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How Kyle Pitts became the Unicorn
In his first NFL season, Pitts is sticking to the blueprint that got him this far and is as eager as everyone else to see just how good he can be.
By Kris Rhim Sep 09, 2021

Almost anyone who has picked up a football has dreamed about being QB1. The signal caller. The center of attention. The man.

Kyle Pitts was all those things as a sophomore quarterback at Abington Senior High School in Pennsylvania, yet the role simply did not seem right.

"I couldn't even throw the ball more than 60 yards," Pitts recalled.

He admired the way tight ends were being used at the collegiate and professional level and was convinced the position was his ticket to the NFL. Pitts asked about a position switch one day before practice. It did not go well.

His coach asked him to get down in a three-point stance. According to Pitts, his positioning wasn't good enough for his coach, who then proceeded to ridicule then-16-year-old Pitts by telling him his stance would never be good enough to play the position at a high level or earn a scholarship.

That was the final straw. Pitts left the struggling Abington squad following his sophomore season for perennial powerhouse Archbishop Wood of the Philadelphia Catholic League — and subsequently became one of the best prep tight ends in the country.

The Unicorn, as many call Pitts because of his unique skill set at the tight end position, has reached heights that only he could have predicted. His three-point stance ended up being good enough for head coach Dan Mullen and the University of Florida, where he spent three years and earned the John Mackey Award, given to the best tight end in college football. Then, he became the highest tight end selection ever when the Falcons chose him at No. 4 overall.

Pitts' journey from high-school quarterback to drawing mythical creature comparisons has resulted from hard work, family support and role models who have taught him how to maximize his potential. As the 6-foot-6 245-pound, 20-year-old heads into his first NFL season, he is sticking to the blueprint that got him this far and is as eager as everyone else is to see just how good he can be.

"A man amongst boys"

When Pitts left for Archbishop Wood, it was like going into a completely different world. Archbishop Wood had won two of the previous three Pennsylvania state championships, scouts from Division I programs across the country were regulars at their games and they played a national schedule. Pitts would have to share receptions with wide receiver Mark Webb. Now a rookie cornerback for the Chargers, Webb was then one of the best high school receivers in the nation, ranked the 21st best pass-catcher by ESPN.

Before they were teammates, Webb and Pitts trained together at Level 40 Training & Performance center just outside of Philadelphia. Webb said Pitts was always "a dog" in the weight room so, when Pitts decided to transfer to Archbishop Wood, he knew exactly the kind of player they were getting.

"I knew he was a highly competitive person who always wanted to go against the best person every day," Webb said.

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Archbishop Wood's practice field did not have lights, but Webb, Pitts, and a few other teammates would stay out there for hours in the dark until then-Wood head coach Steve Devlin kicked them off the field so he could get home. Webb introduced Pitts to the value of after-practice reps, so putting in extra time was a no brainer.

"Football is something that I love to do," Pitts said. "I don't get bored with it. I don't drag on to practice. Any time I can get some extra work in, and it'll help me — I'm with it."

The two grew close off the field, too. So much so that Pitts describes Webb as a "big brother." Webb calls Pitts his "little big brother" because of Pitts' five-inch height advantage and jokingly calls him "moose" because he says Pitts resembles the animal. Since high school, Webb has been Pitts' go-to person for advice about anything from football to money management to relationships.

Webb and Pitts led Archbishop Wood to the 2016 5A state title. Pitts led the team with 28 receptions that season and caught a touchdown in the 37-10 win over now Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons and Harrisburg High School.

That summer, Pitts and his father traveled up and down the East Coast playing in almost every football camp and tournament they could find. Until then, Kelly Pitts knew his son was good. After seeing him at a football camp in Florida, he realized that Kyle Pitts was special.

"He never ran like that before. His routes were different. Everything was different about him," Kelly Pitts said. "Whoever was supposed to be the top cover guy, top linebacker or the top kid there couldn't touch him."

