Each time the ambulance hit a pothole, Dennis Pitta experienced a new level of agony.
There were so many things on his mind. Was his season over? Was his career in jeopardy? How was his wife?
Serious reflection, though, would have to wait. The pain was just too consuming. Pitta lay in the back of the ambulance in the fetal position, unable to straighten his legs. His body swayed as the ambulance weaved through traffic. Each bump on the way to Columbia's MedStar Union Memorial Hospital — Liberty Road was the worst — felt like another dagger being plunged into his side. The pain medication wasn't working, so Pitta bit down on his jersey as hard as he could.
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"The ambulance ride was probably the toughest 30 minutes of my life," Pitta said.
The fourth-year Ravens tight end had a fractured and dislocated right hip, an injury that, at the very least, would end his season. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said as much July 28, the day after Pitta underwent surgery. But just over 19 weeks after he was hurt during the first week of training camp, Pitta returned to the field Dec. 8 against the Minnesota Vikings.
He caught six passes for 48 yards in the Ravens' 29-26 victory, including a go-ahead 1-yard touchdown that started one of the craziest finishes in NFL history.
"It was an emotional roller coaster," Pitta said. "I was just happy that I was able to come back and kind of shake the rust off a little bit and get more and more comfortable as the game went on. To be able to contribute to a win like that was just awesome."
As the Ravens get ready to face the Detroit Lions at Ford Field tonight, their offense suddenly looks close to whole again. That's largely because of the return of Pitta, who had 61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns during last year's regular season and an additional 14receptions for 163 yards and three scores during the Ravens' Super Bowl run.
With top wide receiver Anquan Boldin traded in the offseason, Pitta entered training camp expected to be featured even more. He had great chemistry with quarterback Joe Flacco, his best friend on the team, and would be playing for a new contract. He was primed for a big year.
Then his season, before it had started, was almost over.
It was a play the Ravens had run thousands of times. Working from the slot, Pitta cut toward the back of the end zone and went up high to catch Flacco's pass, shielding off safety James Ihedigbo. But as Pitta fell to the ground, he felt his weight shifting toward his right hip.
"Laying there on the field, the pain was excruciating," Pitta said. "It felt like my hip was dislocated, having never gone through that before. I couldn't really move my legs, because [of] the added pain, if I tried to. I just wanted to be able to get [the hip] back in place as quickly as we could. We couldn't do it on the field, and it took about 21/2 hours later where I could get in the hospital and have it done."
Dr. Leigh Ann Curl, the Ravens' chief orthopedic surgeon, confirmed Pitta's suspicions that he likely had dislocated his hip, an injury more common in car accidents. When treating a hip dislocation, doctors say, timing is everything. The hip has to be relocated quickly enough that blood flow to the area isn't compromised.
Former two-sport phenom Bo Jackson's football career ended in 1991 after a tackle dislocated the Los Angeles Raiders running back's left hip during a playoff game. Jackson had surgery and started the rehabilitation process, but he developed avascular necrosis, a disease resulting from the interruption of blood supply to the femoral head. Jackson ultimately had to have his hip replaced.
When Pitta awoke in the hospital after surgery, Curl told him what he was up against. She said he was "most likely" out for the year but that more tests were necessary to determine the extent of the damage. She warned Pitta that the injury could be career-threatening, depending on the vascular or cartilage damage he had suffered. She brought up the inevitable comparisons to Jackson.
As mind-numbing as the pain was, the uncertainty became even more difficult. The surgery was a success. Pitta also had a hip fracture, though it was a tight break; more important was the lack of ligament and cartilage damage.
Pitta, however, had to wait two weeks before he could get an MRI that would determine whether he could play football again. He was kept upbeat by his wife, Mataya, and their newborn son, Decker.
"I remember feeling pretty bad about it, and then when I did see him for the first time, I remember him being very upbeat and just himself," Flacco said. "That kind of put me at ease with it."
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.
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."
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."