Two of Utah Valley’s top former football players will experience the biggest stage in the sport today as they compete in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
One left high school as a top-ranked quarterback, the other started out his college career as a walk-on.
One wore red in the state’s biggest rivalry, the other donned blue.
But when former BYU star tight end Dennis Pitta and ex-Ute linebacker Paul Kruger take the field for the Baltimore Ravens against the San Francisco 49ers (4:30 p.m., CBS), both will be hoping to bring a World Championship trophy to Baltimore.
“We expect to win,” said Pitta at media day earlier in the week. “I think there’s a lot going on this week and a lot of distractions. The challenge, for both teams, is to try to focus and prepare the best we can so we can win on Sunday.”
Kruger, who played both defensive line and quarterback at Timpanogos before his impressive career at the University of Utah, said at media day that it’s an exciting way to close out a great season.
“It was an honor to be a part of this team for this year especially,” he said. “Now we have one more game to kind of top it off right. It’s one of those things that comes your way only so many times, so I’m just grateful to be a part of it.”
Both Pitta and Kruger have enjoyed strong statistical seasons for the Ravens.
Pitta has tallied 71 receptions for 798 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012-13, numbers which certainly don’t surprise former Cougar teammates Max Hall and Andrew George.
“I’m happy for him and proud of him,” Hall said. “He’s in a great position playing on a great team. He’s really taken advantage of the opportunity he has had there. I think he’s quickly becoming one of the best tight ends in the league.”
George added: “When you look at the year he has had, he deserves this kind of opportunity. He started off not being the featured tight end and has had to work his way into the starting rotation and get more balls. Now he’s big part of what they do in Baltimore.”
Kruger has also come up big for the stout Baltimore defense this year, registering 11.5 sacks, 55 tackles, seven pass breakups, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
“It's fun to watch,” said Timpanogos athletic director Frank Bramall, who coached Kruger during his days as a Timberwolf. “Every time he makes a big play, sometimes it's hard to look back and remember that it's the same kid you coached in high school.”
The former coaches and teammates as well as family members said they are enjoying watching Pitta and Kruger get the chance to compete in the Super Bowl.
Mataya Pitta, Dennis’s wife, said her father-in-law Dennis Pitta Sr. (who played football at Cal in the 1960s) is excited for his son, even though there is still some apprehension due to the violent nature of the game.
“I know he's just so proud,” Mataya said. “First, he is a great dad. I know he worries about Dennis, hoping he'll just do his best and stay healthy.”
George said he was thrilled for Pitta to be able to have the chance to play in the Super Bowl, saying, “I’m super-happy for him to have that opportunity. To have a former teammate and a good close friend be there, that’s awesome.”
Hall, however, admitted his first emotion was a little bit of envy.
"To be completely honest, the first thing that comes to mind is that I'm jealous," he said. "I really am. Not everybody gets to play in a Super Bowl and Dennis gets that opportunity. I know he’ll take advantage of it and do well and make us proud."
Mataya said the couple was a little worried that there might be more jealousy from former teammates but she said they have been pleased with how people have responded.
"It hasn't really been an issue," she said. "When we've talked about some situations, especially leading up to the Super Bowl, we didn't want anyone think we were gloating too much or anything. We're not trying to rub anyone's noses in it.
"It's been great. Everyone's been wishing Dennis the best of luck and we know we have a lot of people rooting for him."
Hall, who is Pitta's brother-in-law, will at least get to be in New Orleans. He said his wife orchestrated the trip so they would be able to watch Pitta play in person.
"We’re excited to go," he said. "It will be a fun time. It’s the Super Bowl, so you have to soak it in and enjoy the experience. At the same time, in between whistles, it’s still football. It’s going to be two good football teams playing against each other. I’m excited to watch good football."
The Kruger family also made the trip to be there for the game, which will take place in the same place where Kruger enjoyed arguably his greatest success to date: Utah's 31-17 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in 2009 that capped an undefeated season for the Utes.
"I remember the city coming in and remember the stadium," Kruger said. " It was one of the biggest games I’ve ever played in and Alabama was a great team.
