Dick Harmon: Father witnesses rise of his son as Dennis Pitta has breakout year

Published: Saturday, Oct. 10 2015 1:17 p.m. MDT

Dennis Pitta of the Baltimore Ravens runs with the ball during the NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Jan. 1, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Ravens will take on the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday. (Andy Lyons, Getty Images) Dennis Pitta of the Baltimore Ravens runs with the ball during the NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Jan. 1, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Ravens will take on the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday. (Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

Dennis Pitta Sr. once thought his namesake, son Dennis Pitta, wasn’t big enough to have a serious career beyond high school football.

He’d seen his son play soccer, play little league football and basketball and could see that he inherited some athleticism. But in high school, as a receiver and punt returner, before his son’s senior year at Moorpark High, the father just didn’t envision his son growing big enough to make an impact in college — let alone the NFL.

But today, Dennis Pitta will sit before his TV with his wife Linda in their Highland home and proudly witness their son play a critical role as a tight end for the Baltimore Ravens, who face the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

“It’s exciting and scary at the same time,” said the father. “You want him to play well, you want him to succeed and not fail, and you do not want him to get injured. This is a thrill. It really is.”

The son has become a major weapon for Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco. He has overtaken teammate Ed Dickson, a higher 2010 Ravens draft pick, as a weapon in Baltimore’s passing game. Pitta now has a chance to set a franchise record for TDs by a tight end. His consistency, his steady dependability, his clutch hands — all traits witnessed by the father when the son was at BYU — are all blooming over again on the biggest stage the game has to offer.

The father cringed during last Sunday’s AFC championship game against the New England Patriots when his son went over the middle for a Flacco pass and was sandwiched and “obliterated” by Patriot inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. Crumpling to the turf, he wondered if his son would survive the bone-jarring hit. He did. And he held onto the ball.

When the son got back to the huddle, Flacco apologized for placing Pitta in a vulnerable position. The next play, however, Pitta got away from Patriots safety Steve Gregory for a 5-yard touchdown reception that gave Baltimore a lead they’d never relinquish.

Such plays illustrate the moxie, the athleticism, the concentration, and the gamesmanship the father has witnessed in the son. The skinny, undersized son has grown into a monster tight end target in the NFL, and today he could play a key role in the game's outcome.

The son has caught 61 passes for 669 yards, and seven touchdowns for the Ravens this season. In the playoffs, he’s hauled in 10 catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns, including five for 55 yards in the AFC championship game.

This is no fluke, this Pitta and his hands and the Super Bowl.

Pitta Jr. has steadily, over a long period of time, honed his skills and progressed into a big-time football player.

This past week, the father took calls from reporters in Modesto and Fresno, doing a story on the local kid. Dennis Senior kind of chuckles over it because while it is true the TV screen will flash his son’s name and that he’s from Fresno, the family actually moved from Fresno when Dennis was 2.

But this is Super Bowl hype. And the Pittas are hip deep in it all.

Says the father, “I remember back when he was a sophomore in high school and he played sophomore ball. When he was a junior, he played on the junior varsity. Both years, he didn’t get the call to play on the varsity but he did play varsity when he was a senior. Until he was a senior, I thought he was too small, that he’d never be big enough to play college football, but that final year of high school I could see it; I could believe he might have a chance at college football.”

One game his senior year, the son caught a 96-yard touchdown pass which was called back on a penalty. The father’s belief in the future of his son grew as he amassed more big plays and grew from 6-1 to 6-4 and 180 pounds.

The father would know. He played middle linebacker for the University of California. Dennis Pitta Sr. recently received votes on a poll listing the all-time best University of California football players. He had 20 tackles and an interception that set up a second-half touchdown in a Bears win over UCLA in 1968. He played a key role in a win over Syracuse, a victory that elevated Cal to a No. 8 national ranking. He played against Larry Csonka and at Modesto Junior College, played against O.J. Simpson (San Francisco City College).

Still, his son, while noticed by recruiters, never received a Division I scholarship offer and walked on at BYU. By the end of his Cougar career, the son had a whopping 221 receptions for 2,901 yards and 21 touchdowns. The 221 catches is the most by any BYU player in school history.

Naturally, the father is extremely proud of his son. “He is a great athlete and he has shown that he has grown and learned to use his abilities. But he is also a very good person, and we are proud of that as well.”

His son served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the Dominican Republic before his career at BYU. He is also an Eagle Scout. The tight end has become very close friends with his quarterback Flacco. “They hang out together with their wives and do things all the time,” said the father.

This May, Dennis Jr. and his wife Mataya, will bring Dennis Sr. and his wife Linda their sixth grandchild — a boy. His sister Kelly is also due in May with grandchild No. 7.

The parents are not attending the Super Bowl in New Orleans this weekend. They chose to watch the game in the comfort of their own home. But another daughter, Lindsey, and her husband are at the game.

As one can imagine, the Pitta family couldn’t be happier with the progress of this Raven superstar-in-the-making. He’s exceeded expectations of college recruiters and NFL scouts, who pegged him for a fourth-round pick despite being a finalist for the MacKay Award and one of the leading receivers in college football his senior year at BYU.

The Dennis Pitta story reminds you of a quote by Shaquille O’Neal: “Excellence is not a singular act but a habit. You are what you do repeatedly.”

And since the son took up this game, he’s repeatedly exceeded the bar set for him. He did it in high school, at BYU and as an NFL player now ready to climb on the game’s biggest stage.

“He’s a good kid and it is fun watching him,” said the father.

Yes, Dennis Sr. — it is and he is.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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