Stephen Pitts refers to himself as a “tinkering type,” and as a boy he built his own bikes and helped his father work on cars.
“My dad was always working on his own cars, and for me it all started with holding the light for him,” said Pitts, a former Middletown South and Penn State running back who spent a little time in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins during the 1996 and 1997 seasons.
“I’ve always been a technical person. And today, I still enjoy fixing and building things. I’ve had a bunch of Mustangs and still have a 2003 Cobra. And what I do in my professional life is very technical, so it suits me well.”
But Pitts’ professional life didn’t take a drastic twist until an unknown medical condition all but forced him out of the NFL.
“Something was wrong with me and I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “I was in great shape while at Penn State. But when I got to the 49ers, I started losing weight and I was getting really winded during sprints. From there, I progressively lost weight even though I was eating a lot.”
The 49ers released Pitts at the end of the 1996 preseason, then brought him back to the team two weeks later. About six weeks later, he was released again and picked up by the Bengals for the last three weeks of the regular season. Pitts was with the Bengals the following spring but was released again, only to be picked up by the Redskins prior to the 1997 season.
Pitts, who ran for 1,156 yards on 215 carries during his career with the Nittany Lions, including 118 yards during the 1996 Outback Bowl, never saw game action in the NFL and called it quits several weeks into the 1997 season.
It wasn’t until 1998 that Pitts finally found out what the medical problem was, after his wife, Marisa, insisted he see a doctor about his ongoing condition.
“It turned out to be Graves’ disease, which essentially is a progressed form of hyperthyroidism,” Pitts said. “I also had a heart arrythmia.”
Pitts received radiation treatment to his thyroid to eliminate the effects of its hyperactivity and then had surgery to correct the arrythmia. Roughly six months later, Pitts was back to being his strong, healthy self.
“Essentially, my thyroid was killed off, and then the doctors had to tend to my heart,” he said. “I had a wonderful endocrinologist who did a bang-up job on me, then I had what’s called a TEE (transesophageal echocardiogram) and cardioversion to get my heart beating normally again. I probably should have been dead, but fortunately my body was really strong going into all of that.”
The medical procedures and internal work done within Pitts’ body fascinated him, and Pitts, who earned a communications degree in college, decided he would turn to the medical field for his post-football career.
“All that technical stuff really sparked my interest,” he said. “Given what I had gone through, and how well the doctors did what they did for me, it just drove me toward the medical field. It just seemed like the right place for me.”
After a year’s worth of intensive training with Medtronic, a world leader in medical technologies based in Minneapolis, Pitts went to work for Cardio Rhythm Disease Management, a division of Medtronic which makes catheter-based ablation systems, implantable cardiac resynchronization therapy pacemakers and defibrillators, including Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillators (ICDs).
“In basic terms, I assist with the implantation of pacemakers and cardiac defribillators and spend most of my days in cardiac catheter labs,” said Pitts, who now lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife and two children. “I’m in the business of manipulating people’s heart rhythms.”
What’s especially interesting is how Pitts’ life has come full circle through medical problems. When he was in eighth grade, Pitts got hooked on being a running back after he watched the 1986 Super Bowl, which featured NFL Hall-of-Famer Walter Payton and the Chicago Bears.
“Honestly, I didn’t watch a lot of football growing up,” Pitts said. “But I remember this like it was yesterday. I was in Riverview Medical Center with pneumonia, and I was awestruck by the way Walter Payton ran the ball. That did it for me.”
Nowadays, at 40 and 16 years removed from life as a football player, Pitts looks back with fond memories as he awaits the day he gets to coach his 7-year-old son, who just completed his second season of flag football.
“I mostly miss the smell of the grass and the feel of that first cool, crisp practice in the fall,” he said. “I miss my teammates and coaches, playing under the lights, the adrenaline that comes with playing. I miss most things about the playing the game.”