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.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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."

In addition, Pitts was a sprinter and high jumper on the track team. His senior year, he was the Orange League 100-yard champion with a time of 10.1 seconds.

"John came as a sophomore from the South, and his southern tradition came with him," Bowen said. "At first he just stepped back and watched, but by his senior year, he was a school leader."

Pitts agrees that it was his values that got him off on the right foot.

"I had a lot of old-fashioned southern ways," Pitts said. "I had a very good values system. When people see your work ethic, they reciprocate in a positive way. I had a very competitive attitude as a young man. I look at what young people go through today, and I feel very fortunate to have been in that type of situation.

"Living in a small, secluded town versus Los Angeles, John Pitts could have gotten on the wrong track," said Pitts. "As a kid, I got a good foundation with the right chemistry and support. I feel very strongly that if I had been in L.A., they would've just stuck me in a special education class."

Choosing a college is difficult for many athletes. Pitts' task was complicated because he had to decide which sport to play.

UCLA assistant coach Jerry Norman, impressed by Pitts' ferocious defense and rebounding, wanted him to play for Coach John Wooden's Bruins.

However, USC football Coach John McKay predicted that Pitts, then practicing for the North-South Shrine football game, would go to a major college and become an NFL defensive back.

"USC started pursuing me, and I was undecided what I wanted to do," Pitts recalled. "John McKay told me to go to a JC and that would give me more time to decide. McKay said I was a natural defensive back. I was really surprised, because there weren't many 6-5 defensive backs in those days."

Pitts enrolled at Santa Ana College, where he played football and basketball and competed in the high jump.

"I matured at Santa Ana once I realized I had to display my ability to get a starting position," Pitts said.

"On the field, John was extremely coachable," said former Don football Coach Dick Gorrie, who coached Pitts his sophomore year. "If he made a mistake, he made no alibis. He had great quickness and good speed. If he had put his mind to basketball, he would have been a Division I player."

After winning first-team All-Eastern Conference honors and JC All-American honorable mention his sophomore season as a cornerback, Pitts transferred to Arizona State for the 1965 spring semester.

"I was a typical California athlete who wanted to get away from home," Pitts said. "At Santa Ana, I was still living at home. I wanted to get out of the Orange County rut. So I came to Arizona State because it was still warm."

At ASU, Pitts found it would be warm in more ways than one.

In addition to playing for Kush, a stern disciplinarian, his roommate was future major league slugger Reggie Jackson.

"You grew up very fast with him (Jackson)," Pitts said. "People don't remember that Reggie went to ASU on a football scholarship. He was a starting strong safety and I was a corner. We were very competitive. He had the walls covered with pictures and clippings from his high school days, which was kind of bush in those days.

"Reggie came down to face reality at ASU. With guys like Rick Monday and Sal Bando on the baseball team, he got off his ego trip real quick. At ASU in those days, he was just another great athlete. With Kush and (baseball Coach) Bobby Winkles, fear and intimidation techniques in the 1960s worked. You didn't want to make mistakes.

"But you have to hand it to (Kush). He just wanted to win. There were no politics with him. He didn't care about the pigment of your skin. He just wanted the best person at every position who would help him win. He really taught the team concept."

It was also at Arizona State that Pitts began a long and troubling relationship with Travis (The Roadrunner) Williams, who died in February, 1991, homeless at the age of 44.

"We were the two fastest guys on the team at ASU, only I was drafted in the first round and he was drafted in the fourth round by Green Bay," said Pitts, who attended Williams' funeral last year in Stockton. "Travis had nothing to fall back on when his playing career ended.

"When he was a sophomore, he already had three kids," Pitts said. "Imagine, 19 years old and three kids. He never got his college degree. He was in a rut. And, he was still in a rut when he died. He never got it together. The failure was with ASU and the NFL as well as it was with Travis Williams. He was never prepared for life without football. It was a real tragedy."

While playing in the NFL, Pitts did prepare for life without football, spending the off-season working for a Phoenix-area bank.

"One thing John Pitts realized was that you've got to prepare for life after the game," he said. "First-round draft choices weren't making $4.5 million in those days. We weren't really playing full time. Working during the off-season took a lot of time. It was a heck of a challenge to stay in shape during the off-season, so you could hold on to your position. Now, in the NFL, it's different. It's a full-time year-round job.

"But when my playing days were through, I was really well prepared," Pitts said. "I started in commercial loans in 1976 and received my MBA from Arizona State in 1982. I moved over to First Interstate Bank in 1983."

Buffalo was the Siberia of the NFL when Pitts arrived. Under a succession of coaches--Joe Collier, Harvey Johnson, John Rauch and Johnson again--the Bills had a 13-52-2 record during his first five seasons.

"Jack Kemp was the quarterback, and he couldn't throw the ball 20 or 25 yards," Pitts recalled. "His arm was shot. Then we had Jim Harris and Dan Darragh, and, in 1970, we drafted Dennis Shaw from San Diego State. He was the NFL (offensive) rookie of the year, but he was a dingbat. That's what everyone on the team called him--'Dingbat.' "

It was a fascinating period for Pitts, however, especially after the arrival of O.J. Simpson in 1969.

"I played with the Juice for five years," Pitts said. "He was a class individual, no question about it. He was among the first speedsters who knew how to run with the football. He was also very durable. He never got hurt. He was offensive captain and I was defensive captain back then."

Pitts' life remained on the fast track to success after his 1975 retirement until March 14, 1990, when he contracted valley fever meningitis.

"I had fluid on the brain, which is about 65% fatal," he said. "I was out of work for 16 months. It was the first time I had been in the hospital in my life. The doctors had to insert shunts (valves) in the back of my head to relieve the pressure on the brain. My family panicked.

"Valley fever meningitis is caused by the dust in the air," Pitts said. "The only place it occurs is here in the Southwest. Usually people get it when they first transplant here. I had a very unusual case of it, because I had been here for 25 years."

Now Pitts, whose mother still lives in Laguna Beach, is elated not only by the birth of his son, but also to be back on the job.

"Today, I really thank God for my recovery," Pitts said. "I'm really glad to be back to work. John Pitts wants to maximize every day and help out all the people who depend on me. I want to take advantage of every opportunity and do something positive to show my appreciation. . . . "

There goes John Pitts . . . sounding like a banker again.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°