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The secret to the success of Archbishop Wood’s Kyle Pitts, the best player in the NFL draft | Mike Sielski

He starred at Wood and for the Florida Gators. But it was the foresight of his dad and a single decision that changed the arc of Kyle Pitts’ life and career.

A photograph of Kyle Pitts, in his University of Florida uniform, hangs on a wall at his alma mater, Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster. He will be one of the first players picked in this year's NFL draft.
A photograph of Kyle Pitts, in his University of Florida uniform, hangs on a wall at his alma mater, Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster. He will be one of the first players picked in this year's NFL draft.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Hey, look, all of this was to be expected. The father of the best player in this year’s NFL draft has been a busy man lately, and Kelly Pitts knew that he would be, as the most important night of his son’s life drew near.

There was the day less than two weeks ago that an NFL Films crew visited Archbishop Wood High School to shoot a feature about Kelly’s son, Kyle: Abington native, Wood graduate, University of Florida star, a surefire top-10 pick Thursday night. There was the day that the Pitts family drove to Topgolf, the entertainment complex in Mount Laurel, for another NFL Films interview and event. There have been the phone calls, the never-ending phone calls: reporters, family members, check-ins with Kyle. There was the flight from Philadelphia to Gainesville earlier this month for the John Mackey Award ceremony, where Kyle was officially recognized as the most outstanding tight end in college football.

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Kelly and his wife, Theresa, sat in the front row that night as their son, dressed in a royal-blue blazer and an orange bow tie, delivered his acceptance speech and nearly dissolved into tears as he thanked them and his coaches and teammates. Did Kelly Pitts dissolve into tears? No, he did not. Don’t misunderstand: His chest was puffed with pride, like any father’s would be. But it wasn’t as if he considered Kyle’s rise a surprise. Kyle grew 6 inches in high school. Kyle was all-Catholic League and all-city at Wood and an All-America selection with the Gators. Kyle — now 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, and just 20 years old — caught 100 passes in three years at Florida, averaging nearly 15 yards a reception, running past linebackers, outmuscling and leaping over defensive backs. Kyle caught 43 passes last season; 39 of them were for either a first down or a touchdown, a statistic that speaks to a player who can’t be stopped.

This was supposed to happen for Kyle. Kelly will tell you that — in a reasonable, matter-of-fact sort of manner, a way of speaking that he didn’t always use when it came to his son’s football career and his belief that it was bound to be glorious. This was supposed to happen, and he just happened to see it before everyone else, and he insists that he tried to clue everyone in to what was ahead before and after Kyle made the decision that, in all likelihood, altered the course of his life.

Kelly Pitts is 56, from North Philadelphia, and a conductor for Amtrak. He’s the man who understands and appreciates a sometimes-uncertain journey. He grew up a fan of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, and he has a favorite, about a man who discovers a box containing a singing frog … except every time the man opens the box to show the magical amphibian to someone, the frog just croaks.

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“All this time,” he said during one of several phone interviews over the last week, “I’m telling people I had a frog who could sing. Now here’s that frog, and that frog’s going crazy.”

‘He had a balance of both’

Hey, look, anyone could have gotten Kyle Pitts wrong. How many coaches can glimpse true greatness in an 11-, a 12-, a 13- or 14-year-old kid? How many parents scream from the sideline or the stands that their sons or daughters should be playing more or playing a different position? How many of them insist that they know best, and how many of them are actually right?

Pitts played a year up with the North Philly Aztecs youth football team, at an age when a year’s difference between two athletes, in physical strength and maturity, can be the difference between Bruce Banner before and after a gamma-ray blast. He narrowed that gap to nothing. His coach, Jeremiah Berry, put him at quarterback. And running back. And outside linebacker. And kicker.

One game, he whiffed on a couple of blocks at running back, and Berry chewed him out for it, knowing full well that Kelly would echo the coach’s admonitions. If you ain’t blocking, you ain’t gettin’ the ball. “His dad wasn’t going to let him be mediocre, because his dad was his roughest critic,” Berry said. “He had a balance of both. The way his dad would tear him down if he had a bad game, he would bring him up if he had a good game.”

Next time out, he was responsible for six touchdowns, scoring a handful himself, throwing one on a Tim Tebow-style jump pass, and kicked two field goals. But he drew only so much joy from his spectacular performance, because he hated playing quarterback. He had a great arm but, Kelly said, “no concept” of how to read a defense, none, and he couldn’t bring himself to tell Kelly or Berry that he preferred to catch passes, not throw them. Kelly signed him up for a quarterback camp when Kyle was 13. For four days, the coaches guided the campers through chalkboard work, through passing fundamentals and basic strategies, and to Kyle, it was all Sanskrit.

“I asked him, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’ ” Kelly said. “Little did I know he was saying yes just to appease me.”

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Tight end, maybe wide receiver — that’s where Kyle wanted to be. Kelly warned him, as football practice began before Kyle’s eighth-grade year at Abington Junior High School: Whatever you do, do not pick up a ball and throw it. He did. The coaches put him at quarterback. Kelly was livid. If Kyle didn’t want to play quarterback, what were the chances he would excel at quarterback? “They were grooming him,” Kelly said, “but I knew that grooming wasn’t necessarily going to work.”

He made Abington’s varsity team as a ninth-grader, as an outside linebacker and the backup quarterback. Tim Sorber, Abington’s coach, thought Kyle too undersized to play tight end. Sure, the kid was athletic, but having a freshman put his hand in the dirt and try to block a 225-pound defensive end didn’t make much sense. “We really envisioned him having the ball in his hands on offense on every play,” Sorber said in a phone interview, “and I think you can get the ball to a quarterback a whole lot easier than a tight end at the high school level.”

