Dennis Pitta pushed back as hard as he could. He challenged doctors and defied the wishes of friends and family members just by returning to practice. But a decision had to be made and no matter how badly he wanted to be out there with his Ravens teammates, the tight end just couldn’t escape this reality about his right hip:
“Right now, it’s not good enough to take the field and it’s not quite safe enough to where we’d all feel comfortable with me being out there,” Pitta said Wednesday.
After months of rehabilitation, after three weeks of practice, after several agonizing days of soul searching and after dozens of conversations with doctors, hip specialists and team officials, Pitta conceded it was far too risky for him to be on the football field.
Attempting a comeback from fracturing and dislocating his right hip last September, the second time in 14 months that it happened, Pitta instead reverted to season-ending injured reserve, and his future with the Ravens and in the NFL is more in doubt than ever before.
“That was a decision that we made collectively,” Pitta said. “Certainly, I had some say in it as well as the doctors. But at the end of the day, we can’t ignore what sound medical science has to say. That’s where we are right now. I’ll go on IR and continue to be here around the team, in meetings, rehabbing and doing everything I can. We’ll reassess it when the season is over and get to that point.
“Obviously, I really want to play. This is what I feel like I want to do and should do. I’ve wanted all along to do everything I can to be out there and that’s why we’ve gotten to this point. If it wasn’t for my desire to get on the field, I wouldn’t have even been on the practice field for these last few weeks. I’ve kind of pushed back hard against everything that they’ve been saying to try and really get a good indication of where it’s at. It’s been difficult for me obviously accepting the fact that I won’t be out there this season.”
Late last month after returning to practice, Pitta acknowledged that if he wasn’t able to return this season, his career might be over. On Wednesday, the 30-year-old initially said that he wasn’t ready to answer a question about whether he’ll retire. However, by the end of a near six-minute news conference, he made it clear that he didn’t view today as a final goodbye.
“I’m a football player and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” Pitta said. “I have a sense of duty to my teammates, the team and to this organization. This organization has given me a lot over the last few years - certainly, with the contract extension in the last two years, and I haven’t been on the field much for that. I feel a sense of duty to be able to go out there and help my team, and I love football. I love competing and I love playing at the highest level. It’s something I don’t feel like I’m ready to give up.”
Pitta knows that he might not have a choice in the matter. There are no assurances that his doctors will give him the green light to return.
Dr. Danyal Nawabi, a sports medicine surgeon with Hospital for Special Surgery in New York who has not treated Pitta, said that repeated hip dislocations increase the risk of Avascular necrosis, which can cause the ball of the hip joint to die. That condition ended Bo Jackson’s football career.
"Each time the hip dislocates, the blood supply to the hip is compromised, and in severe cases, the hip may not survive," Nawabi said. "That’s the main concern about letting a guy like this play again. And the more times he dislocates it, the more risk you are putting on your hip.
"If I was this athlete’s doctor and he dislocated it twice and it was my responsibility to clear him to play again, I’d be very concerned. It’s just a very difficult decision. You have to balance the fact that he’s young, he’s an elite athlete and he wants to play, against the long-term risk to his hip."
The other issue is that it is highly unlikely that the Ravens will be able to keep him on the roster with his current contract.
Pitta, a fourth-round NFL draft pick in 2010, has three seasons left on the five-year, $32.5 million pact he signed in February 2014. That includes a $5 million base salary and a $7.2 million salary cap hit for 2016. If he was released before June 1, the Ravens would have to absorb $6.6 million in “dead money” on their salary cap next season. The more likely scenarios are the team reworking his current deal, or releasing him with a post-June 1 designation, which would spread his cap hit out over a couple of years.
But those will be conversations for another day. The Ravens have prepared for the fact that Pitta’s career could be over, drafting Crockett Gillmore in the third round in 2014 and taking Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle in this year's draft. They feel like they are set at tight end, though Pitta’s return would have been a bonus.
“You had hopes … and to see him come out here and really perform well, that part of it was a plus,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “But the other thing that overrides that is the fact that we want what’s best for the player. His safety and going forward, as far as quality of life, overrides all. It’s not really close. You don’t bat an eye and you move on, and that’s what you have to do.”
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, one of Pitta’s closest friends, saw the tight end when he entered the facility Wednesday morning and could tell that Pitta was conflicted by the decision.
“You feel for him,” Flacco said. “You know he wants to be back out here and he has fun being here. This is what he does. He plays football. It’s tough to see.”
If this is indeed it for Pitta, he’ll finish his career with 138 catches for 1,369 yards and 11 touchdowns in 50 regular-season games, and he’ll always have his starring role on the Ravens’ Super Bowl XLVII-winning team. That season, he caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season. He then had 14 receptions for 163 yards and three touchdowns in the postseason.
Pitta fractured and dislocated his hip for the first time in training camp before the 2013 season. He missed the first 12 games that year before returning to play in the final four. He fractured and dislocated his hip for the second time, without being touched, in Week 3 last season.
“Certainly, that’s not how I want to end my career,” Pitta said. “I think no players want to play their last play getting carted off the field. I’ll continue to work and hopefully that won’t be the end of the story.”