American Airlines Flight 5181 departed Philadelphia’s International Airport’s Terminal F on Wednesday morning, Kelly Pitts, his wife, Theresa, and their daughter, Tenae, aboard and bound for the Midwest. Their son and brother, Kyle, would begin his professional football career, officially, the next night at the NFL draft.
After the plane touched down at Cleveland Hopkins International, the Pitts family ran through an administrative gantlet: registrations, forms to sign, credentials to collect. The three of them checked into their hotel and grabbed a bite to eat and … returned to the hotel. The weather was overcast, with some rain. They were in Cleveland, not Miami, not Las Vegas. Kelly had no desire to tour the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and he had no nervous energy to burn off. “I wasn’t there for nothing else but one thing,” he said. So he lay down on the hotel bed and rested for most of the next 30 hours, waiting for his son’s inevitable journey to complete itself.
Media and pictures and expectations
Sitting in FirstEnergy Stadium’s makeshift green room Thursday night, just minutes after the San Francisco 49ers selected North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance with the draft’s third pick, with the Atlanta Falcons on the clock, Kyle Pitts noticed his phone buzz. “I’ve been waiting for that call my whole life,” he said later on ESPN. “When I saw that phone ring, I felt my heart drop.”
His whole life. From the North Philly Aztecs to Abington Middle School. From Abington High School to Archbishop Wood. From a reluctant quarterback to a dominant tight end. From the University of Florida to the No. 4 pick in the draft, to the Falcons, to a multimillion contract, to a place where he’ll be a teammate of Julio Jones and a primary target for Matt Ryan and a weapon for a new head coach, Arthur Smith, who loves a dynamic tight end in his offense.
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Kyle Pitts is not yet 21. How could his heart not drop, how could he not be at least a little nervous, over that phone call and all its life-changing significance? Wouldn’t you think his father would share some of that nervousness?
“There wasn’t a whole lot of talking going on,” Kelly Pitts said in a phone interview Sunday. “I wouldn’t say he was riled up, but he was antsy, on edge. When it was over, you tell him how proud you are and blah, blah, blah. Now let’s get ready. Let’s go to work.”
Read that quote again. It sounds like a Seinfeld bit, doesn’t it? The guy blah, blah, blahed the greatest moment of his son’s life! But Kelly Pitts kept himself at a distance from the sentiment and emotion of his son’s entrance to the NFL, viewing Kyle’s fitting that Falcons hat snug on his head and walking across that stage to bro-hug Roger Goodell with a kind of odd detachment. “After that,” Kelly said, “it was media and pictures and media and pictures and media and pictures and pictures and media. That’s what it’s basically been. Everybody wants to touch him.”
Maybe it’s not odd. Maybe it’s not odd or overwhelming to see your son become the first non-quarterback taken in the draft – which, because of the relative importance that franchises place on quarterbacks, suggests that your son was regarded as the best player in the entire draft, regardless of position – when you expect your son to reach so high a level.
As interesting as Kyle is as an NFL prospect, Kelly is just that interesting as an NFL father. He’s not quite Earl Woods, predicting that his son will have a global impact greater than Gandhi’s just because he could swing a golf club better than anybody else. But if Kyle does fulfill all these incredible expectations, if he develops into a superstar over time for the Falcons, even if he enters the league and is instantaneously better than every other tight end in it, Kelly will very calmly, very directly, remind you that you’re only catching up to what he has known and said about his son for years, and your shock and speechlessness will only betray that you weren’t really paying attention all along.
‘The hat chooses you’
It was Kelly, after all, who told Kyle’s coaches at every level of football: The kid’s not a quarterback. He’s a tight end. A hell of a tight end. Who, when it came time for Kyle to make a decision about college, advised him to make the right choice not for Kelly, not for Theresa, not for anyone but himself, because it might be the last time he could control his destination in football: “First you choose the hat. Then the hat chooses you.” Who instructed Kyle to sit in on Florida’s tight-end meetings and wide-receiver meetings, because blocking wasn’t where Kyle was going to make his money, because the broader a man’s resume is, the better chance he has of getting and keeping a job.
“He added blocking into it just the same because he didn’t want to be typecast,” Kelly said. “But I said, ‘Chip-blocking, you ain’t gonna get paid for that. You’re getting paid to catch the ball. You’re going to reinvent the tight end. They’re going to label you a tight end, but that’s not what you’re going to be.’ Now, I can sit back and say, ‘Yeah, here it is. Everything I was saying.’
“I’m not surprised by the end result. I knew – I knew – this was going to happen. I just didn’t know where he was going to land. Yeah, of course, I’m a little laid-back because it’s like everything that I was saying is true. Everything that I’ve been preaching along the way is true. Now it’s just a matter now of me sitting back and watching. I can really actually enjoy everything because he’s his own man now.”
He has been hearing nonstop from his coworkers at Amtrak, texts and calls from New York and D.C. and Harrisburg. They’ll see him again in a week: He is taking a few days off from work to help his son find a home in or around Atlanta. Then Kyle Pitts will be on his own, to put his father’s presumptions about his future to their truest, toughest test. Tears of joy? Forget it. A long, lingering hug? Hell, naw. This is what we expected for you, son. This is what I told people that you could and would do. Now go do it.©2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.