WACO, Texas — He's a Heisman Trophy candidate who led Baylor to its first conference title since 1980. Still, the moment that shaped Bryce Petty's college career didn't occur on a football field.
It happened in a backyard swimming pool.
Only three people were present the day Petty was baptized in the summer of 2012. Chris Wommack, an ordained minister in Waco, dunked the quarterback under the water while Wommack's wife, Susan, stood near the edge and captured the occasion on camera.
Wommack had asked Petty—whom he'd mentored the previous seven months—if he wanted to invite friends and family to witness the occasion. He declined.
"Bryce wanted the moment to be very private between him and God," Wommack said. "It was the moment when he said, 'God, my life is yours.'"
Since that day, Petty has set numerous Baylor records while leading the program to unprecedented heights. The Bears went 11-2 last season and earned a BCS bowl berth for the first time in school history. Now a senior, Petty is the catalyst for a 2014 squad with a No. 5 ranking and realistic hopes of a national title entering Saturday's tilt with ninth-ranked TCU.
Blessed as he is with NFL size (6'3", 230 lbs), speed and arm strength, Petty said the main reason for his success is less about his physical attributes and more about what happened that day in the swimming pool and in the months leading up to it.
"Once I got big into my faith, everything changed for the better," Petty told Bleacher Report last month. "My self-worth used to be based on football. Now I realize it's about so much more."
Petty paused and smiled.
"Football is what I do," he said. "It's not who I am."
Countless times during his teens and early 20s, Petty said he was asked the same question: "How is your relationship with God?"
"Fine," Petty always said, without giving it much thought.
Something felt different, though, in January of 2012.
Petty had just finished a gym workout in his hometown of Midlothian, Texas with friend and former Seattle Mariners catcher Brandon Bantz. As the two sat across from each other at Kim & Jenny's Restaurant, Bantz asked Petty how strong he was in his faith.
"To be honest," Petty said, "It's not going very well. I'm not where I want to be."
It's not as if Petty was doing things that would embarrass himself or his team. Petty had never been a drinker or hell-raiser. His grades were solid and he was working hard on the field and in the weight room.
Still, even though he considered himself a Christian—Petty's mom, Dena, is a former youth pastor—he didn't pray regularly and rarely went to church. He was thinking of himself before others.
"Something was missing," Petty said. "Deep down, I just wasn't happy."
Part of the reason, Petty said, was a series of events that both jolted his ego and damaged his confidence in the main place he'd always felt secure: the football field.
Petty committed to Tennessee before his senior year of high school in 2008, but head coach Phil Fulmer was fired two months before February's national signing day. Instead of vowing to honor the university's scholarship offer, new coach Lane Kiffin sent an assistant to inform Petty in December that he'd be wise to re-open his recruitment.
Baylor, which had recruited Petty previously, hopped back into the mix and out-dueled Virginia Tech and others for his services, but Bears coach Art Briles informed Petty he'd need to "grayshirt" in 2009. That meant he had to stay home and take classes at a local junior college in the fall before joining his new team in the spring.
While the rest of his high school classmates were off enjoying their freshman year of college, Petty spent his first semester taking 11 hours at a single-building campus a few miles from his home. The highlight of his week came each Tuesday when Petty drove to Waco to watch the Bears practice.
"The rest of the time I just worked out and threw on my own," Petty said. "I probably wasn't very fun to be around back then."
Petty redshirted in 2010 and backed up Heisman winner Robert Griffin III in 2011.
By the time he confided in Bantz in January of 2012, Petty had spent three years feeling like a non-factor in the Baylor locker room.
"I'm a people-pleaser," Petty said. "I don't get satisfaction unless I know you like what I'm doing. But [Briles] hardly talked to me. I'd have venting sessions with my mom and say, 'I can't tell if [Briles] even likes me.'
"You start to wonder if you're even a good quarterback anymore. For three years I didn't have anything on the field to judge myself off of. Doubt started creeping into my mind."
At lunch that day, Bantz suggested Petty call Wommack, then a minister at Woodway Baptist Church in Waco. Wommack had mentored Bantz during his college years at Dallas Baptist University and had a history of working with Baylor football players as well.
Petty and Wommack, 61, began meeting twice a week; once at Wommack's house for a Bible stud and once for lunch at a local restaurant, where they'd discuss everything from school to girls to family to football to life.
In one of their first meetings, Petty repeatedly stressed to Wommack that he was "a very good football player."
"I believe you," Wommack said. "Now I want to help you become the type of person that will make you an even better football player."
Wommack chuckles when recalling the conversation.
"Bryce wanted to have a certain image when it came to football," Wommack said. "But after three or four months, he realized he could trust me and he didn't need to have that image. He became honest about the things he was dealing with. That's when I began to see him feeling like his feet were on solid ground."
Wommack couldn't have entered Petty's life at a more ideal time.
With Griffin moving on the NFL, Petty felt confident about his chances of becoming Baylor's starting quarterback as a redshirt sophomore in 2012. Instead, Petty said it became clear during the spring and summer that Briles was leaning toward the older, more experienced Nick Florence as his replacement. Petty said most of his reps with the starting offense were limited to a series or two each practice. He didn't think he was being given a fair shot.
Petty said he became a bad teammate, especially during the summer. He sulked inwardly, didn't smile or joke very often and quit being a vocal presence on the field.
"I was too into my feelings," Petty said. "I wasn't being myself. At the time, I felt I was better than Nick. I was ready to take over. Coach said it was a competition, but I got four reps at the end of each practice. It wasn't a healthy competition. Not to say I liked it when Nick messed up, but when I did better than him, it made me feel good."
The negative feelings didn't linger for long.
