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John Pitts Is Still Practicing What He Preaches : Football: Former Laguna Beach star athlete, now a banker in Phoenix, believes a person should always make the most of every opportunity.

March 27, 1992|TOM BIRSCHBACH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TEMPE, Ariz. — John Pitts, a banking executive in nearby Phoenix, often advises his clients to invest plenty of time and hard work in their opportunities and business endeavors.

What Pitts, 46, a vice president and senior commercial loan officer, has preached in business, he also has practiced in life.

Blessed with athletic ability and possessing a rigorous work ethic, Pitts seized his opportunity as a sophomore at Laguna Beach High School, laying the groundwork for a nine-year playing career in the NFL and then a successful business career.

"I'm very thankful for the educational opportunities I received at Laguna Beach," said Pitts recently near his home in Tempe. "It was an investment in me, and we each got something out of it. Oops, there I go, sounding like a banker again."

Before he swapped his helmet and pads for a three-piece suit, Pitts was a multisport star at Laguna Beach and Santa Ana (now Rancho Santiago) College before concentrating on football at Arizona State.

Pitts' performance as a two-way starter for Coach Frank Kush, his size (6 feet 5, 225 pounds) and his 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash attracted interest from pro scouts.

In 1967, he was a first-round draft choice of the Buffalo Bills, where he was the starting strong safety seven years. He was traded to the Broncos in 1973 and played his final season in 1975 for the Browns.

"I never missed a regular-season game (because of) an injury," Pitts said. "Buffalo called me an iron man. They really like durability in the NFL. I never had a major operation. There are no scars on my body. I feel very fortunate."

The only time Pitts had any medical problems was in March, 1990, about 15 years after his football career ended, he contracted valley fever meningitis. After 16 months, he was fully recovered.

And now, with his banking career, a 20-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Gioia, who is a junior at Arizona State and 2-month-old son John Pitts II to bounce on his knee, Pitts has a few more reasons to feel lucky.

When Pitts, who is black, arrived in Laguna Beach in 1960 with his mother, Adell, and younger sister, he was a shy 15-year-old sophomore. And he quickly realized he was in a different world.

Instead of attending a racially segregated high school in Birmingham, Ala., Pitts found himself at a predominantly white school in a scenic, tightly knit community of artists, surfers, businessmen and retired military personnel.

"I looked at nothing but opportunity," Pitts said. "I was impressed by the extravagant housing, but I couldn't believe people could make $20 to $25 a day working in an unskilled job. In Birmingham, you'd be lucky to make $15 or $20 in a week."

Pitts, who had a brother and an aunt belonging to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, site of the Ku Klux Klan terrorist bombing that killed four black school-aged girls, also realized he had left the climate of racial intolerance behind.

"I saw some negative things in Birmingham," Pitts said. "But in Laguna Beach, I never saw any racism at all. I was accepted as an individual by the students and the faculty. They made me want to excel in the classroom as well as in sports. They accepted me as John Pitts."

If Pitts saw the opportunities in Laguna Beach, the Artist coaches of that era--football Coach Hal Akins, basketball Coach Ed Bowen and the track and field coach, the late Red Geyer--saw the opportunities presented to them by Pitts.

"Being around Johnnie at that time was unbelievable," said Norm Borucki, a Big West and Pacific 10 basketball official who was then a first-year teacher and junior varsity coach. "He had incredible athletic ability and potential. Johnnie is probably the best all-around athlete we've ever had here, and, if not, one of the top two or three."

Bowen, who is still on the Laguna Beach faculty, agreed.

"I don't think anybody in Orange County can match his NFL career," Bowen said. "Since I've been here, Pitts is probably the best athlete we've ever had. In football, he played split end and defensive safety. He was big, strong and fast, really dominating. He was all-everything. We had some good football teams back in the '60s."

But Bowen enjoyed Pitts' exploits on the basketball court even more. Pitts was the starting center as a junior on Bowen's 1962 team that went 27-3 and won the Southern Section "A" championship and the 1963 team that finished 19-6 and went to the "AA" finals, where it lost to El Segundo.

"He had hands of stone, but he was an aggressive defender who could play anybody up or down whether they were 6-10 or 6-foot," Bowen said. "He got his scoring on his rebounding and aggressiveness. We had some great shooters on those teams in Ron Lutz, who averaged about 24 points per game, and Phil Anderson, who averaged about 19 points a game. John averaged about 13 points and 13 or 14 rebounds a game. He was really tough on the boards."

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