TAMPA — Nicholas Petit-Frere played on the same YMCA basketball team with former Tampa Catholic and current University of Kentucky standout Kevin Knox II in the fourth grade.
Knox was just beginning to be recognized for his burgeoning talent. Petit-Frere's athletic prowess was noticeable, too.
It just was not in basketball.
"Nicholas was a really big kid, but he could barely do a layup at the time," said Kevin Knox Sr., who coached the YMCA team.
Knox Sr., a former receiver at Florida State, was convinced Petit-Frere would turn into a bona fide star in football.
Nine years later, Knox Sr.'s prognostication came true. Petit-Frere, a senior at Berkeley Preparatory School, is a four-star recruit who is considered one of the top six offensive tackles in the 2018 class. He also is the highest-ranked player in the Tampa Bay area by just about every major recruiting service.
Such praise helped Petit-Frere wrap up the No. 1 ranking among bay area high school players in the Tampa Bay Times' annual HomeTeam 100.
Knox Sr.'s hunch was based on size. Petit-Frere, which means little brother in French, was anything but that — even in elementary school. At 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, Petit-Frere towered over other kids his age.
Still, Petit-Frere had to persuade his mother to let him play.
Loris Petit-Frere had serious reservations. She did not know much about football except that it was violent. She feared her only child would get hurt.
Petit-Frere was in sixth grade when he signed up for football. Organizers for the Brandon Ravens did not believe his mother when she told them about her son's size.
Before Petit-Frere could even play, he had to lose 20 pounds.
Andres Leiva | Times
Andres Leiva | Times
Petit-Frere shed the weight. Then he started shredding everything in his path. In one of his first drills, Petit-Frere was asked to wrap his arms around a tackling dummy held by a coach. He ended up driving the tackling dummy — and the coach — to the ground.
"I was there for that drill," his mother said. "After that I was more worried he was going to hurt other kids than himself. I mean, he just knocked a grown adult man to the ground."
After two years of creating havoc on defense, Petit-Frere added offensive line duties in eighth grade. He sent opponents in reverse, forcefully and repeatedly.
But it was not just brute strength that made him stand out. Petit-Frere also has tremendous footwork and hand-eye coordination, skills he developed on the basketball court at an early age.
"I've coached a lot of great players and Nicholas is right up there," Berkeley Prep coach Dominic Ciao said. "We had a feeling he was going to be special when he got here."
It did not take long for the offers to come in from colleges, including Alabama, Florida, Michigan and Ohio State.
Petit-Frere said he is in no rush to make a decision.
"It's really going to come down to where I'm most comfortable," Petit-Frere said. "I'm trying to make sure everything stays normal throughout the process. I want to play football and get my schoolwork done.
"The focus is more on trying to get better."
Petit-Frere added 35 pounds this offseason and now weighs 275. He did it by eating peanut butter sandwiches, pasta and chicken.
"It's about eating right and working out and growing into your body," Petit-Frere said.
But his large frame and lofty status on the field has not earned him the title as big man on campus.
"If you score 1,400 on your SAT that makes you the big dog around here," Petit-Frere said.
Still, he holds his own in the classroom. Petit-Frere has a 3.7 grade-point average and scored a 1,270 on his SAT. Those were the numbers that mattered to his mother.
Loris' parents are from Haiti and did not graduate from high school. The family moved to Fort Pierce for better educational opportunities before relocating to Tampa. Loris was the first among her seven siblings to graduate from college. She also was as a single mother.
"In Haiti you have to pay for your education, even in high school," she said. "Here, in high school, it's for free and our parents stressed taking advantage of that.
"With Nicholas I always made him do schoolwork before he could play anything. He didn't always like it, but it was important. To see where he is now with so many colleges to choose from is such a blessing."
Knox II is about to embark on his college basketball career with the Wildcats for a season before likely declaring for the NBA draft.
Petit-Frere is about to start his senior season with the Buccaneers as a prized prospect — in football.
"It's pretty remarkable how everything turned out," Knox Sr. said.