Kyle Pitts grew two inches to his current 6-foot-6 by the time his senior football season came around. The hype around him significantly increased after his impressive summer, and power five college coaches began filling up the stands at Archbishop Wood games to see the tight end up close.

"It was all over then. He looked like a man amongst boys. Folks did not want to see Kyle like that on the field," Kelly Pitts said. "When I saw the recruiters, I was like, 'Well, damn! What is this about?'"

Archbishop Wood went on to win their second straight state championship that season and Pitts had a game for the ages, catching a touchdown pass while securing two interceptions as a defensive end. The game is one that Devlin still thinks about today and said defined Pitts as a player.

Outside of what he did on the football field, Devlin was most impressed by how humble and great a teammate Pitts was despite the national attention during his senior season.

"He took school seriously, he took training seriously, he took football seriously and, and he was a great role model for a lot of people," Devlin said. "I think to this day, he still tries to outwork everybody, and that's what makes him special."

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"Never shied away from work"

When Pitts arrived at the University of Florida, he began to do things on the football field that then tight ends coach Larry Scott had never seen a player of Pitts' size do before. Scott said Pitts moved as quickly as players seven inches shorter and 100 pounds lighter effortlessly.

But when he got to know Pitts well, it was his work ethic that impressed Scott. Just like in high school, Scott and other coaches at Florida often had to force Pitts to take a break at practice because he was always looking to get an extra rep in.

"He never shied away from work," said Scott, now head football coach at Howard University. "No matter how hot it was, no matter how much we asked him to do or how much he put on his plate. It was always about the work for him, about the process, about getting better."

Scott also admired the mindset Pitts brought to practice. He appreciated that Pitts was always "the same guy every day."

Pitts became a matchup nightmare at Florida, using his large frame to bully cornerbacks and his speed combined with precise route running to get past linebackers, earning him the Unicorn nickname.

Pitts' large frame features his 83-⅜ inch wingspan, which is filled with tattoos up to his hands. The ink tells a story about his values and the places that shaped him, like the "215" he has on his right arm for the Philadelphia area code.

Three of the tattoos that Pitts "lives by" lay on opposite inner biceps. On the left is a large tattoo that reads "FCF," meaning family comes first. On the right, he has "Stay Humble" and "Hustle Hard" in red next to each other.

While Pitts tries to live by his "Stay Humble" tattoo as a reminder that God can take anything away from him, that does not mean that he shies away from doing his fair share of boasting when provoked.

Just ask Kentucky linebacker J.J. Weaver. Weaver told reporters heading into a game against Florida last season, "Kyle Pitts is most definitely going to see me this week… We've just got to be more physical than him... He is a great player. He's going to get up and jump, but he's just never had J.J. Weaver on him before."

They did see each other, and Pitts saw the end zone — a lot. He finished with 99 yards and three touchdowns in the 34-10 win over Kentucky. Pitts followed up the win with a picture on Instagram of him catching a pass over Weaver — even tagging Weaver's profile — with the caption, "I try to be humble but, no disrespect without retaliation."

"I saw what he said, and I was like 'OK,' and I just fueled all week. And once I got my retaliation, I was fine," Pitts said while laughing. "I'm laid back, but when it's time to talk. I'm gonna talk trash. Competing brings that side out of me. Whether it's working out or if it's drills where I'm racing you, I'm gonna start talking after the first rep. I just like to compete."

New "big brothers"

The skies were clear, but the sweltering heat was overwhelming at the Falcons headquarters in Flowery Branch. It was one of those days where the humidity caused clothes to stick to your body. Media members were fanning themselves, blowing in their shirts, and trying every technique to avoid sweat stains that one could think of.

Pitts and other wide receivers and tight ends were running routes and catching passes from Matt Ryan and Feleipe Franks. Quickly, Hayden Hurst, Calvin Ridley and others surrounded Pitts; giving the rookie tips on how he can sharpen his routes. Six years since Pitts made the decision to switch to tight end, the results have paid off immensely, but he is still learning to master his role.

