Black Pioneers: Elijah Eugene Pitts

Elijah Eugene Pitts, a football player who starred for the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl, was born on this day in 1938. He was one of the early Black stars of the National Football League from the segregated South and had a long career as a player and professional coach, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Pitts was one of two sons of Samuel and Gertha Pitts, who were sharecroppers on land near Mayflower, Ark. Since there was no nearby school for African Americans, he attended the Pine Street School in Conway, which Black children from Conway and surrounding communities attended before the schools were integrated in 1968.

Pitts was the star halfback for his high school team and at halftime he removed his pads, put on a dry T-shirt and played trombone or tuba during the band’s halftime show. The small school played teams like those from Stamps and Prescott instead of the larger African-American schools, but Pitts nevertheless received scholarship offers from Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan State and other schools outside Arkansas that allowed African Americans to play. 

He chose instead to enroll at Philander Smith College in Little Rock following in the footsteps of his brother, Sam. At Philander Smith, he met Ruth Bellinger and they married in 1962 when he came back to the college to complete his Bachelor of Science degree in education following his first season as a professional. They had two sons and one daughter.

Philander Smith also played only small Black schools, but Pitts’s reputation spread. The Green Bay Packers obtained a film of a game from Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in which Pitts ran and caught a number of long passes. The Packers drafted him as the 180th pick in the professional draft in 1961. The Boston Patriots of the fledgling American Football League offered him $2,000 more than the Packers, but his wife urged him to try out for the Packers, widely viewed at the time as the greatest team in football. He joined the Packers that fall under legendary coach Vince Lombardi. Philander Smith ended its football program three years later.

His greatest moments came in the first Super Bowl on January 15, 1967. He scored two touchdowns in the second half as the champions of the NFL defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, who were the American Football League champions, 35–10. As a tribute to his play, the cover of the Packers’ 1967 guidebook carried a picture of Pitts running behind the blocking of All-Pro guard Fuzzy Thurston. The cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock declared Elijah Pitts Day and held a parade in his honor.

Pitts later played briefly for the Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints before beginning a coaching career. He was an assistant coach for several American and Canadian teams, but, for most of his career, he was an assistant head coach for the Buffalo Bills. He coached the team in four Super Bowls. He briefly served as the head coach when Coach Marv Levy fell ill.

Pitts was inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in 1979 and into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame the following year. Pitts and his wife were honored in 1997 for their longtime support of Black colleges at the annual dinner of the United Negro College Fund.

Pitts died on July 10, 1998 in Buffalo, N.Y. of cancer. In 2017, he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Panthers Hall of Fame at Philander Smith College.