At 65 years old, Roger Pettee was looking for something to do.
"I get bored easily," he confessed. "I've played every kind of sport in my lifetime, so I figured why not try kite surfing. It doesn't hurt as much when you fall."
At 6 feet 4 inches and 220 pounds, Pettee tries to stay as trim and fit as when he played defense for the University of Florida and, later, a brief stint with the Dallas Cowboys.
"I had a friend from my football days who had a house in the Dominican Republic," Pettee explained. "He said come on down … the water is great. The people are friendly. You'll fall in love with the place."
The Atlantic coast of the Dominican Republic has an international reputation as a gathering place for world-class board sailors and kite surfers. "On the first day, I got dragged down the beach by the kite and the tourists went running," he said. "I had the shortest kite surfing career in history."
Not wanting to cut his hard-earned vacation short, Pettee went for a drive. That is when he stumbled across the baseball diamond.
Field of dreams
A group of young boys, ragged and barefoot, was playing ball in a dirt lot.
"I think they had one baseball glove between them," Pettee said. "They had absolutely nothing, but you could tell by the gleam in their eyes that they were happy."
Pettee stopped and watched them play, and when one of the future Hall of Famers came over to investigate, the old linebacker gave him the baseball hat off his head.
"It was like I had just handed the kid a million bucks," he said. "He just couldn't believe it."
That is when the proverbial lightbulb went off in Pettee's head. "You know how many old baseball hats I have around my house?" he said rhetorically. "You know how many of my friends have old baseball hats around their house?
In that moment, Pettee decided to return to Pinellas County, fill up a suitcase with old hats and baseballs, and then return as soon as possible to the Dominican Republic. "From that point, I was on a mission," he said.
Pettee, now an accomplished financial planner, grew up in Miami, as he describes, "dirt poor."
"We had nothing … " he said. "I slept on the floor, had no toys at Christmas, it was pretty rough."
As a boy, he shined shoes for pennies on what is now South Beach and even sold fruit that he "borrowed" from other people's trees just to help pay his family's bills. But the shining light in his life was the Boys Club of Miami, where he learned to play sports. Later, after his family moved to Bradenton, his natural athletic ability earned him high school All-American status (the first on Florida's West Coast) and a scholarship to the University of Florida, where he played with Steve Spurrier.
After college he played briefly for the legendary Dallas coach Tom Landry who advised him to pursue a legal career. "He said, 'Pettee, as much as you sit the bench, you would probably make a fine judge,' " he said.
But Pettee kept in touch with his college buddies and his network of friends helped him build a successful career. "I feel like I have been the luckiest man on earth," he said. "Now it is time to start giving back."
A school in need
At 10 a.m., on Jan. 23, Pettee wandered into Luperon School, El Batey, Sosua, Dominican Republic, where 1,600 "ninos" tried to get an education. "I asked the principal if he needed any help," Pettee said. "He just smiled."
Pettee decided to "adopt" the school, a dysfunctional medical clinic, a basketball court in disrepair, the adjoining baseball park and 350 additional children.
"All of the sudden I had all these people counting on me," he said. "I had to get to work."
Pettee began shuffling back and forth between the United States and the Dominican Republic, carrying suitcases of athletic gear, medical supplies and his hard-earned cash.
"I started with the basics … like getting them water fountains that worked and toilets that actually flushed," he said.
Pettee has taken about a dozen trips so far this year and plans to make as many in the months to come.
"Play It Again Sports on Tyrone Boulevard has been great," he said. "They give me the baseballs at a discount. Man you should see those kids light up when I hand them out."
A bright future
Pettee has formed a nonprofit corporation, the Dominican Team for Dreams, and has already received some contributions from his employer of 37 years, Aegon/InterSecurities.
"What I am hoping for now is to have some of the major leaguers step up to the plate and help out," he said. "I think this would be a great project for the Rays. A little bit goes a long way in the Dominican Republic."
In the meantime, Pettee will continue to collect old baseball gloves and hats, stuff them in his battered suitcase and hand them out to the poor children of his adopted homeland. "I am going to show the world that one man can make a difference," he said. "You just watch and see."