Allen Pitts has proved to be a better catch for the Canadian Football League than Raghib (Rocket) Ismail.
Ismail helped give the CFL, which is usually preceded by the term "ailing" or "financially troubled" in its scant mentions in the U.S. media, credibility and publicity when the former Notre Dame standout passed up the NFL in favor a four-year, guaranteed contract worth a reported $18.2 million with the Toronto Argonauts. But statistically, Pitts is the league's top receiver.
The former Cal State Fullerton standout, now a slotback for the Calgary Stampeders, has 111 receptions this season, five short of the CFL record set by Winnipeg's James Murphy in 1986 heading into today's regular-season finale against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Pitts has caught at least five passes in a game 15 times this season and has grabbed six or more 12 times.
Pitts also leads the league with 1,660 receiving yards and 14 touchdown receptions. He is trying to become the third player since 1980 to lead the league in all three categories.
(By comparison, Ismail has made 60 catches for 1,155 yards and eight touchdowns.)
What makes Pitts' feats even more remarkable is that until joining the Stampeders last season, he had not played an official game since completing his eligibility with the Titans in 1985 and had been out of football since being cut by the Rams during training camp in 1987.
Pitts became an accounting clerk at USC and also took classes there. But he longed to give football another shot.
"It was still in my heart to play professionally," Pitts said in a phone interview from his home in Calgary. "That had always been my goal. I looked back at the opportunities with the Rams and reflecting back and thinking about it, I felt I hadn't given all that I possibly could have."
In 1990, he participated in a tryout at UC Irvine, drawing the attention of Roy Shivers, Calgary's director of player personnel, a former Nevada Las Vegas assistant coach who had seen Pitts play for Fullerton. A subsequent workout for Shivers earned Pitts an invitation to Calgary, where he was signed after another tryout.
However, Pitts still needed to adjust to playing again and to the Canadian version of the game.
"I came up in early May, but I still didn't have a real good idea of what Calgary's offensive scheme was," Pitts said. "When (training) camp started in June, things started slow for me.
"When you're not playing, you lose a lot of those little things that you take for granted after playing for a while. A lot of my timing was off. I didn't start off as I would have liked to."
But within a season, Pitts went from a player in awe of the CFL's large field, to a focused player with increasing confidence and a major offensive weapon for the Stampeders. Pitts finished the season with a team-high 65 catches, tying the league's eighth-best mark as Calgary won its first Western Division regular-season championship since 1971. But he hoped to do even better this season.
So Pitts, 28, spent the off-season working out with two teammates who also live in Southern California: defensive back Junior Thurman and running back Keyvan Jenkins.
"With the bigger field and the wide-open game, we're definitely running a lot more, so we did a whole lot of long-distance sprint work, trying to get ourselves in condition," Pitts said. "I did a lot more work as far as running routes and catching balls. I owe a lot of thanks to both those guys. They helped me quite a bit."
The result: Pitts reported to training camp with even more confidence.
"I just think the quarterbacks and the coaches maybe saw that confidence in m," Pitts said. "More balls were coming my way this year."
Were they ever. On July 24, Pitts made 10 catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-28 victory over the Ottawa Rough Riders, a feat that earned him CFL Offensive Player of the Week honors.
"Allen has tremendous size (6 feet 4, 200 pounds) and speed and with the width of our field, it's allowed him to move, go into motion and utilize all his abilities," Calgary Coach Wally Buono said.
Buono also said Pitts has contributed more to the Stampeders than his catches.
"He's established himself as a quiet leader," Buono said. "He instills a good work ethic to our team and shown that hard work and persistence will pay off.
"Success hasn't spoiled Allen Pitts. He's a very humble, hard-working, conscientious young man who puts his team before himself."
At Fullerton, Pitts didn't see the ball as often as he does in the CFL, but not through any fault of his own. Playing alongside Wade Lockett, James Pruitt and Corn Redick, all of whom would eventually play in the NFL or CFL, in a receiving quartet that dubbed themselves the " '84 Bomb Corps," none of the four had the chance to dominate receiving statistics
Still, when Pitts finished his Titan career, he shared the school record for touchdown receptions with 16, was the 12th-leading receiver with 56 catches and 10th in receiving yards with 790. Coach Gene Murphy recently lauded him as "our prototype wide receiver/tight end with excellent hands."
Pitts had also drawn the attention of NFL scouts, and believed he would be selected in the 1986 draft. But one pre-draft workout changed all that.
When running a pass route, teammate and current New York Giant cornerback Mark Collins stepped on Pitts' foot, breaking his fibula. Word of Pitts' injury spread through the NFL grapevine and he was bypassed on draft day.
Still in a cast, Pitts signed with the Rams after training camp began.
"What was good was that I did impress some people and turn some heads," Pitts said.
Pitts, who lives in Claremont in the off-season, was released in the next-to-last cut in 1986. Invited back for a second training camp in 1987, the result was the same: Pitts was cut before the start of the season.
In 1993, Pitts could again be turning some heads in the NFL.
"Quote, unquote, hey, that's the league," said Pitts, who will be in the option year of his contract next season. "When I was there, I felt physically that I could play in that league, but I was a lot younger and mentally, I was not ready for professional football at that time."