INDIANAPOLIS -- High school freshman Michael Pittman Jr. was in denial.
He didn't want to listen to his father, even though the elder knew a lot more about football than his son.
The conversation took place after a game at Valencia (California) High School when Pittman Jr. didn't get a lot of carries out of the backfield.
"After the game [I told] him, 'Son, you're not going to be a running back in the future. You're just not going to be,'" Michael Pittman Sr. recalls saying. "He got pretty pissed off at me. He felt like I didn't believe in his ability. It wasn't that. I just saw the future before he could."
Those words were a crushing blow, not what the teenager expected to come out of his father's mouth. A running back is all Pittman Jr. -- who was the 34th overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft for the Indianapolis Colts -- wanted to be since his mother put him in Pop Warner at age 6. He wore No. 32 like his father. He believed he would carry on his father's name by following in his footsteps to the NFL.
But Pittman's father saw his son growing too tall to play running back. The elder Pittman was 6-foot and 225 pounds in his 11-year NFL career.
The younger Pittman was 6-4 by the time he enrolled at USC.
"He told me one day I'd be one of the best college receivers in the nation," Pittman Jr. said.
He was right. Pittman Jr. in 2019 was a finalist for the Fred Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the top receiver in college, after finishing with 101 catches for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was one of only four receivers in the FBS to have at least 100 receptions last season.
"I think in any other year, he's a first-round pick," USC coach Clay Helton said. "Because of the strength of the receiver class, you get a first-round talent early in the second round. I've had great fortune to be around some really good receivers during my 11 years here at USC. Mike falls right in line with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor. His mindset of being a blue-collar worker and doing the dirty work as a receiver was invaluable to our football team."
So Pops knew what he was talking about, huh?
"He constantly reminds me of it," Pittman Jr. said laughing. "He'll bring it up an
y time we're talking about old stories. But it's really from his playing experience. It really didn't become a big deal until I was in high school, and then it really hit me that my dad played 11 years as an NFL running back, which is almost unheard of."
Pittman Sr. was a fourth-round pick by the Arizona Cardinals in 1998. He rushed for 5,627 yards and 25 touchdowns during his 11-year career that also featured stops in Tampa and Denver. He won a Super Bowl with the Bucs -- rushing for 124 yards in the victory over the Raiders -- and played on teams that featured some of the best coaches and future coaches in the NFL, such as Jon Gruden, Sean McVay and Mike and Kyle Shanahan.
Pittman Sr. was forthright to his son about what it takes to make it to the NFL -- and his younger son Mycah, a freshman receiver at Oregon. Pittman Sr. would take his sons to the park where he would play cornerback against them while working out. His message often was, "If you can get off my press coverage at the line of scrimmage, you can get off anybody's press coverage in high school."
"I was very hard on my boys," Pittman Sr. said. "I never tore them down or belittled them, but I told him if their goal is to play in the NFL, they have to be the best. Not one or two games -- every game. So when he and his brother didn't perform the way they needed to, I didn't tear them down but gave them the constructive criticism they needed, and I told them the things they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. That transitioned them into becoming top athletes in high school."
Pittman Jr. had an eye-opening experience when he arrived at USC. He had only six catches for 82 yards and no touchdowns as a freshman in 2016 while playing behind Smith-Schuster, now a star with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittman got more snaps his sophomore season, but it didn't come without his father getting involved.
Pittman Sr. went to Twitter to voice his displeasure over his son's lack of playing time following an embarrassing 49-14 loss to Notre Dame in October 2017. His son was playing special teams, but not much receiver.
"I'm not asking for anybody to be fired. I'm just asking for them to give my kid the same opportunity. Me and his mother's patience have ran out," Pittman Sr. wrote in one tweet.
"Just in case somebody over there at #USC forgot what they had in my son," he wrote in another tweet.
"I handled it the best way that I possibly could, but I felt like in the beginning I didn't feel like they were utilizing Michael's talent to the fullest," Pittman Sr. said. "I've been around football for a long time and when you see something that's not working -- and I'm not here to talk about anybody else's job -- I support everybody on USC. USC was getting beat really bad and they're rotating in every receiver, but not Michael Jr.
"I was watching on TV and wondering why they weren't using his ability. It boiled over with the frustration. I knew if they used him, he would have performed. I didn't ask anybody to get fired or anything. I have respect for them. There's no way I would go to the NFL and do that now."
Plenty of fish
Pittman Jr.'s numbers improved to 41 receptions for 758 yards and six touchdowns during his junior season.
It was just a start, Helton said.
"He asked me what he had to do better for senior year and I told him he was 6-4, 220 pounds -- anytime we have a one-on-one matchup, the ball was going up to him and he had to make a play," Helton said. "You have to live with the thought in your mind. If you ask him, if we say, 'We touch it,' he'll follow with, 'We catch it.' He worked tirelessly on the deep ball and rising up and getting it. He worked pre-practice and post-practice, creating one-on-one situations and going up and having natural-catch ability. Playing up by the rim."
Pittman Jr. brought a 50-gallon fish tank into the receiver's room last season, and they added fish every time they got the upper hand on defensive backs, including the ones on their own team in practice.
Pittman Jr. added plenty of fish to that tank. He had four games of at least 146 yards receiving, including a 10-catch, 232-yard performance against Utah last season.
But you won't see him enjoying it too much, at least not outwardly.
"I learned that from Kobe Bryant," Pittman Jr. said. "He is my absolute idol and you never saw Kobe sink a 3 and go crazy like it's something special. That's what he expected. So I expect to catch the ball. So I don't celebrate things I should do.
"Now if I score a touchdown and I run somebody over, I might flex then. But if I'm making routine catches or plays, I don't feel like I have to get up and act a fool. That's how I am. I like to stay calm and composed."
Pittman Jr.'s "every little thing counts" mindset will fit in with the Colts. He could have spent his senior season strictly focusing on trying to be the best receiver in college football.
Instead, he played on four special-teams units.
"I never liked the guys who felt like they were too good to play on special teams," he said. "Especially when it's something that can help your team. I felt like I was very good on special teams; I wanted to give my team the best chance with me being out on punt return, kickoff, kickoff return or even like field goal block. Whether I'm making plays on offense or making plays on special teams, I just want to help win. That's something I learned from my dad."
The same way he learned that being a receiver was his best route to the NFL.