Since the Falcons drafted Pitts, he has built tight relationships with many players on the team but Ridley, Hurst, and Lee Smith, have become "big brothers" to him.

"Lee is like that old head that tells you about life, football and everything, kind of like Mark [Webb]," Pitts said. "He tells me how the NFL works and has really shown me the ropes."

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When Smith entered the league 10 years ago, he begged veterans to teach him how to be a pro but never got the mentorship he was seeking. He found it later in his career in veterans like Charles Woodson when he was with the Oakland Raiders, and now he strives to be the vet for Pitts that Smith always wished he had his rookie season.

"I would give Kyle Pitts the shirt off my back," Smith said. "In my opinion, there's nothing more cowardly than a veteran that won't help a young player grow. I'm gonna teach him everything I know."

"I don't listen to the expectations"

The hype heading into Pitts' rookie year has been massive. He's expected to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL, Madden gave him the highest rookie rating at 81 overall, and Pitts' only preseason snap intensified that hype. Still, Pitts says he doesn't pay much attention to the buzz.

"I haven't read an article since my freshman year of high school," Pitts said. "I don't read the media. I don't listen to the expectations. I know what coach [Arthur] Smith and coach [Justin] Peelle expect from me and what's going on in this building and my immediate circle, so that's what I take care of and listen to."

And while Pitts understands that his draft status comes with high expectations from fans and media alike, he does not feel like he is all that important.

"Man, I wouldn't even say I have an interesting life," Pitts said with a shrug. "I just like to chill, listen to jazz and kick my feet up."

In his "uninteresting" life, Pitts enjoys playing video games, specifically Call of Duty, but also NBA 2K and Madden. He has not gotten a chance to play as himself Madden 22 yet, because of how busy training camp has been. His favorite new hobby is golf, which he says has been a great way to network. He has met business owners and retired professional golfers who have offered to give him lessons.

He also loves music, when Pitts is heading into practice in the mornings, he is typically playing gospel. It's crucial for him "to talk with God" in the morning before he gets to work. When he is not listening to gospel, his favorite tunes are jazz and old-school R&B. Though he did admit that he switches it up with some new rap, and of course, has a heavy dose of Philly rapper Meek Mill in his playlist.

"You know you gotta switch it up and have different tempos!" Pitts said.

"As sharp as I can be"

Just three years ago, Pitts was on Broad Street in Philadelphia with thousands of other Eagles fans during the team's parade after the Eagles won Super Bowl LII. As if playing in his first regular-season NFL game was not exciting enough, week one he'll be taking on his hometown and the team he rooted for his entire life.

"I'm excited to play against them, and I got a lot of people coming," Pitts said. "I know a couple of guys on the team, and we've just been talking trash to each other, so it should be fun."

There are other connections to Pitts' past on the schedule in games against the Panthers and the Lions. Pitts has known Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore since he was a child. The two ran track together for Cambria Youth Track Club in North Philadelphia. Not to mention, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule offered Pitts his first scholarship at tight end when Rhule was the head coach at Temple University.

Lions running back D'Andre Swift played in the Philadelphia Catholic League with Pitts for St. Joseph's Prep. The two bonded over football, and Pitts says they always hang out whenever Swift is in Atlanta.

"When you're young, you don't realize it, but now it's like 'Damn, we're all on the same stage now,'" Pitts said.

Pitts does not have statistical goals for his first NFL season. Instead, he says he is focusing on growth. And growth for him looks like all the normal things: improved route running, blocking and other technical improvements, but the 2021 season will be a success if he finishes with a better grasp of the game mentally. He believes tight ends are one of the most important positions on the offense because they have to understand run coverages, blitz pickups, and many other concepts.

"I want to be almost as sharp as the quarterback," he said. "I just want to take all that in and be as sharp as I can this year."

And as for his three-point stance — it ended up being not so bad after all.

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