Former Wayne State linebacker Anthony Pittman is an undrafted rookie in camp with the Lions, trying to make an impression with his new team. Matthew Schoch, The Detroit News
Allen Park — Birmingham’s Anthony Pittman is one of the last chances to uphold a Mitten tradition.
Since the Portsmouth Spartans moved to Detroit to become the Lions in 1934, every single season of Lions’ football has featured a player born in Michigan.
On the team’s 90-man roster for minicamp this week, Pittman stands alone as a Great Lakes State native.
“It’s definitely special, but I’m no different than anybody else and I still got to work, still got to put my head on the grind, no matter where I’m from, no matter what the situation is, just grind,” Pittman said Tuesday after the first mandatory team session. “I grew up seeing the facility a lot, so actually coming in and seeing everything was special. I’m grateful to be here. Man, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be here, for real, for real.”
The release and subsequent retirement of Royal Oak’s T.J. Lang created a little extra pressure for Pittman, who could join the like of Morenci-born Tony Scheffler, Detroit’s Ron Rice, Flint’s Chuck Hanneman and many others in Michigan Lions lore.
Pittman, undrafted this year after a two-year captaincy at Wayne State, grew up like many of today’s youngsters, seeing the trianglular roof of the Allen Park practice facility stand above trees and Ford Motor Company facilities while driving by on Interstate-94 of the Southfield Freeway.
“I grew up watching (Matthew) Stafford and Calvin Johnson and watching Joique Bell — you know he came from Wayne State as well — so I look up to those guys,” Pittman said. “So it’s an honor.”
Only offensive lineman Graham Glasgow (Michigan) and quarterback Connor Cook (Michigan State) also played college in the state, as Central Michigan’s Nick Bellore signed with Seattle in the offseason.
To keep the homegrown Michigan tradition alive, Pittman would have to play in the regular season — or the team could acquire a different homegrown player before all is said and done.
A 6-foot-3 linebacker despite being listed at just 224 pounds, the 22-year-old was a two-time all-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and all-academic team selection.
Wayne State coach Paul Winters said he’s worked to increase his weight, but has maintained his exceptional speed, clocked by scouts with a 4.5 40-yard dash while with the Warriors. With added strength, Pittman has a body type that could fit in with the Lions’ wishes for big linebackers.
"The speed is probably the biggest thing," Winters said. "Professional football is a game of speed because of sub packages and throwing the football, so having a linebacker that can run like that, that's a big deal."
Pittman also played special teams throughout for the Warriors, who went 2-9 last season.
“He always did things right, always showed up with a great attitude,” Winters said. “He was enthusiastic.”
In addition to Bell, who played with the Lions from 2012-16, Pro-Football-Reference.com lists 11 other Wayne State players in NFL history, with Tom Beer of Bay Port the next most recent, having played with the Lions from 1994-96.
Also this year for Wayne State, offensive tackle Israel Helms of Orchard Lake St. Mary’s signed with Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent but was later waived and picked up by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. Plus, lineman Tommy Richardson of Troy went through the pre-draft process and hopes to catch on to a pro team
As for Pittman, it’s a long shot for the 2014 Birmingham Groves graduate, with Winters likening the beginning of his pro career to the beginning of his time at Wayne State.
“He wasn’t a highly touted recruit or anything like that,” Winters said. “He came in and we had a number of middle linebackers, and he had to prove himself. So he’s kind of starting like it was five years ago.”
So Pittman is doing what he can: Studying the playbook, becoming familiar with coaches, teammates and staffers, and even winning the occasional practice sprints, like he did a couple times Tuesday at the conclusion of practice.
“I’m just giving 120, just giving my best,” Pittman said. “That’s all I can do.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.