New Orleans • Dennis Pitta already married the sister-in-law of his BYU quarterback, so joining Joe Flacco’s extended family was not an option for him.
Yet the Baltimore Ravens’ tight end has managed to bond similarly with Flacco, becoming a good friend and consistent receiver during the team’s march to Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII against San Francisco.
“When you have that kind of relationship with a quarterback, it certainly helps,” Pitta said. “You develop a trust on the field as well, which is important.”
The result is that the first three years of Pitta’s NFL career have closely followed the growth trend of his BYU tenure.
Having expanded his game by running for yardage after the catch, he’s emerged at critical moments in the playoffs. Pitta has come a long way since high school in southern California, where he attracted little recruiting interest as a 185-pound receiver and cornerback.
Not that he minded his job description in those days. “I was skinny, tall and didn’t block anyone,” the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Pitta said. “I just ran around and caught passes. It was fun.”
The enjoyment continued at BYU, where Pitta arrived as an invited walk-on in former coach Gary Crowton’s program, moved to tight end as a freshman and left as the school’s career receiving leader with 221 catches in four seasons. In the process, he played with quarterback Max Hall for three years and married a sister of Hall’s wife, who introduced them.
As has happened occasionally in BYU history with tandems such as Chad Lewis/Itula Mili and Jonny Harline/Daniel Coats, the Cougars were well stocked at tight end with Pitta and Andrew George. Pitta naturally overshadowed George, who still loved playing with him.
“Not everybody you play with is a great teammate,” George said last week. “I tell people all the time, he was a great teammate. He was especially good to me. It wasn’t like this fierce competition between the two of us. I don’t think I could have been in that situation with anybody else.”
Lewis labels Pitta as BYU’s best tight end ever, with “an uncanny ability to make plays,” and that’s irrefutable. Nobody remembers him dropping a pass at BYU. Yet as productive as Pitta was, he gained only moderate ground after catching the ball.
He’s not conscious of having improved in that regard, but his Ravens position coach certainly is.
“Part of it is he’s understanding the routes and part of it is the quarterback getting him the ball so he can continue running,” said Wade Harman, a former Utah State player and coach. “He’s done a good job this year of getting through guys, making some guys miss, getting himself in the end zone. When it happens a couple times and he’s seen the results, I think it’s just spurred him to get better at it.”
In the 2010 NFL Draft, the Ravens took Oregon tight end Ed Dickson in the third round and followed with Pitta in the fourth round. Pitta has moved ahead of Dickson in the lineup and was Baltimore’s No. 2 receiver with 61 catches for 669 yards — including 289 yards after the catch — and seven touchdowns in the regular season.
It’s been a rewarding year for him, once he recovered from a broken hand during training camp. “That’s what this league is about: When you get an opportunity, you’ve got to capitalize,” Pitta said.
In three playoff games, Pitta has 10 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns. His biggest plays have included a catch on third-and-13 against Denver in overtime when the Ravens were in poor field position and a go-ahead touchdown against New England in the AFC title game, one play after making a catch and being abruptly upended by linebacker Jerod Mayo.
And now he’ll play in the Super Bowl in a stadium where he once faced Tulane in a rather weird atmosphere. The announced crowd for BYU’s 54-3 victory in 2009 was 26,224 in the Superdome. “It feels huge, especially when it’s not packed,” Pitta said.
The building will be filled Sunday, when Pitta hopes to become the first former BYU offensive player to actually take the field in a Super Bowl victory since quarterback Steve Young and center Bart Oates played for San Francisco, 18 years ago.
The history of former BYU players on game-day active rosters for the Super Bowl:
Bowl Player Pos. Team Result
IX Gordon Gravelle OT Pittsburgh Pittsburgh 16, Minnesota 6
X Gordon Gravelle OT Pittsburgh Pittsburgh 21, Dallas 17
XII Paul Howard OG Denver Dallas 27, Denver 10
XIV Gordon Gravelle OT L.A. Rams Pittsburgh 31, L.A. Rams 19
XV Todd Christensen TE Oakland Oakland 27, Philadelphia 10
XV Marc Wilson QB Oakland Oakland 27, Philadelphia 10
XVI Bill Ring RB San Francisco San Francisco 26, Cincinnati 21
XVII Mat Mendenhall DE Washington Washington 27, Miami 17
XVIII Todd Christensen TE L.A. Raiders L.A. Raiders 30, Washington 9
XVIII Marc Wilson QB L.A. Raiders L.A. Raiders 30, Washington 9
XIX Tom Holmoe DB San Francisco San Francisco 38, Miami 16
XIX Bill Ring RB San Francisco San Francisco 38, Miami 16
XIX Todd Shell LB San Francisco San Francisco 38, Miami 16
XX Jim McMahon QB Chicago Chicago 46, New England 10
XXI Bart Oates C N.Y. Giants N.Y. Giants 39, Denver 20
XXII Kurt Gouveia LB Washington Washington 42, Denver 10
XXIII Jason Buck DE Cincinnati San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16
XXIII Lee Johnson P Cincinnati San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16
XXIII Leon White LB Cincinnati San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16
XXIII Tom Holmoe DB San Francisco San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16
XXIII Steve Young QB San Francisco San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16
XXIV Steve Young QB San Francisco San Francisco 55, Denver 10
XXV Bart Oates C N.Y. Giants N.Y. Giants 20, Buffalo 19
XXVI Kurt Gouveia LB Washington Washington 37, Buffalo 24
XXVI Jason Buck DE Washington Washington 37, Buffalo 24
XXIX Bart Oates C San Francisco San Francisco 49, San Diego 26
XXIX Steve Young QB San Francisco San Francisco 49, San Diego 26
XXXI Jim McMahon QB Green Bay Green Bay 35, New England 21
XXXIII Travis Hall DE Atlanta Denver 34, Atlanta 19
XXXVI Doug Jolley TE Oakland Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21
XXXIX Reno Mahe RB Philadelphia New England 24, Philadelphia 21
XL Chris Hoke DT Pittsburgh Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10
XL Brett Keisel DE Pittsburgh Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10
XLI Rob Morris LB Indianapolis Indianapolis 29, Chicago 17
XLI Gabe Reid TE Chicago Indianapolis 29, Chicago 17
XLI John Tait OT Chicago Indianapolis 29, Chicago 17
XLIII Aaron Francisco DB Arizona Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23
XLIII Chris Hoke DT Pittsburgh Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23
XLIII Brett Keisel DE Pittsburgh Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23
XLIV Austin Collie WR Indianapolis New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17
XLIV Aaron Francisco DB Indianapolis New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17
XLV Brett Keisel DE Pittsburgh Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25
XLV Chris Hoke DT Pittsburgh Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25