The months of rehabilitation to strengthen the area around his twice fractured and dislocated right hip challenged Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta physically. Not being able to play all of last season and most of the previous two years tested his faith and patience. The weight of the decision he faced last spring on whether to attempt another comeback consumed him.
Then, he had to break the news of his return to the people that supported him most.
"The hardest conversation was with my wife and my mom," Pitta said Wednesday after practice. "It was tough. I knew what they wanted me to do, which was not play because my well-being and safety was their biggest concern. It was difficult to say, 'I'm going to go back and play.' I knew they were going to look at me like I was crazy. Those were difficult conversations to have, for sure."
At some point before Sunday's 1 p.m. kickoff against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, Pitta will get a text message from his mother. She'll tell him that she's praying for him to get through the game healthy. His wife will be watching the game back home in Baltimore with the couple's three children and she'll have plenty of nervous energy of her own.
"It's still difficult for them; I think especially for my mom," Pitta said. "But I think this season has helped them settle down a little bit and know that I'm going to be OK. They realize I can still take a hit and not have to be carted off the field."
When he made the decision in April to continue his NFL career, he did so with full confidence and conviction that his body would hold up and his skills would still allow him to be a productive player.
On Sunday, Pitta will finish the season by playing in all 16 games. The Ravens' only two offensive skill position players to participate in more snaps than Pitta are quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Pitta, 31, also leads the team and ranks third among all NFL tight ends with a career-high 75 receptions. His 638 receiving yards are also 32 shy of a career best.
"It really hasn't surprised me," Pitta said. "If I was going to come back, it was going to be because I felt like I could play at a high level still and I didn't think that my hip was going to give me any issues. That's been the case. It wasn't like, 'Well, I'll roll the dice and come back.' That was never my mindset. Obviously, when you talk about your health, you don't want to roll the dice. I was confident when I came back and felt like I could move the way I wanted to. My expectations were high coming into this year."
It has been an unfulfilling season for the Ravens, but Pitta has provided a physical and sentimental boost.
"Once he was back, he was back. To my eye, once he was back practicing, he was back," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's had a heck of a year — another guy who loves football, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for. Just really respect what he's done."
Last year, Pitta's career appeared to be over when the Ravens opted not to move him from the physically unable to perform list to the active roster after a window to practice with the team. Pitta openly wondered what would be any different the next season.
Yet, he took a $4 million pay cut in April in order to stay with the team and pursue a comeback. Still, when the summer began, Pitta seemed to be buried on the tight end depth chart, below veteran Benjamin Watson and ascending young players like Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle.
Pitta, who missed most of training camp with a finger injury sustained in a post-play scuffle with rookie Kamalei Correa, is the only Ravens tight end to play in every game this season. Since his finger recovered, he hasn't missed so much as a practice, nor does he do anything special ahead of practices or games to get his hip ready.
While it might be a significant surprise to everyone else, Pitta has consistently downplayed his ability to return and stay on the field.
"What you see with Dennis is what you get," Flacco said. "He's being honest with you. It's tough to really read the fact that this has been this huge deal for him. I think it has been what he's expected. That's why he's in this position, because he expected to come out here and play at some point. I wouldn't say anything else."
Flacco, Pitta's closest friend on the team, sensed it last year when the tight end practiced. He could tell in the way his teammate was moving around that Pitta wanted to play "too badly" to be denied.
First, though, Pitta needed to convince those around him that he was making the right decision. He understood that those close to him, the people who were by his side after he faced two long recoveries from hip surgeries, would be skeptical and concerned. However, he wasn't going to change anybody's mind immediately, so he kept working.
He was in constant consultation with the Ravens' team doctors. He kept in regular contact with Dr. Roger Wilber, a Cleveland-based orthopedic surgeon who operated on Pitta's hip in September 2014 after the tight end sustained his second fracture and dislocation. Pitta made countless visits to New York to see Dr. Bryan Kelly, a hip specialist. Pitta also had all his X-rays and images sent to renowned orthopedist, Dr. James Andrews.
"I always thought there was a glimmer of hope," Pitta said. "To be honest, I didn't know what to expect after I did it twice. I thought, 'Well, this is probably it.' I definitely came to that realization that football was most likely over for me. But at the same time, I just kept hope alive and I came in and rehabbed and did everything I did. As I started to feel better, my body started to respond positively to the rehab and everything. That hope kind of burned a little bit brighter."
Pitta understands that he'll always be at risk. Statistics show that people who dislocate their hip once — Pitta did it the first time during the first full-squad practice in the 2013 training camp and played just seven games over the next three seasons — are more likely to have it happen again.
He also has come to grips with the fact that he'll likely need to have his right hip replaced at some point later in his life.
"I'm on that track regardless. That's kind of in my future," he said. "Hopefully, that's when I'm 60 and not when I'm 35. Every time I've had a severe hip injury, you lose some cartilage and you lose some things. You do kind of expedite that process a little bit."
Pitta, though, is already excited about the prospects for next season. He should be even healthier and stronger. However, for his mother and wife, they still have one more game to endure.
"They will [relax] after next week, that's for sure," Pitta said.
NFL's top tight ends
It was thought that Dennis Pitta's career was over after he missed the entire 2015 season. But the veteran returned to the Ravens this year and has been one of the busiest tight ends in the league.
Tight end, team; Receptions; Targets; Yards; Touchdowns; First downs;
Travis Kelce, Chiefs; 84; 115; 1,117; 4; 54;
Greg Olsen, Panthers; 77; 123; 1,051; 3; 52;
Dennis Pitta, Ravens; 75; 103; 638; 2; 31;
Kyle Rudolph, Vikings; 72; 117; 723; 6; 42;
Jason Witten, Cowboys; 68; 94; 663; 3; 33;
Zach Ertz, Eagles; 65; 90; 677; 2; 34;
Jimmy Graham, Seahawks; 61; 88; 859; 6; 43;
Jordan Reed, Redskins; 61; 81; 646; 5; 39;