OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- If this is the end of Dennis Pitta's career -- and he is reluctant to say that right now -- the lasting image shouldn't be of the Baltimore Ravens tight end getting carted off the field in Cleveland 14 months ago.
It should be Pitta working before every game and after every practice in an effort to return to a team that invested so much in him.
Doctors were concerned from the beginning about Pitta practicing again. His wife even worried about getting a call about another hip injury. Still, he worked so hard to come back a second straight time from major hip surgery that he's the strongest he ever has been, according to Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
It's easy to say Pitta should retire right now based on the risk and quality of life. It's not easy to do so if you're Pitta, which has become clear, based on his determination to get back on the field.
"I'm a football player and that's what I've always wanted to do," said Pitta, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday. "I have a sense of duty to my teammates, the team and to this organization. This organization has given me a lot over the last few years."
The fact Pitta wants to pay back the Ravens is commendable, and many will fixate on how he has played only three games since receiving $16 million guaranteed in a five-year deal in February 2014. This just overshadows Pitta's emotional roller coaster during the past 35 months.
In the 2012 playoffs, Pitta was nearly as valuable to the Ravens as Joe Flacco, Jacoby Jones and Anquan Boldin. He caught 14 passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns and he became one of the NFL's emerging tight ends in the prime of his career.
Then, in one of the first practices of training camp in 2013, he injured his hip after colliding with safety James Ihedigbo on a jump ball in the back of the end zone. He rehabbed for four months so he could play in the final four games of that season.
Just when it looked like Pitta was back to his old form (he had 16 catches in three games), his second hip fracture came in a September 2014 game in Cleveland, where he collapsed to the ground without being hit. Once again, he worked for 14 months in an effort to play in the second half of this season.
"I really want to play," Pitta said. "This is what I feel like I want to do and should do. I’ve wanted all along to do everything I can to be out there and that’s why we’ve gotten to this point. If it wasn’t for my desire to get on the field, I wouldn’t have even been on the practice field for these last few weeks. I’ve kind of pushed back hard against everything that they’ve been saying to try and really get a good indication of where it’s at. It’s been difficult for me obviously accepting the fact that I won’t be out there this season. But it is what it is and I’ll continue to keep working.”
Pitta acknowledged there have been issues, both on and off the field, when the hip hasn't seemed right and felt different from the first surgery. He plans on continuing to rehab the hip and make an assessment with doctors at the end of the season.
Like Pitta said last month, it's hard to envision him playing again if he couldn't come back this year. He said he hasn't had the conversation with doctors whether more time will help the hip.
At this point, it looks inevitable that he will have to call it quits. Pitta just isn't going to do so without a fight.
"Certainly, that’s not how I want to end my career," he said. "I think no player wants to play their last play getting carted off the field. I’ll continue to work and hopefully that won’t be the end of the story.”