DeVante’ Pettiford is now the head football coach at his alma mater
By Evan Markfield | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Down the hall from a handful of practicing band members, DeVante’ Pettiford is sitting in a darkened classroom at Orange High School with game footage playing on a projector up front. It’s a setting he’s plenty familiar with, having played football at Orange before graduating in 2011 and going on to play defensive tackle at Virginia State University. He eventually returned to Orange as an assistant coach.
The big difference is that now DeVante’ is in the big chair at his alma mater, serving as the Panthers’ first-year head coach and the first Black head football coach in Orange High history.
“It means a lot to me, not just from the school aspect but the community aspect,” DeVante’ says. “There’s still a few teachers that taught me here, and knowing everyone, it’s a comfort being at home. It’s full circle being in these hallways.”
And he’s in those hallways a lot. As a teacher of exceptional children, he moves from classroom to classroom throughout the day. That means that just like his players, DeVante’ has a book bag slung over his shoulders as he hustles between classes, delighting in the opportunity to trade fist bumps with his guys when they meet in the halls.
“Students know when you care or when you don’t care, and they know that he cares about them,” Orange High School Principal Jason Johnson says. “He’s definitely very passionate about Orange High and the community.”
His players can relate to the fact that he knows firsthand what their experience is like at Orange. He’s also closer in age to them than any head coach they’ve had before. And even though it goes unspoken in the day to day of football, he is – statistically speaking – likely to be the only Black head coach his players of color ever have.
When the subject of being Orange High’s first Black head coach is broached, DeVante’ demurs, preferring to focus on his team as a family, regardless of race. But there’s no denying it matters here. “I think it’s a very big deal that he’s the first African American head football coach at Orange High School,” Jason says. “That means a lot, not just to me as an African American but to our students of color and their families. It’s a big deal to our community members.”
DeVante’s status as trailblazer in that regard will always be part of his legacy here, but he wants to ensure that the legacy focuses just as much on his relationship building. Before heading back into that classroom lit only by game film, he shares an example: When he was a player, coaches always pointed out his mistakes on tape but didn’t necessarily tell him when he did something right. He makes sure to do both to enhance that bond with his players.
“I think the biggest thing I want players who play for me to know is, win or lose, that man cared for me,” he says. “Because being here, it means the world to me.”