Kelly held his tongue for a while, fearing that he would jeopardize Kyle’s playing time if he spoke up. But by the early part of his sophomore year, Kyle was already entrenched as a starter on defense. Before a game against Souderton in October 2015, Kyle tossed the ball to a teammate during warmups. “I see this tall, skinny kid, and he looked good,” Souderton coach Ed Gallagher said. “I said, ‘I hope they don’t put him at quarterback.’” Instead, Kyle intercepted a pass to set up an Abington touchdown. A week later, he scooped up a fumble against Bensalem and returned it 55 yards for another score.

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Still, the prospect of playing quarterback the following season was enough to make him and his father leery about his remaining at Abington. Kelly lobbied Sorber to give Kyle a shot at tight end. Lobbied. It doesn’t quite capture the force with which Kelly delivered his argument. “That sounds like a vanilla version,” he said, “but I’ll take it.” Sorber said no, Kyle would stay at quarterback. “He was right, and I was wrong,” Sorber said. “It turned out for the best.”

Kyle started to struggle academically. He decided he wanted to transfer. Kelly made him a deal: Get your grades back up, and we’ll look into it. He and Theresa considered sending Kyle to La Salle High or St. Joseph’s Prep, then reconsidered once they learned the cost of each school’s tuition. A couple of Kyle’s friends had gone to Archbishop Wood, which, under coach Steve Devlin, had gone 109-18 and won three state titles over the previous nine seasons.

In a meeting with Devlin, Kelly told him, You’re looking at one of the most prominent tight ends in the state. If it doesn’t pan out, then you put him where you see fit. Just give Kyle a fair shot at what he wants to do. Devlin said he would.

“I feel like I had a weird story,” Pitts said during his Mackey Award speech. “None of y’all probably expected that, playing quarterback and linebacker. But I was told some things that made me want to go to a different school. When I got the opportunity, I feel like I took it and ran with it.”

The right fit

Hey, look. There’s the best player in this year’s NFL draft, raising fingerprints off a blank sheet of paper and a pearl-white balloon. There he is, standing in front of Sharon Hartranft’s forensic-science class at Wood a few years ago, horn-rimmed glasses on his face as he keeps score during a quiz competition. There’s Kyle Pitts in a white shirt and a black bow tie, at his senior prom.

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Hartranft keeps photos of all these moments on the “selfie wall” in her classroom. They are a testament to how easily Pitts fit into the culture of the school, and how the school fit him. The football field on Wood’s campus has no lights, for instance, and it became common for Devlin, after a late-afternoon practice, to have to chase players off the field because Pitts insisted on having the team’s quarterbacks throw him extra passes in the twilight, and because the younger receivers had joined the drill. “It was contagious,” Devlin said. “He just opened himself up to everybody and was a great teammate and person.”

The first college coach to offer Pitts a scholarship was Matt Rhule, at Temple, and the rest came in quick succession: Syracuse, UCLA, finally Florida, after Kyle attended a camp there ahead of his senior year and none of the camp’s defensive backs could cover him. “He kept saying he wanted to play SEC ball,” Kelly said. “Me being critical of my son, I was like, ‘I don’t know about that SEC ball, buddy, ‘cause you’re a little light in the drawers.’ But I was looking. ‘Man, he’s doing stuff to them, and he’s only going into 12th grade.’”

Wood won a state championship in each of Pitts’ two seasons there, and he capped his career by intercepting two passes and catching a touchdown in the Vikings’ 49-14 victory over Gateway in the 2017 Class 5A title game. Throughout Pitts’ senior year, Hartranft taught him in one class, tutored him in another, and had lengthy one-on-one conversations with him about what was ahead for him in college: the challenge of making friends, the importance of being true to oneself, the need to have a backup plan in case pro football didn’t work out. That last topic makes her chuckle now. After all, Pitts’ status as a prospect is not reflected in the inevitability that he will be drafted Thursday. It is reflected in the terms that scouts and analysts use to describe him, terms such as unique talent and freak and unicorn. When he returned to Wood for that recent NFL Films shoot, he sneaked into Hartranft’s classroom. She ran over to give him a hug. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I touched his arm and was like, ‘Kyle, what on earth?’ He was just solid.”

He doesn’t turn 21 until October, and as his bench press increased and his 40 time decreased at Florida, his father could pick up on his personality changing, hardening as his body did. “His … swag is the word we’ll use … is different now than it was his freshman year,” Kelly said, “as opposed to being a baby deer amongst the lions.”

Kelly said that he has no preference for where Kyle ends up, but that’s not entirely true. He’d like him to be drafted by a team that already has a veteran tight end or someone else who might act as a mentor. The Atlanta Falcons, with Exton native Matt Ryan at quarterback, have the No. 4 pick. The Dallas Cowboys have the 10th, and their owner, Jerry Jones, barely tried to hide his infatuation with Kyle during a virtual meeting last week.

“Of course, it would be icing on the cake if he could play for the Eagles,” Kelly said. “But I know that’s not going to happen. And I don’t know, situation-wise, how good that would be, because of the little turmoil. The turmoil there hasn’t slowed down.

“I’m nobody’s dummy. I don’t want to go to Denver, nor do I want to go to New England. I don’t want to go anywhere it’s cold. I’ve been living here 30 years and change. I’m ready for some pure heat. I think Jerry’s got something up his sleeve that’s going to shock everyone. That’s just my personal opinion. Doesn’t mean a lot.”

On the contrary. For the best player in the NFL draft, for a son ending one journey and beginning another, Kelly Pitts’ opinion and foresight meant everything. How many fathers insist that they know best, and how many of them turn out to be right? Hey, look. Here’s one.