Pittman overcomes setbacks to become key for 'Horns
Posted: Monday January 2, 2006 12:03AM; Updated: Monday January 2, 2006 3:58AM
Billy Pittman is the Longhorns' leading receiver, with 697 yards and averaging 23.2 yards a catch.
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LOS ANGELES -- It started with a simple twitch. Billy Pittman woke up one spring morning two years ago to find his eye was twitching, and it wouldn't stop. Eye drops, a splash of water to the face -- no help. He went back to bed that afternoon, woke up, and now noticed his nostril wasn't moving. By the next morning, he couldn't feel the left side of his face.
Bell's Palsy, the doctor told him. A rare condition (it affects an estimated 40,000 Americans a year) that causes the facial muscles to become weakened or paralyzed for an indeterminate amount of time. Here he was, a freshman receiver at Texas, already dealing with the challenges of learning a new position (he had played quarterback in high school) and competing with oodles of other slick, speedy underclassmen vying for precious playing time the following season. It's hard enough by itself, let alone having to worry about when you're going to able to feel your face again. And sympathy was hard to come by.
"I had a [voice-training] class where I had to speak a lot," he said. "I e-mailed the teacher and told him, 'I've got Bell's Palsy, I can't speak.' He called me in and said, 'Well, you're talking to me.'
"I was like, 'Look at my face." said Pittman, curling up the left side of his lip to replicate his appearance at the time. "Some of my teammates were in the class, too, and they were getting on me."
The condition cleared up after about a month ("The first day I was able to move my nostril had to be the happiest day of my life," said Pittman), but the setbacks did not. Having already sat out his first season with a pair of torn quad muscles in each leg, the revitalized speedster from Cameron, Texas, headed into the 2004 preseason camp raring to fill one of the vacant receiver spots left by departed stars Roy Williams, B.J. Johnson and Sloan Thomas.But he suffered a separated shoulder in the 'Horns' "fan appreciation" scrimmage and that left him down for the count again. It would be another lost season, during which he would be so far from Texas' plans that he stopped suiting up for games. "That poor young man had everything that could possibly happen happen," said 'Horns coach Mack Brown. "He was ready to quit."
Imagine Brown's surprise, then, when quarterback Vince Young strolled into his coach's office last summer and told him, "You're going to be surprised by Billy P." So, too, would 'Horns fans, opponents and the rest of the college football world.
Wednesday night at the Rose Bowl, Billy Pittman -- the same guy who couldn't even get on the field his first two seasons -- will line up in the national championship game against USC as Texas' top receiver. His 697 receiving yards -- a staggering 23.2 per catch -- lead the team and include some of the biggest plays of the 'Horns' 12-0 regular season. He's far exceeded even his own expectations, which, entering the '05 campaign, consisted of, "just wanting to be part of the team -- get in some plays, make a few blocks."
The coming-out party began Sept. 10 in Texas' much-anticipated showdown with Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, when Pittman scored the 'Horns' first touchdown, turned a third-quarter crossing pass into a 63-yard gain and finished with five catches for 130 yards. In the Red River Shootout against Oklahoma, his 64-yard touchdown just before the half sent Texas on its way to 45-12 rout. And his 75-yard dart just after halftime against then 10th-ranked Texas Tech dashed any hopes of a Red Raiders comeback in what would wind up a 52-17 blowout.
After Texas' Rose Bowl-clinching 70-3 victory over Colorado in the Big 12 championship game, Pittman, though he a didn't catch a single pass in the contest, could be seen at the center of the postgame locker room celebration, dancing and jumping on teammates' backs. "It's been a fun ride, going from not playing at all last year to this," said the receiver. "I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."
Pittman is one of several largely unheralded UT receivers, along with the Roy Williams-esque Limas Sweed and ex-baseball prospect Quan Cosby, whose ascendance from obscurity this season has taken Texas' offense to another stratosphere. A year ago, the 'Horns were almost entirely dependent on their running game, be it from Young or star tailback Cedric Benson. No 'Horns' receiver had even 400 yards. "Before spring practice even started," said Pittman, "Vince told [the receivers] that we needed to make some plays for us to win a national championship."
Under the hot sun of a Texas summer, Young and the receivers honed their chemistry during "voluntary" seven-on-seven drills. While Sweed's progress was somewhat expected (he would the catch the famous game-winning touchdown against Ohio State), another prospect continually impressed the Heisman candidate-to-be.
Said Young: "Every day I used to go in and have a little meeting with [offensive coordinator Greg Davis], and I'd say, 'Man, Billy -- he's looking nice out there, Coach. We have to get this guy involved as often as we can.' The first day of camp, Billy was out there tearing our defense up, and I was like, 'Coach, I told you.'"
Steady tight end David Thomas remains Young's go-to guy on the underneath stuff, or when he's in a tight spot (the senior leads the team with 40 receptions), but Pittman is unquestionably the big-play guy. He doesn't do anything fancy, but he can turn on the burners and leave a cornerback in the dust.
Pittman hasn't received the notoriety of his Trojans counterparts Dwayne Jarrett or Steve Smith, but that's not likely to bother a guy who once wondered whether he'd ever catch a collegiate pass. Or move his nostril.
"I know this lady in my hometown who has [Bell's Palsy] -- she just has it," said Pittman. "I'm fortunate it went away."