Petty listened to his coaches that summer and began to understand their vision. His mother explained that immaturity meant reacting in the moment while maturity was seeing the bigger picture. Wommack helped too, encouraging Petty to "take his relationship with God onto the football field."
By the first game of the 2012 season, Petty had done more than simply accept Briles' decision to start Florence.
He'd embraced it.
Petty said he realized being a starting quarterback was about more than arm strength, accuracy and speed. It was about being a commanding presence in the huddle, earning your teammates' trust and confidence and valuing winning more than stats and individual success. It was about having the right attitude.
"I completely bought in and dove into the role of being the best backup I could be," Petty said. "Once I started understanding that part of the game, everything changed for me. I started to realize and believe that my time was coming."
Briles certainly noticed. He commended Petty for how he reacted to a frustrating situation.
"I'm sure he might have had some (anger) inside, but he didn't let other people see it," Briles said. "I never noticed anything negative from him.
"When you go to work at a bank, you don't start out as the president. You work your way up and prove that you're worthy of sitting in a different chair some day. Nothing is ever going to be given to you here. If you want something, you've got to fight for it, and that's what Bryce did."
Less than two months before the 2012 season, Petty asked to be baptized.
"The changes that occurred in his life were glaring," Wommack said. "He quit basing his happiness on how he performed in football. You could see a calmness take over him, a sense of peace, a sense of joy.
"He started feeling really good about who Bryce Petty is."
A few hours before the biggest game of his life—a home showdown against No. 12 Oklahoma—Petty telephoned Wommack with an urgent request.
"Chris, I need a favor," Petty said. "I need you to pick up C.J. and drive him to the stadium."
C.J. is a fourth-grader that Petty has spent the past two years mentoring through his affiliation with the Waco chapter of "Big Brothers Big Sisters."
Often that means picking C.J. up and taking him to Wommack's house for a swim or to dinner at a restaurant near his home. Other days he may stop by C.J.'s elementary school for a surprise visit or take him to the Baylor football complex to play catch with him and his teammates.
Petty surprised C.J.—whose father has spent time in prison—with a trip to a Waco water park for his most recent birthday. C.J. had so much fun that, the next time Petty picked him up, he was waiting at the door wearing a swimsuit and holding a towel.
"C.J.," Petty laughed, "that was a special occasion for your birthday. We can't do that every time. That place is expensive."
With C.J. in the stands for last season's game against Oklahoma, Petty threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more in a 41-12 victory that moved the Bears to 8-0 while keeping them in the Big 12 and NCAA title hunt.
"It was so important for him to have C.J. at that game," Wommack said. "I guess he just wanted to share that moment with him and show him what kind of things are possible with hard work."
Just as the onus is on Petty to lead his team, the sixth-year senior also feels a responsibility to set a good example off the field for Baylor supporters and for the Waco community.
Petty said he and Wommack talked about how important it is that younger fans see examples of athletes doing things the right way too. That's one of the reasons he now brings a handful of Baylor teammates with him to Bible study each week.
"When he gets to the NFL he's going to be the face of a city, the voice of a city," Wommack said. "The quarterback of a pro team carries so much influence. I asked him one time, 'When the people of an entire city look at you, what are they going to see?'
"I think that stuck with him. He's guarding his reputation and establishing who he is."
Petty certainly made an impact on the life of Ethan Hallmark, a 13-year-old in Midlothian who passed away last month from neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of childhood cancer.
Upon learning in December that Hallmark was one of his biggest fans, Petty visited the boy's home on Christmas Day and spent hours talking with him and his family. As he prepared to leave, Hallmark's mother asked if he'd lead the family in prayer.
"Everyone stood in a circle and held hands," said Dena Petty, who was also present. "Bryce started praying and he had to stop for a minute. He broke down. It was a very emotional moment for everyone."
Petty and Hallmark starting texting almost daily, and Petty helped the teenager check an item off of his bucket list by arranging for him to attend Baylor's spring game. The heat forced Hallmark to watch the contest from a shaded area near the concourse instead of in the stands. But afterward, Petty trekked up the bleachers and spent nearly an hour talking with Hallmark before he returned home.
When Petty saw Hallmark again months later, he picked him up at his house at 7 a.m. and drove him to the hospital for chemotherapy treatment that lasted until 8 p.m. He stayed with Hallmark the entire day and then drove the boy home.
Petty returned to Midlothian to visit with Hallmark during Baylor's off week late last month, just two weeks before the child died. Even though Ethan wasn't able to communicate, his mother told Dena Petty in a text that her son was very aware that Bryce was there.
"Bryce told me that he was confused why a kid like Ethan would look up to him," Rachel Hallmark wrote in the text. "His humbleness is amazing."
Petty doesn't publicize such actions. Not once during a 30-minute interview with Bleacher Report did Petty bring up C.J. or Ethan. His relationship with them was revealed during interviews with Petty's friends and families.
"It's important that athletes understand the pedestal they're on," Petty said. "It's not something you should run from or hide from. You can't just say, 'I'm 22, I can do whatever I want.' You have little kids looking up to you.
"Visiting hospitals and mentoring kids isn't for everyone. That's fine. It's whatever tugs at your heart. But at the end of the day, we can all be nice. We can all be good people. It's really not very hard."
That, more than anything, is how Petty hopes to be remembered at Baylor.
Using his character and faith to lead his team to another Big 12 title and a berth in the four-team national playoff would be more gratifying than winning the Heisman, he said. When Petty looks back on all he achieved, he'll have equal appreciation for the journey that led to the accomplishments.
By Petty's count, 1,786 days passed between his final high school game in 2008 and his first start at Baylor on Aug. 31, 2013. During that time he blossomed into a different player.
And a different person.
"It's all happening because of my faith," Petty said. "Everything I'm experiencing is happening for a reason. It's all part of a purpose. It's all part of His plan."
Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.