"It was a special thing for Utah. We went undefeated and beat those guys in the Sugar Bowl. It was a really special memory for me."
For Bramall, Hall and George, seeing a former player or teammate reach the pinnacle of the football world brings back memories of being on the field with them in years past.
"Kruger was a great big strong kid," Bramall said. "We knew he was part of a special group and by the time he was a sophomore, he was starting for us a defensive end."
Even early on in his high school career, Bramall recalled Kruger getting attention for his size and strength.
He told of a time when Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, then the defensive coordinator, came to Timpanogos recruiting and saw Kruger lifting in the weight room.
Whittingham asked who it was and after Bramall told him, the Ute coach said, “I want him,” only to be surprised when Bramall said he was just a sophomore.
The former Timberwolf coach said he thought Kruger had a great future on defense because of his ability to use his arms to get separation from offensive linemen and his sense for finding the ball.
But Kruger was hoping to be the signal-caller making plays on offense.
"I always saw myself as a quarterback and knew that’s what I wanted to play,” he said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.”
Bramall said that passion made Kruger successful as a quarterback at Timpanogos, but his squad still looked to the talented athlete on defense as well.
“We played him sparingly on defense because he was our quarterback but when we got in a situation where we had to have a stop, where we needed pressure, we put him in and he was always in the quarterback's face,” Bramall said. “He was fun to coach because he was so big and strong and dominant.”
It’s a similar experience for Pitta’s former teammates, who recall plenty of good times with the affable tight end.
“He's a good dude all around,” Hall said. “I have never met anyone who has said bad things about Dennis Pitta. There are a lot of people who will say bad things about Max Hall, but I haven't found one person who will say anything bad about Dennis.”
George said that since he played the same position as Pitta, things might’ve gotten competitive between the two. Instead, however, the two became close friends.
“When you are competing for playing time, that could’ve created a rivalry or some bad chemistry but it never did,” George said. “He was a great teammate and he wasn’t selfish in any way. We worked together to get better and I couldn’t have asked for a better teammate.”
George also added that they never took anything too seriously and were always joking and laughing. He recalled a humorous experience when Pitta got a little apprehensive after a run-in with some black ice.
"I had gotten a minor concussion in practice and the trainers had given me some words to remember to see if affected my memory at all," he said. "Dennis remembered that and one night he was out with his wife and some friends, and he slipped trying to cross a street. He fell backwards, hit his head on the cement and completely blacked out.
“When he came to, the first person he wanted to call was me so he could see what the protocol was for checking for a concussion. I gave him three or four words to remember and I remember him just laughing on the phone. I forgot to call him back until like a few hours later but he still remembered the words."
The Raven tight end has worked his way up since his days in Provo, becoming a big part of the Baltimore offense.
"I’ve gotten more opportunities to contribute and I’ve been able to make the most of those opportunities," Pitta said. "That’s what this league is about. When you get an opportunity, you’ve got to be able to capitalize and over the past few years I’ve been able to do that."
Hall said he sees Pitta becoming the same type of player in the pros for Raven quarterback Joe Flacco as he was for Hall when playing as a Cougar.
"He was a reliable go-to guy," the former BYU quarterback said. "When you needed a play, a first down, a catch, you’re on the 5-yard line and needed a catch in the end zone, I’d go to Dennis. He was my guy."
Hall hopes he gets a chance to see his friend before the Ravens take the field for the Super Bowl, but doesn’t plan on giving Pitta any sort of pep talk.
“I might say something sarcastic to him like, 'it must suck to be you right now,'” Hall said. “It will be something lighthearted or crack a joke. I'm sure he'll be nervous but he won't show it. He'll be loose and smiling.”
While Pitta and Kruger are the only Utah County players in the big game, they will be joined by five other athletes with Utah ties. The Ravens also have defensive tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu (Utah), wide receiver David Reed (Utah) and Haloti Ngata (Highland High School), while San Francisco has quarterback Alex Smith (Utah) and Will Tukuafu (East High School).
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or email@example.com. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd. Jason Franchuk also contributed to this story.