Still, with Pitta's career hanging in the balance at age 28, the wait was agonizing.

"I didn't know if I was able to play football again," Pitta said. "You do a lot of thinking during that time and you kind of put things in perspective. I was fortunate enough to have my family out here. That really helped me understand what was important in life and cope with the situation at that time. But it's never easy when you're told that you may never be able to do something you love again."

Pitta started talking with his wife about a life without football and about his plans to take a couple of online courses that would allow him to finish his bachelor's degree at Brigham Young. But he kept going back to the same promise he had made his wife a day after his surgery: He was going to work his way back onto the field.

"It was hard to see him down … but he never took football out of the picture," Mataya said.

In mid-August, Pitta had an MRI and a blood-flow study performed. Both came back positive. He was on the road to recovery.

The recovery

Mataya made up a bed downstairs for him, but every night, Pitta insisted on getting up three flights of stairs on one leg. He needed help getting dressed in the morning, but Pitta fought Mataya's help. Known for his appetite, he overhauled his diet — "He made a complete life change," Mataya said — looking for any possible way to speed the healing process.

On crutches for the first two months after surgery, Pitta showed up at the Ravens facility seven days a week to rehabilitate. Starting with simple leg lifts, he essentially had to teach the right side of his body how to move again.

If he had been dealing with a knee injury, Pitta would have had a guidebook at his disposal, outlining the different stages of and timetables for his recovery. But hip dislocations are rare among football players. Doctors instructed Pitta to go off how he felt, so the better he felt, the more he did.

Having to watch his teammates play ate at Pitta. He was desperate to join them, and the Ravens had left open that possibility by putting him on the injured reserve-designated to return list.

Pitta returned to practice Nov. 20, less than four months after the injury. Dr.Bryan Kelly, a hip specialist at the Hospital of Special Surgery in New York, discussed with Pitta the risks of re-injury but assured him that he wouldn't do further damage.

"Ultimately, it was my decision," Pitta said. "I felt like I was ready physically to get back out there."

The comeback

As they got dressed and prepared to head out to the field Dec. 8, Flacco asked Pitta how he felt. Pitta was anxious but, above all, he felt "normal," and that was the best feeling of all.

"I said, 'It feels like I've been doing it all season,'" Pitta said. "That's a good feeling."

Pitta was on the field less than a minute into the game, drawing an ovation at M&T Bank Stadium. Mataya, watching the game in a suite with Flacco's wife, Dana, couldn't bear to watch.

The first three balls Flacco threw to him were incomplete, and he got his first catch just before halftime. By the fourth quarter, though, Pitta was all over the field. Getting into the end zone completed his comeback.

"It was very bittersweet," Mataya said. "I was so scared for him to play. Every time he went on the field, I cringed. I'd actually walk out of the room. He was confident all along, but I didn't want him to take a hit. I was so nervous, but once he caught that first ball, I actually got teary-eyed. He has come such a long way, and I knew he was so excited to play that day. For a little bit, he didn't think he'd play again. It was an amazing feeling after seeing how hard he worked."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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