Arkansas has produced many great athletes through the years. One of those was Faulkner County native Elijah Pitts. As a member of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, he was part of one of the most successful teams in the history of the National Football League.
Elijah Eugene Pitts was born near Mayflower in Faulkner County in 1938, the youngest of two sons. His parents were sharecroppers. As a youth, he had to attend segregated schools, the nearest being in nearby Conway. His gifts as an athlete were apparent at an early age. He was also a talented musician who played in the high school marching band. He often retold in interviews how he often had to quickly change from his football uniform into a band uniform so he could play in the halftime shows.
Pitts received many offers for scholarships for college teams and instead chose to attend Philander Smith College in Little Rock with his brother. The football program at the college had limited resources and played only smaller schools, mostly other historically African-American colleges. However, his talents shone brightly and caught the interest of the NFL.
In 1961, the Green Bay Packers drafted Pitts. The new Boston Patriots, part of the rival American Football League, offered Pitts more money, but Pitts chose the prestige of the Packers and legendary coach Vince Lombardi. His first season turned out to be one of the best for the Packers in years, winning the 1961 NFL Championship. The Packers victory was the first NFL Championship win since 1944.
Though he was part of a championship team, Pitts was determined to complete his education. After the 1962 season ended, he returned to Philander Smith College and completed his degree in education. He married his college sweetheart, and the couple had three children.
For most of his time with the team, he played halfback. He helped the team in key situations that made the difference between victory and defeat. In Super Bowl I in January 1967, the first combined championship game between NFL and AFL teams, Pitts scored two touchdowns to lead the Packers to victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. The Packers won again in Super Bowl II in January 1968. In all, the Packers won five championship games during the 1960s.
Pitts spent nine years in his first stint with the Packers. After Lombardi retired as his health declined, the new Packers coaching staff made several changes. Pitts ended up with the New Orleans Saints for the start of the 1970 season. He played six games for the struggling new team. He was traded to the Los Angeles Rams for the remainder of the season. After a lackluster year, Pitts found his way back to the Packers for the 1971 season, which became his last as a player.
At the age of 33, he was worn out as a player; but he still had many years ahead. The Packers decided to use his talents in a new way, now as a talent scout for the team. For the next two years, Pitts criss-crossed the country carefully evaluating new talent developing at schools across the nation. In 1974, he returned to the Rams as an assistant coach. In 1979, the Packers named him to their Hall of Fame. It was a great honor as one of the oldest and most storied teams in professional football considered him to be one of their all-time best.
He spent three years in Los Angeles before becoming an assistant coach for the Buffalo Bills in 1978. Pitts noted that for all the years he played for Lombardi, the coach could always motivate and intimidate him. As a coach, Pitts tried to incorporate as many of the lessons he had learned under Lombardi. He was widely respected among the players and throughout the league for his coaching skills and professionalism. After 1980, he left the Bills and coached several other teams before returning to Buffalo in 1985.
The 1990s were some of the best years the Bills ever had. Pitts was given credit as an assistant coach for helping the Bills win four straight conference championships, which led to four straight Super Bowl appearances, from 1991 to 1994. However, the team lost all four games.
He did not have the opportunity of years to enjoy his many triumphs as a coach or an athlete. He died of cancer in July 1998, just barely 60 years old. After his passing, Faulkner County athletes wanted to a way to memorialize their beloved native son. As a result, in 2000, the Conway Athletic Award Commission established the Elijah Pitts Award in his memory to honor an individual who had contributed to athletics in the Conway area and is still awarded annually. Pitts showed that good sportsmanship is always a winner on and off the field.