In his typical self-deprecating manner, Dennis Pitta wonders what all the fuss is about.
The former BYU All-America tight end and AFC North comeback player of the year for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens in 2016 jokes it took him nearly 20 years to graduate from college, so his accomplishment shouldn’t matter that much be celebrated as before.
Pitta, who retired from the NFL in 2017 after dislocating his hip for the third time in five years in non-contact volunteer training that summer, was among 108 current and former BYU students who received their degrees last month .
“I was undoubtedly the eldest,” he said.
Pitta will be 37 next month. He and his wife, the former Mataya Gissel, welcomed a fourth child into the family, a baby girl they named Bentley Mae, days after he received his business degree.
The Pittas — 9-year-old son Decker and identical twins Skylar and Blakely, who are 6, are also part of the family — live in Gilbert, Arizona, where Mataya grew up. Pitta works for the Ravens radio station team and helps coach the American Leadership Academy, the Queen Creek Prep Football team with former Cougars quarterbacks Max Hall and Ty Detmer, the head coach.
Hall and his family live in nearby Mesa. Hall and Pitta, a deadly combination during their BYU days, remain close because Hall is married to Mataya’s sister McKinzi.
“Life is good,” said Pitta.
Why did he make returning to BYU and graduating a priority?
Pitta says since he left BYU about 10 credit hours short of graduation in 2009 and was selected by the Ravens in the fourth round (114th overall) of the 2010 NFL draft, he’s often thought about graduating. His mother Linda also played a role in his search.
“My mother put a lot of pressure on me,” he said. “She really wanted me to be a college grad and be a good example for my kids, and all that I wanted too. She was definitely a big catalyst for me making it into the NFL so soon into my playing career.
Another impetus was the pandemic, when Pitta had a little more free time. He estimates it took him about two years to finish things once he set his mind to it.
“When the pandemic hit and we were spending a lot of time at home, I realized I’m home a lot and I could start working on that,” he said. “So that was a good opportunity for me to just get involved when there wasn’t much going on in my life and of course the rest of the world.”
He estimates it took him almost a full year to complete his first few courses, which were completed through BYU Independent Study.
“And then I hammered out the last few because I could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Return to Provo, reunion with an old friend
Pitta said it was a “cool moment” to return to Provo from his home in Arizona and attend the graduation ceremonies.
“I got my hat and dress and had my picture taken and stuff like that,” he said. “I think that part of it was more for my mom, but it was definitely great to come back to BYU and get back on campus.”
He spoke to the other graduates and told them that there is no substitute for hard work once they enter the workforce.
“You can achieve a lot of things just by working hard,” he said, while emphasizing accountability within a team.
Football coach Kalani Sitake, athletic director Tom Holmoe and other athletic department administrators attended the meeting, where he spoke with his colleagues.
“BYU has done so much for me,” he said. “It was the least I could do.”
Pitta stayed with his good friend and former Cougars receiver Austin Collie when he returned for graduation, and Collie also attended graduation. Collie received his degree several years ago – after leaving BYU a year early for the NFL. Like Pitta, Collie had to retire early from football due to injuries (concussions).
Pitta said the third member of the Three Amigos, as they were known at BYU in 2008 when they led the Cougars to an 11-2 record, Hall, is also nearing graduation.
“Max only has a few classes left,” he said.
Pitta and Collie played together in 2004, served church missions, and were teammates in 2007 and 2008 before Collie left. Hall joined in 2006, became the starting quarterback in 2007, and teamed with Pitta in 2009 when the Cougars were nationally No. 12 in passing yards per game.
The trio had the alumni flags flown at LaVell Edwards Stadium last fall before the game in Utah, a 26-17 victory for the Cougars that ended Utah’s nine-game winning streak.
“Maybe we’re the lucky charm,” Pitta said.
Bypass the alumni game
Of course, Hall was one of the stars of the alumni game that BYU hosted on March 31st. He threw an Ave Mary pass to Bryan Kehl for the game-winning touchdown at LES. After declining an invitation to play, Pitta watched the game from home and wondered what might have been.
Pitta said he seriously considered playing but decided against it due to physical reasons.
“With my hip injuries and stuff, I didn’t know if I wanted to go up there and possibly hurt myself again,” he said. “And I saw some of the guys signing up to play, and there were a couple of young guys who just finished playing at BYU or weren’t too far from playing, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is going way too fast for me to be.’”
After watching how the game played out, Pitta says that if they do it again, he might change his mind and decide to play. While younger guys like Aleva Hifo, Joe Sampson and Cody Hoffman shone, older guys like Chad Lewis and Kevin Feterik seemed to enjoy it too.
“If they do it again, maybe I’ll do it,” Pitta said. “I think it would be fun to participate.”
No regrets about NFL career and other thoughts
In addition to discussing his graduation, future alumni game plans, and lifelong friendship with Collie and Hall, Pitta shared his thoughts on a variety of other topics in a recent interview with the Deseret News. Here are a few.
On retiring from football in 2017 after his best season in the NFL in 2016:
“It was more of a case where I just couldn’t do it. I would no longer be medically clarified. I think that’s the hardest part when I have to retire like I’ve done and how many people are forced to do it. You don’t necessarily go out on your own terms. That’s never what you want. You want to leave the game when you’re ready to leave the game and all that.
“Unfortunately, that’s not the case for many people. But yeah, I don’t regret anything I’ve done in football. I don’t look back on my career and I’m not frustrated or angry or anything about how it turned out for me.
“I feel like I’ve been incredibly blessed to play for so long and have the success that I’ve had. I miss football, especially when the season starts and you watch games on Sundays and see the guys out there playing. You miss it, you definitely do.
“But I appreciate that I can close this chapter of my life and move on to a new chapter and focus more on my kids and their athletics than my own. I wish I had been able to go out on my own terms and retire when I wanted to retire. When I think about my career, it’s just a lot of gratitude I feel.”
Whether his son Decker will play soccer, maybe for BYU:
“Yes, I get that question often. That would be great if he were on BYU’s radar at some point. He’s had a handful of seasons in flag football. He does a lot of sport. He is currently playing basketball, baseball and also plays soccer. He obviously loves football because I played and stuff.
“He took a special interest in it because I’ve been playing and he loves it, so he’s asking me to play tackle football now and I’m not quite letting him just yet. I’ll probably leave him in a few years. I didn’t want him to do that just yet, especially since there are so many good flag leagues that they can get into right now and stuff. Someday I’ll let him play tackle.
“Football has done a lot for me, given me so many great experiences and opened so many doors for me. If my son wants to play football and is good at it, I will support him. Of course there are risks in football. There are risks in many different things. But if he wants to play, I won’t stop him.”
On the status of the football program at BYU:
“I think it’s hard not to be happy with the current state of the program. I personally love Kalani. I think he did a great job. As a former player and alumni, I think Kalani has done the best job of really integrating former players and bringing them back into the program and making them feel welcome.
“You saw that at the alumni game. His hug of the alumni is what we all see alumni and it’s awesome. There haven’t been as many coaches there in the past who have embraced this story as much as Kalani. That being said, what they were able to do on the field and the product you see on the field on Saturdays has been tremendous in recent years.
“And all you can ask is that BYU is a relevant program every year and that they get ranked and compete with P5 programs and all that they’ve done.”
What is the BYU cap in the Big 12:
“I think it’s unrealistic to think that BYU should be in the national title fight every year or in that conversation or anything else. BYU just needs to focus on understanding what they are as a program. It is a high level program that can win many games and compete against Power Five teams. As long as they do that and flirt with the top 25 every year, I think all you can do at this point is be an extremely lucky fan.