Elijah Pitts entered the NFL as a sleeper from a small, historically black college in Little Rock, Ark. In the pre-Super Bowl era, when the NFL Draft was a relatively primitive exercise, sleepers were obscure players from small schools who were sometimes unknown even to NFL scouts.
Few players in history ever fit the tag better than Pitts.
Legend has it that when his name was announced in the draft room, it drew gasps of disbelief. That was back when all teams gathered in a hotel ballroom to make their choices and supposedly one wag rhetorically asked, “Is that Philander Smith from Elijah Pitts or Elijah Pitts from Philander Smith?”
Over Pitts’ first five seasons, he served as a special teams standout and as a third-string halfback behind future Pro Football Hall of Famer Paul Hornung and former No. 1 draft pick Tom Moore, a big, fast back taken with the fifth overall selection in 1960. In fact, in his first five seasons, Pitts started only three games: two in 1963 when Hornung was suspended and he was No. 2 on the depth chart to Moore, and another in 1965.
When Moore was traded before the 1966 season, Pitts became the backup and replaced Hornung as the starter in the seventh game when he suffered a recurrence of an old neck injury. After carrying the ball only 12 times in the first five games that season, Pitts seized his first big opportunity by rushing for a career-high 99 yards on 21 attempts against Detroit in the eighth game and 89 yards on 18 carries against Minnesota the following week. Pitts climaxed that season by leading the Packers in rushing when they beat Dallas in the NFL Championship Game and then scored two touchdowns in Super Bowl I.
Hornung departed following the season and Pitts solidified his hold on the starting job in 1967. By then, he was a different back. He might not have had the reported 9.7 speed in the 100-yard dash that intrigued the Packers when they drafted him, but he was still more than fast enough and, better yet, he had grown to be a 200-plus pounder, the kind of big halfback coach Vince Lombardi coveted in his offense. By then, Pitts also had developed an innate feel for when to plant and cut, as well as patience when he had the ball in his hands, two other requisites of Lombardi’s halfbacks, always the ball carriers on his famed power sweep.
Earlier in his career, Pitts was a talented 190-pound speedster playing for a coach who demanded his halfbacks, above all else, run under control on his signature play, Red Right 49. “The thing about Elijah was that he was so fast, he’d outrun those guards,” said Red Cochran, Lombardi’s backfield coach from 1959-66. “It took him awhile to learn that he had to give those guys a chance to make those plays. But he was fast. Not just quick. He could really fly.”
However, in Game 8 of the 1967 season, his first as a returning starter, Pitts tore his Achilles’ tendon and was lost for the remainder of the season after rushing for 124 yards over the two previous weeks. Thereafter, he was never the same runner.
Pitts played on all five of Lombardi’s championship teams and his value was perhaps best measured by his intangibles, most notably his versatility and attention to detail. Thanks to his eternally sunny disposition, Pitts was a favorite of Lombardi and his teammates. They also trusted him to be assignment-sure, no matter what the situation. Bart Starr once said that in the 10 years he played with Pitts “not once did he make a mental mistake.” A sure-handed receiver, Pitts also averaged 12.2 yards on his 97 receptions with the Packers. In 1967, legendary Baltimore Colts coach Don Shula called Pitts the best blocking back in football.
“I liked him,” said Bob Schnelker, one of the Packers’ offensive assistants over Pitts’ final five seasons in Green Bay. “Great kid. Hard worker. He’d do anything to please Lombardi. He was a good back. He fit into the system.”
The Packers selected Pitts in the 13th round of the 1961 NFL Draft, held on Dec. 27-28, 1960. Because he was virtually unknown, no AFL team selected him in that league’s 30-round draft. The Packers signed Pitts on Jan. 12, 1961.
The Packers learned about Pitts from veteran safety Emlen Tunnell, who late in his career doubled as a college scout for Lombardi during the offseason. Tunnell had met Pitts at a track meet at Grambling, another black college, in the spring of 1960. “Can run like hell,” Tunnell wrote in one of his scouting reports. Pitts also played defensive back during the one-platoon era of college football and ran the 100- and 440-yard dashes on Philander Smith’s track team.
Pitts played in 120 games in his first nine seasons with the Packers and then in six more when he returned to the team in 1971. He started 19. Including return yardage, he accounted for 3,773 total yards.
On Jan. 21, 1970, Pitts was traded to the Chicago Bears along with linebacker Lee Roy Caffey and offensive lineman Bob Hyland for the No. 2 choice in the NFL Draft. Waived by the Bears before the season opener, Pitts played eight games in 1970 with New Orleans and the Los Angeles Rams. When he returned to the Packers in 1971, he signed as a free agent.
Pitts retired following the season, but remained with the Packers as a college scout for two years. Before the 1974 season, he was hired as offensive backfield coach of the Rams and embarked on a pro coaching career that lasted 24 years. Over the last six, he was assistant head coach of the Buffalo Bills and in 1995 filled in as acting head coach for three games when Marv Levy was treated for prostate cancer.
Ron Pitts, Elijah’s son, played cornerback for the Packers from 1988 to 1990.
Born Feb. 3, 1938, in Mayflower, Ark. Given name Elijah Eugene Pitts. Died July 10, 1998, at age 60.
(Note: On Oct. 27, 1963, the Official National Football League Score Sheet listed Tom Moore as a starter against the Baltimore Colts, but also listed Moore under the “Did Not Play” category. Pitts started and Moore missed the game with an injury.)
- Halfback: 1961-69, 1971
- Height: 6-1; Weight: 210
- College: Philander Smith, 1958-60