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Pitts Becomes Quite the Party Crasher

Pro football: San Diego State star, with no high school experience, has key role with Texans.

July 03, 2002|DAN ARRITT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The accolades earned by most of the players selected in this year's NFL draft began piling up when they were in high school: "Four-year starting quarterback" ... "All-American linebacker" ... "Star running back in the state championship game."

And then there was Chester Pitts of San Diego State, a second-round selection by the expansion Houston Texans.

"Lettered on the track team and was an All-Prep League selection in the shotput and discus," read the two-line entry recapping his high school athletic accomplishments. "Also holds the school record in each event."

Nothing about football, and for good reason. Pitts is the only one among the 261 players taken who did not play high school football.

"We knew what we were getting," said Tony Marciano, Houston's offensive line coach.

"We knew his background. He's a big, intelligent person with good speed and, bottom line, they're hard to find."

Pitts, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound offensive tackle, grew up in Carson and attended California Academy of Math and Science, a small, Long Beach Unified School District magnet school on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills.

CAMS doesn't field a football team.

Pitts was attending San Diego State and working part-time at a grocery store to help support his 18-month-old daughter when he met Mike Milano and Kyle Turley, both Aztec offensive linemen.

Pitts recalls half-heartedly bragging that he was considering trying out for the team. Milano and Turley, now the left tackle for the New Orleans Saints, encouraged him to approach the coaching staff--which Pitts did the next morning.

"[The coaches] didn't know me from Adam, but they liked my size and they said, 'We'll give you a shot,' " Pitts said. "That's how it got started."

Pitts was out of shape when he arrived for his first off-season practice in February 1998. He told the coaches he wanted to play tight end, a position typically filled by far quicker athletes.

Convinced that he wouldn't return after his first workout, the coaches didn't even bother repositioning him.

"He had this glazed look in his eye, like he was saying, 'What is this?' " Aztec line coach Damon Baldwin recalled. "We were all chuckling, saying, 'Here's another kid who thinks he can play because he's big.' "

Pitts remembers that morning--at least parts of it--as if it happened yesterday. "I'd never been so tired in my life," he said. "I sat on the stadium steps and fell asleep for 45 minutes."

But Pitts returned to practice the next day. And the next, and the next, showing the determination he learned from his mother, LaVerne, who'd worked so diligently to get him into CAMS.

"I'm not a quitter," he said. "That's what everyone expected me to do [after the first day of practice]. I swore up and down I wasn't going to quit and that was all the drive I needed."

Baldwin needed extra linemen that spring, so he put Pitts on the scout team, where he held a blocking bag and kept the team loose with his sense of humor and positive attitude. Baldwin eventually let Pitts onto the field for the final play of the last scrimmage before the season began.

"I stood right behind his butt and told him who to block," Baldwin said. "The guys were clapping and cheering, saying, 'Hey, Chester finally got in.' "

During the first season, Baldwin couldn't help but notice Pitts' quick feet and agility during drills. That was enough to get Pitts onto the traveling squad the next season, where he lined up for about 35 plays. During a September blowout victory at Kansas, he replaced an injured player in the second quarter and caught the attention of coaches during his 15 plays as a substitute.

"He showed us some things that game," Baldwin said. "That's what led into his junior and senior years."

Pitts earned the starting job at tackle his junior season, then earned All-Mountain West Conference honors as a senior. He didn't allow a sack and had 108 knockdowns in 762 plays last season. After a 27-12 loss at Ohio State in mid-October, Pitts started to believe he had the ability to play at the next level.

"I needed to show I could rise up for the big-time game," he said. "And I had my best game of the year against Ohio State."

Baldwin's favorite play last season was a screen pass against Utah. Pitts swung outside, steam-rollered the cornerback, stayed on his feet and ran alongside the wide receiver for about 20 yards. He then knocked the free safety off his feet and pushed a pile of defenders trying to make the tackle an additional 10 yards.

Baldwin made sure that clip was the first in Pitts' portfolio, which was growing in demand each week. "The scouts liked his athleticism," Baldwin said. "And they thought he had great upside because he showed so much improvement in such a short amount of time."

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