(Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
It seemed as if only Ivy League schools began to recognize the potential of one Moorpark, Calif. native football player.
Coming out of high school none of the top schools wanted him, he even had to walk-on for a chance to start at Brigham Young University – his school of choice.
BYU’s head coach, Gary Crowton, didn’t even fully realize how good this preferred walk-on could be, nor did he even remember what his first name was.
Now the nation’s elite double-team the 6-foot-5 senior tight end, Dennis Pitta. Not only does he fill up BYU’s stat sheets each game, he is also nationally honored and respected. This year Pitta was named to the John Mackey and Biletnikoff watch lists awarded to the top tight end/wide receiver in the country.
A two-time first-team All-Mountain West Conference performer, Pitta was ranked third in 2008 in the MWC and 21st nationally with 1,083 receiving yards. His total receiving yards also ranked second among tight ends in the Football Bowl Subdivision behind only James Casey of Rice.
Although he is constantly followed by the national spotlight, Pitta never thought it would end up this way.
The only son born to Dennis and Linda Pitta, he grew up with two older sisters. His father played one year of football at UCLA, which helped him start playing football in middle school. Interested in other sports as well as football, he tried a little bit of everything including soccer growing up and in high school he ran track and played football and basketball.
“My dad played football with no pads and leather helmets so it’s kind of tough to say that he knows what I’m going through out here,” explained Pitta. “He’s been a big support for me here at BYU. I started playing football at a young age and he just helped me to keep with it, because that’s what I wanted.”
With all of the time spent on the track and on the basketball court, deep down Pitta knew that football was what he was destined to be a part of, improving himself each day to be the best he could be.
“If you would have asked me five years ago where I’d be, I don’t think I would have said right here,” said Pitta. “It’s been a nice journey for me. It’s been tough. It’s been an uphill battle. But I definitely think it’s been worth it.”
After not getting offered any scholarships to play college ball, Pitta came to BYU as a preferred walk-on under Crowton.
“I was a pretty skinny wide-receiver coming out of high school and BYU asked me to walk on—so I was a preferred walk-on,” said Pitta. “When they told me I could come be part of the team I was excited to do it.”
He caught coach Crowton’s attention his first year, telling him he would have a scholarship waiting for him when he returned from his mission. While his skills were made known to the 2004 coaching staff, his name was one Crowton couldn’t remember.
“He told me I was playing really well and he said, ‘Derek, when you get back from your mission we’re going to have a scholarship ready for you,’” said Pitta. “I have no clue where ‘Derek’ came from, but I wasn’t going to correct him.”
In his inaugural freshman season of 2004 he led all the BYU tight ends in receptions (17), yards (176) and touchdown receptions (two), but it wasn’t until after returning from his mission that he really started to run up points on the scoreboard.
After returning from a two-year LDS mission to the Dominican Republic he would soon gain a scholarship in his sophomore season. Serving a mission to the Dominican Republic helped him realize how well he has it here in the United States, causing him to use his ambition and hard work to his benefit.
“Serving in the Dominican Republic is really a different world,” said Pitta. “Serving in a third-world country you realize how well you have it here. I learned a lot of things and it was a tremendous experience - I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I was able to grow and mature and learn a lot about myself - it was just an awesome experience.”
As for physically growing, he gained 10 pounds while in the Dominican Republic and came back thicker than when he left, which he was happy to be a little bigger tight end.
Although his freshman season was productive, no one dreamed that he would shape up to be one of the leading tight ends in the country, especially himself. One factor that helped Pitta improve his game was quarterback Max Hall transferring to BYU. Not only was the Max Hall-Dennis Pitta connection apparent on the field, it was magnified off the field as well.
“My wife is Max Hall’s sister-in-law,” said Pitta. “Max was already married to McKinzi, but set me up with his wife’s sister, Mataya. We were married in July of 2008.”
“My wife arranged to set them up and we thought they’d get along well because they have the same sense of humor and similar personalities and it ended up working out,” said Hall. “I also liked it because Dennis and I got to hang out all the time, so it ended up working out pretty good.”
Pitta was grateful that his teammate set him up with the girl he would soon find to be the one he would spend the rest of his life with; but in addition to being married, he also found a brother-in-law he already got along with, and a teammate to rely on.
“It’s nice to be able to have someone who is already a friend be my brother-in-law,” said Pitta. “It’s nice to have someone to hang out with on the road and someone to talk to.”
After Mataya and Dennis were married in the summer before the 2008 season, Hall and Pitta spent a lot of time on and off the field together. After all this time spent together, the Hall-Pitta bond started. Pitta said he could just look at Hall and would know exactly what the other was thinking.
That connection became well known early in the 2008 season with Pitta making 21 catches for 361 yards and a touchdown in only the first two games of the season.
Unexpectedly, Pitta was soon a household name. He had four games with more than 100 yards receiving and two games with more than 175 yards.
“It’s unbelievable that he started off as a walk-on,” Hall said. “It just goes to show that Dennis works very hard and has a desire to be the best to help our football team. You can’t say enough good things about him because of where he was and where he is now.”
Pitta has caught at least one pass in over 30 consecutive games dating back to Oct. 23, 2004 and will be greatly missed after his 2009 senior season.
Not only has the Pitta-Hall connection helped each other bring the team to greater heights on the field, Pitta has shown Hall great strength of character, and has shown him what life is all about – being happy and showing respect to everyone around you.
“What I like about Dennis is, no matter what the setting is or what’s going on, he can always find a way to make things fun and cheer you up and bring some humor to the situation,” said Hall. “He’s a lot of fun to be around and he includes everybody. There would be times when he would know guys on the team who I’d never even really talked to. He’s a good guy, he’s clean and he does all the right things.”
This composure Pitta exhibits on and off the field keeps the entire BYU team level headed and focused on its goals.
“I think our goal has been the same since I started here,” said Pitta. “We want to win every game. We don’t plan to lose a game. We plan to make our mark on the national level when we play Oklahoma and Florida State this year. Those are going to be tough games, but we want to be able to show that we can compete with those kinds of teams. And obviously our main goal is to win all of our conference games and win the conference championship.”
Game by game Pitta and the Cougars will keep improving toward perfection on the field through tradition, spirit and honor, but who knew that one preferred walk-on could help make these dreams come true?
“Personally, my job is to help our team be successful and that is all I can focus on,” said Pitta. “As long as I am doing my job, the accolades and the honors will come.”
Although he is in the national spotlight, he always keeps his confidence in check because he knows that he began where everyone gets their start.
“I’ve never been a guy that’s been well-known at all for what I can do on the football field,” Pitta said. “I realize that it’s something that I need to be grateful for and it’s something that I need to stay humble through. It’s a privilege to be in the situation that I’m in and I can’t take that for granted.”
Pitta’s Formula To Be A College Football Player
If you are aspiring to be a collegiate football player, Dennis Pitta is the first person to ask where to start.
He started playing football in middle school and stuck with it because he loved it. He put a lot of investment into the game; giving it everything he had each day to improve himself.
Through much hard work Pitta was able to get some universities interested in him playing for them. After not getting offered any scholarships he chose to walk-on to BYU’s legendary football team, later earning a scholarship in his sophomore season with the Cougars.
Pitta believes that each of us are only blessed with so much talent - it’s developing that talent that is the difficult part. But if you are willing to work hard and do whatever it takes to achieve your dreams, it will eventually start to pay off.
“Being a walk-on, you don’t have everything handed to you,” said Pitta. “You have to prove yourself day in and day out and it’s all about hard work. Talent only takes you so far. It’s about being the guy that works hard and makes himself better each day.”