TAMPA — When it became official, Derrek Pitts Jr. sat in front of his locker and unashamedly cried into his cell phone. The rookie free agent, who had been given little chance to make the team when he signed for a $1,000 bonus, had beaten the odds.
He earned a spot on the Bucs’ 53-man roster as the team prepares for the start of the regular season.
“I sat right here at my locker that morning and called my momma,” Pitts said Thursday. “Just tears of joy and happy tears. No bad tears. All happy tears of joy.
“Finally, I get a breakthrough in life.”
Pitts, 25, and his mom have experienced plenty of tough breaks, so it was understandable he would take the time to share the moment with her.
Before Pitts was 10 years old, both of his parents were in prison. A 2007 indictment lists them among 16 members of the Black Mafia Family charged with cocaine distribution, according to a 2021 story in the Raleigh News & Observer. The drug trafficking and money laundering organization is the subject of a television series on Starz, titled “BMF.”
“My mom and my father were heavily involved in the fast life I guess, if that’s what you want to call it,” Pitts told the News & Observer. “Eventually, you know how the game goes, either death or prison. Thank God they didn’t have to face the death part. They just had to go sit down for a little bit and reassess their life.”
Pitts’ mother, Dionne Beverly-Hairston, returned home when Pitts was 15, his dad, Derrek Pitts Sr., sometime after that.
In the meantime, Pitts moved to West Virginia, where he lived with his grandmother and began his football career. After his grandmother passed away, he stayed with family friends in that state as he became a highly sought-after recruit.
Pitts played two seasons at West Virginia before transferring to Marshall. After two years with the Thundering Herd, he finished his career at North Carolina State. He had a combined 94 tackles, 12 passes defensed and two interceptions in two seasons with the Wolfpack, using his COVID-season eligibility in 2022.
After going undrafted, Pitts signed with the Bucs for a $1,000 bonus. Though he arrived at training camp without any expectations, he quickly made a positive impression on those around him.
“The older guys in the room were complimenting me on certain things that I do on on the field,” Pitts said. “And then ... some of the coaches, they told me good job. So, I just feel comfortable going into the situation.”
Head coach Todd Bowles said Pitts impressed the staff with how hard he worked on special teams.
“Pitts was one of our better special teams players,” Bowles said. “He did a heck of a job with kickoff and as a gunner. When you come down to the end fighting for that last roster spot, you’re going to need a guy that can do that.”
One of six undrafted rookie free agents to make the Bucs’ roster, Pitts is part of the team’s youth movement following the retirement of quarterback Tom Brady. Tampa Bay is younger and less-experienced, with 13 rookies on the roster heading into next week’s opener at Minnesota.
But that’s not why he made the team, Bowles said.
“We don’t distinguish between age,” the coach said. “You know, if you can play, you can play, and we can teach you some football. We’re going to teach you some football, and those guys are learning.”
All Pitts needed was an opportunity. He isn’t afraid to work for it.
“Anything to help this team win,” he said. “That’s the kind of person I am. That’s the kind of environment I was raised up in. You know, I’m a winning person. I like to win. So, the more I win, the happier the team is, and any way I could come in and start to put a foot in the door to help that team do that, then that’s what I’ll do.”
But first, given the long road it took just to get to the beginning of his NFL career, Pitts stepped back to reflect. He spent some time at the beach with his family and thought about what he has accomplished.
“I got back home and everything, and I was just following up with some of my close fellow friends on different teams and they were just letting me know their news, and then that’s when it hit me,” Pitts said. “And that’s when I, you know, started thinking about the situation and the process.
“That’s how it goes. I just felt like the work that I put in was proper work, and I just left everything up to the coaches and people upstairs. And I was happy.”
• • •
Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.