Former Green Bay Packers halfback Elijah Pitts was one of seven players elected to the Black College Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2023, it was announced Thursday (Dec. 8).
Pitts, who played for the Packers from 1961-69 and again in 1971, played collegiately at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. When Pitts was drafted by the Packers in the 13th round in 1961, it all but sent shockwaves through the ballroom in the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia, where NFL officials and coaches had gathered for that year's draft.
Pitts was such a sleeper – the term for an unheralded prospect from a small school – that it has been reported that one wag in the room asked: "Is that Philander Smith from Elijah Pitts or Elijah Pitts from Philander Smith?"
By 1961, with only all-white teams in the Southeastern and Southwest conferences, NFL clubs were beginning to mine the historically Black colleges of the South for players. That year, there were 12 selected among the 280 choices, including multiple picks from the more powerhouse programs – Florida A&M, Grambling and North Carolina Central – and one future Pro Football Hall of Famer, Deacon Jones, who had played a year at South Carolina State and another year at Mississippi Vocational, now Mississippi Valley State.
Philander Smith, where Pitts played, was a private, Methodist sponsored school with roughly 500 students that played in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference against the likes of Tougaloo Christian College, near Jackson, Miss.; Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss.; and Huston-Tillotson in Austin, Texas, all private schools, as well.
But Pitts made the all-conference team, ran a 9.6-second 100-yard dash, and the Packers were well aware of him thanks to veteran safety and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Emlen Tunnell.
Tunnell doubled as a college scout for the Packers during the offseason late in his career and had met Pitts at a track meet at Grambling in the spring of 1960. "Can run like hell," Tunnell wrote in one of his scouting reports. Pitts ran the 100- and 440-yard dashes on Philander Smith's track team.
"Em won't tell you, but he recruited this Elijah Pitts and everybody thought it was phoney because he found him in a college named Philander Smith," future Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Willie Davis, a Grambling product, told legendary sportswriter Red Smith late in Pitts' rookie season. "But he's going to be one of the best halfbacks in the league."
Over his first five seasons with the Packers, Pitts mostly backed up future Pro Football Hall of Fame halfback Paul Hornung and former No. 1 draft pick Tom Moore, but took over as a starter in mid-1966 and scored two touchdowns as the Packers beat Kansas City in Super Bowl I.
Pitts played on all five of Vince Lombardi's NFL championship teams and was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1979. He also scouted for the Packers for two years following his retirement as a player. He died July 10, 1998, at age 60.
Pitts will be posthumously inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta in June.