trade, although Stephen is more of an offensive threat in roller hockey, which he says moves quicker with rules (no offsides) less constricting on players than ice hockey. John mentioned his love for hitting as his reason for getting so involved in the sport.
Stephen? He just wants to help make his teammates look better.
“I play to win and for my teammates, not to score goals,” he said. “The name on the front of your jersey is so much more important than the one on the back. I want to always have my teammates’ backs so they don’t get pushed around or upset, especially my goalie. I want to be a fundamentally sound, team player who always looks to pass the puck.”
Despite his condition, Stephen has few limitations in playing such a physical sport. His hockey skills have taken him all over, from Philadelphia to Lake Placid to Canada for the Can-Am Games, where he competed against teams from Canada, Sweden, Finland and Ukraine, among others.
He’s also much more than just a hockey player. He’s an honor student at Ryan, and this coming year will participate in the Double-Up math program, taking both Geometry and Algebra 2 in the same year. Not only that, but Stephen is the vice president of his class. He’s wanted to attend Boston College since the eighth grade, partly because of the school’s highly regarded ice hockey and club roller hockey programs and partly because of its academic reputation.
“I want to help kids get better at school, and help encourage them to get more involved,” he said when asked why he wanted to be a class officer. “Sometimes kids don’t try and think school is stupid and won’t get them anywhere when actually it’s the most important thing in life. You only have four years, and you can’t get them back. It pays to be involved.”
As a freshman, Stephen became a huge cog into the reconstruction of the Ryan hockey program, which is rebuilding after soaring costs to play made many of the players drop out. John Pettit Sr., who has assisted the program for more than a decade along with head coach John Hunter, said the school had eight or nine varsity-level teams when his oldest son was there. Now, it’s down to one, plus a middle school feeder team.
Thanks in large part to Stephen’s efforts and passion for the game that means so much to his family, the Raider program is back on the upswing. This past season, despite having roughly a half dozen freshmen on the roster, Ryan made it all the way to the championship game, where they fell to Roman Catholic.
“He can do everything that you can do,” his father said. “That’s always been his mindset. We admire him, absolutely, and I love the fact that other people do, too. We pushed him, now we’re seeing the end result and we’re so proud. He’s put it behind him to the point where it’s no longer an issue.” ••