Baltimore Ravens tightend Dennis Pitta talks about his preparation for his first regular season game back since his injury two seasons ago. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta stood in front of his locker about 30 minutes after Friday's practice and stuffed his helmet, cleats and pads into his equipment bag. It's a simple routine done by all the available players following the final full practice before the game. Yet for Pitta, it carried much significance.
When the Ravens play the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, Pitta will play in his first NFL game since he fractured and dislocated his right hip for the second time in a Sept. 21, 2014, game against the Cleveland Browns.
"There was definitely a point in all of this that I had to accept the fact that I probably wouldn't run out of that tunnel ever again," Pitta said. "Being able to do that this Sunday will be emotional, but very exciting for me."
There has been a lot made this week about quarterback Joe Flacco, wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman and rush linebacker Terrell Suggs playing in their first regular-season games Sunday since sustaining season-ending injuries last year. Pitta's return, though, was considered far more unlikely than the others.
"He's put in a lot of work," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. 'It's been a long road for him. It's going to be great to see him coming out of the tunnel with the smoke going. I'm sure it'll be a big moment for him, too. I look forward to seeing him play. I'm glad he's on our side."
Pitta, 31, dislocated and fractured his hip for the first time in training camp ahead of the 2013 season. He returned to play four games that year and was rewarded by the team with a contract extension. However, he then went down in Week Three the following year. Pitta spent the entire 2015 season on the physically unable to perform list before returning to action this summer.
A fractured finger early in training camp, the result of a post-play skirmish with rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa, stalled his comeback temporarily and forced him to miss the entire preseason. However, Pitta said his finger is fully healed and he doesn't need to wear any protection on it.
He doesn't expect any limitations Sunday in what figures to be an emotional afternoon. Pitta acknowledged that his wife and family members are nervous about his return to the field, but they also are excited that his hard work will be rewarded.
"I think the second time I dislocated my hip was one of those instances where I thought, 'Man, I don't think I'll be back out there.' For a long time after, I didn't know how I would recover having done that twice," Pitta said. "I didn't know even if I would get to the point where I felt good enough to play again. It took a long time. Fortunately now, I'm in that position. There was a lot of doubt throughout this whole process."