Faulkner County: Elijah Pitts

He was one of the most respected, most popular stars on one of the most successful, most celebrated star-studded teams in the history of the National Football League (NFL). Few professional performers have brought greater luster to the county of their birth than Elijah Pitts, who emerged from the segregated soils of Faulkner County to enshrinement in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.

Elijah was born in the small, neighborly community of Palarm on Feb. 3, 1938. He was one of two sons and three children of hard-working Samuel and Gertha Pitts. He completed his public education in adjoining Conway, at the county’s only all-Black school. At Pine Street, spectacular high school football performances combined with commendable classroom grades to brighten his future possibilities,

Numerous scholarship offers from institutions of higher education across the land reached his mailbox, including three from universities in the football powerful Big Ten Conference. Nonetheless, he opted to join his brother at nearby Philander Smith College and to compete against small colleges, many of them historically African American. But again his football performances were so eye-catching that a film capturing his brilliance against what is today the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff landed him offers in 1961 from teams in both professional leagues, the fledgling American Football League and the established NFL. 

Elijah yielded to the preference voiced by Ruth Bellinger, his college sweetheart, later his wife: he signed with the Packers, their 13th-round pick, the 180th overall. He also honored a promise he had made to Ruth, and in the spring of 1962, returned to Smith to complete his baccalaureate. By that time, he wore a ring that only 1961 champions of the NFL claimed. Before year’s end, it, too, had a mate.

The price for the two, Elijah happily paid. He was what one source termed “the prototype [Coach Vince] Lombardi player: smart, versatile, durable.” The iconic coach honored him with an unprecedented designation. He carried the football, passed, caught passes, was a ferocious blocker, and returned punts and kick-offs. He was such a punishing tackler that Lombardi made him captain of all the special teams.

As such, Elijah contributed uniquely to a dynasty that dominated the NFL during the whole of the decade, with few equals in the annals of professional football.

One observer concluded that a quartet of players were at the heart of Green Bay’s uncanny success, three en route to the NFL Hall of fame, quarterback Bart Starr and running backs Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. The fourth? Elijah, who excelled at more positions, offensive as well as defensive, than any other man on the squad.

Faulkner County’s Elijah Pitts appeared in a total of 126 games for the Green Bay Packers. (501 LIFE would like to thank the Pine Street CommUnity Museum for providing the illustration for this feature.)

Elijah appeared in a total of 126 games for the Packers, his final 6 in 1971, after a season split between two other NFL franchises. Although starting just 19 Packer games in his career, he tallied 35 touchdowns, plus 3 in post-season play-offs, while accounting for a sparkling 3, 773 total yards.

His muscular 200-pound body aching from years of bruising play, Elijah left the gridiron in 1972.The following two years found him excelling as a college talent scout for the Packers. Subsequently, to no one’s surprise, the 37-year-old embarked on a more than two-decade career as a coach that proved as successful as his seasons on the gridiron. In both Canadian and American professional football, he combined what his playing had taught him with Vince-Lombardi-like strategies to earn him a reputation as a football wizard and a masterful handler of men of all races and persuasions.

Longtime NFL Head Coach Marv Levy, who guided four Buffalo teams to the Super Bowl, was the most public of the numerous football luminaries convinced that Elijah possessed credentials ideal for an NFL head coaching position.

But no such position came to him. Honors did, however: in 1979, induction into the Packers Hall of Fame; in 1980, entry into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame; in 1997, an award celebrating his years-long support of the United Negro College Fund.

Midway through the following fall’s NFL season, Elijah was diagnosed with stomach cancer. It could not be halted, and on July 10, 1998, he died. Two years later, the Conway Athletic Awards Commission acted to keep alive the memory of its revered native son by establishing the Elijah Pitts Award, to go annually to a noteworthy contributor to area athletics.

Faulkner County and the 501 are proud that a superior athlete labeled “a great gentleman” with “a sweet disposition” called them home.

Bob Reising