Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta takes impressive path to recovery from hip injury

After Dennis Pitta dislocated and fractured his hip, he set himself on a remarkable path to recovery

December 15, 2013|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

Each time the ambulance hit a pothole, Dennis Pitta experienced a new level of agony.

There were so many things on his mind. Was his season over? Was his career in jeopardy? How was his wife?

Serious reflection, though, would have to wait. The pain was just too consuming. Pitta lay in the back of the ambulance in the fetal position, unable to straighten his legs. His body swayed as the ambulance weaved through traffic. Each bump on the way to Columbia's MedStar Union Memorial Hospital — Liberty Road was the worst — felt like another dagger being plunged into his side. The pain medication wasn't working, so Pitta bit down on his jersey as hard as he could.

"The ambulance ride was probably the toughest 30 minutes of my life," Pitta said.

The fourth-year Ravens tight end had a fractured and dislocated right hip, an injury that, at the very least, would end his season. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said as much July 28, the day after Pitta underwent surgery. But just over 19 weeks after he was hurt during the first week of training camp, Pitta returned to the field Dec. 8 against the Minnesota Vikings.

He caught six passes for 48 yards in the Ravens' 29-26 victory, including a go-ahead 1-yard touchdown that started one of the craziest finishes in NFL history.

"It was an emotional roller coaster," Pitta said. "I was just happy that I was able to come back and kind of shake the rust off a little bit and get more and more comfortable as the game went on. To be able to contribute to a win like that was just awesome."

As the Ravens get ready to face the Detroit Lions at Ford Field tonight, their offense suddenly looks close to whole again. That's largely because of the return of Pitta, who had 61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns during last year's regular season and an additional 14receptions for 163 yards and three scores during the Ravens' Super Bowl run.

With top wide receiver Anquan Boldin traded in the offseason, Pitta entered training camp expected to be featured even more. He had great chemistry with quarterback Joe Flacco, his best friend on the team, and would be playing for a new contract. He was primed for a big year.

Then his season, before it had started, was almost over.

The fall

It was a play the Ravens had run thousands of times. Working from the slot, Pitta cut toward the back of the end zone and went up high to catch Flacco's pass, shielding off safety James Ihedigbo. But as Pitta fell to the ground, he felt his weight shifting toward his right hip.

"Laying there on the field, the pain was excruciating," Pitta said. "It felt like my hip was dislocated, having never gone through that before. I couldn't really move my legs, because [of] the added pain, if I tried to. I just wanted to be able to get [the hip] back in place as quickly as we could. We couldn't do it on the field, and it took about 21/2 hours later where I could get in the hospital and have it done."

Dr. Leigh Ann Curl, the Ravens' chief orthopedic surgeon, confirmed Pitta's suspicions that he likely had dislocated his hip, an injury more common in car accidents. When treating a hip dislocation, doctors say, timing is everything. The hip has to be relocated quickly enough that blood flow to the area isn't compromised.

Former two-sport phenom Bo Jackson's football career ended in 1991 after a tackle dislocated the Los Angeles Raiders running back's left hip during a playoff game. Jackson had surgery and started the rehabilitation process, but he developed avascular necrosis, a disease resulting from the interruption of blood supply to the femoral head. Jackson ultimately had to have his hip replaced.

When Pitta awoke in the hospital after surgery, Curl told him what he was up against. She said he was "most likely" out for the year but that more tests were necessary to determine the extent of the damage. She warned Pitta that the injury could be career-threatening, depending on the vascular or cartilage damage he had suffered. She brought up the inevitable comparisons to Jackson.

The wait

As mind-numbing as the pain was, the uncertainty became even more difficult. The surgery was a success. Pitta also had a hip fracture, though it was a tight break; more important was the lack of ligament and cartilage damage.

Pitta, however, had to wait two weeks before he could get an MRI that would determine whether he could play football again. He was kept upbeat by his wife, Mataya, and their newborn son, Decker.

"I remember feeling pretty bad about it, and then when I did see him for the first time, I remember him being very upbeat and just himself," Flacco said. "That kind of put me at ease with it."

Still, with Pitta's career hanging in the balance at age 28, the wait was agonizing.

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