Attorney A. Dwight Pettit says that when he saw the video of a Douglass High School football player stomping a teammate in the cafeteria, he remembered his own high school fight half a century ago.
"I thought about that when I saw the video. I really did," Pettit says. "I called my wife to tell her what I had just observed."
Sean Johnson, 17, was charged with attempted murder and held without bail after a video circulated depicting him punching another student (whose name has not been released publicly) repeatedly in the face as he crumpled to the floor, grabbing the victim's hair while he punched, and then stepping on his face. The unconscious boy was left "having a seizure while lying in a pool of his own blood," according to the charging document. A prosecutor says he will need "facial reconstructive surgery."
On behalf of the victim's family, Pettit is researching the law and the circumstances of last week's assault with an eye toward suing the school for failing to keep the victim safe.
Johnson's continued pummeling of his unconscious victim shocked viewers across the country and prompted warnings from the TV stations that aired the video. Johnson reportedly thought the other boy had stolen the visor off his football helmet. Johnson's lawyer, Landon White, says his client was actually the one being bullied.
That is certainly what Pettit experienced in his own life shortly after he arrived by court order at Aberdeen High School in 1960. He was the only African-American in the school. He tried out to be quarterback of the football team and soon found himself in a racist confrontation with a teammate he calls "David."
As Pettit writes in his 2011 autobiography, "Under Color of Law," he tried everything he could to avoid the fight, to no avail. The two squared off in front of the students, coaches, and some parents. David was much bigger and more muscular, but that did not matter.
"I commenced to doing the 'Turner Station knockout' on him," Pettit writes, referencing the African-American section of Dundalk, where he'd lived previously. "I caught him flush with a left to the head, and then I hit him with two or three sharp right-and-left-hand combinations. Down he went. In the 'Turner Station stomp' we don't do like the white boys and stop punching when the opponent hits the ground. I continued to throw punches. His father grabbed me from the back and screamed 'you'll kill him!' And when his father grabbed me, my father grabbed him. Knowing my father, George, was enough for me to get off David. David was totally unconscious, and people rushed to try to revive him."
Pettit writes that David was taken away in an ambulance.
The long-ago confrontation sounds superficially much like last week's beat-down, which resulted in an attempted-murder charge. Both were between football players, both allegedly involved bullying, and in both cases, the winner of the fight continued to rain blows down after rendering his opponent unconscious.
Pettit was not arrested, though. He was respected. He writes that when he returned to school he learned that David had transferred out. How did Pettit's experience differ from Johnson's?
"Well, I guess it's several factors," Pettit says in a phone interview. "One, I did everything I could to avoid the confrontation . . . I apologized, I almost begged him."
"I was under an intense amount of stress because I had come into a very hostile environment," Pettit says. "No one was saying much to me but you could hear it in the hall, the n-word was being used, 'the colored boy.' Everything I did was attracting a lot of attention."
The fight was conducted "just like we were in a ring," Pettit says. And he was just an amped-up kid. "I think at that point the adrenaline was flowing . . . I don't know if I had the discretion to stop. The adrenaline was pumping. I don't know how many hundreds of people were surrounding me. We could have been attacked at any time."
Thinking it over now, Pettit says, contrary to what he wrote in his book, he really didn't smash David so much after he hit the ground. "He was really still falling," Pettit says. "It was almost like a split second."
David's challenge "was my opportunity to send a message to the school," says Pettit. "The coaches were there, the varsity and junior varsity. No one moved to stop it."
Pettit, his father, and one other kid were the only African-Americans there. In his book, he credits Lance Gracin, "a big Indian kid," with standing off the crowd. "I remember that my father and I never said anything the whole way home, but I could tell that he was just bursting with pride."
Pettit says David later apologized to him, and gave him a $5,000 retainer on what Pettit calls a losing case to make amends.
"You know the danger about today is, whatever rules you might see today [in fist-fighting], no matter what happens, the expectation is the other guy is gonna get a gun," Pettit says. "Back in my day, city or county, fighting was a respected type of thing. Win or lose, you shook hands later and everybody went about their way."