INDIANAPOLIS — Like any elite athlete who strives for perfection, Michael Pittman Jr. overprepared for the task at hand.
In this case, the Indianapolis Colts wide receiver’s assignment was not to beat a defensive opponent from the line of scrimmage. Rather, it was speaking at a recent meeting of the team’s leadership council.
“I had prepared this speech all the way through,” Pittman said. “I had practiced it. I knew every word of it…
“But I just couldn’t.”
This was not a matter of willingness. It was instead something he had no control over.
Pittman, 25, has had a stutter for as long as he can remember.
Pittman, like many people with stuttering, is unable to control or predict when cases may occur. And this time it was no different.
“I just messed it up and shortened it because I was up there and said ‘Duh, duh, duh,'” Pittman said.
Pittman came through the speech. He knew what he wanted to say, but he still doesn’t know if it got across.
“Basically, my message was: don’t be satisfied,” he said. “That was after we had just won two in a row. So that was my main message that I couldn’t really get across.”
Pittman’s willingness to put himself out there, to take on the challenge of giving a speech to his colleagues, tells you everything you need to know about how he’s dealt with his stutter.
“He never let it stop him from doing anything,” said Kristin Randall, Pittman’s mother. “He’s always moved forward.”
Pittman’s evolution on the field, where he has become the Colts’ No. 1 receiving threat and ranks seventh in the NFL with 67 receptions and 16th in receiving yards with 678, has been accompanied by an off the field. He has refused to be defined by an oft-misunderstood speech impediment, and in the process has become something of a role model for the roughly three million Americans who stutter.
WHEN PITTMAN FINALLY he had the guts to ask his teenage girlfriend to stay stable, he wrote it down.
“I had just turned 14,” he said. “I just knew I was going to stutter. So I took a marker and wrote the hair on a mirror. I wasn’t even done before she said yes.
For Pittman, too much was at stake.
“I didn’t want to ruin it,” he said.
He didn’t. Michael and Kianna have been married for two years now and have a daughter, Mila.
Michael is no longer concerned about stuttering around Kianna, but the genesis of their relationship is an indicator of how much stuttering can affect one’s life.
“Many people who stutter will try to avoid certain interactions if they can do it over the phone, text, or email,” says Julia Rademacher, a speech pathologist and professor at Indiana University. “Many people who stutter will just look for other ways to communicate to avoid certain things.”
Interactions can be particularly discouraging for children due to a lack of understanding from other children. Pittman can attest to this. So does his mother, who has made it her mission to protect her son whenever possible.
“When I was in the area, the environment was monitored,” Randall said. “If I wasn’t there, there was no control over what was said or what people around him said. I always understood what he said. I could understand him, but others could not. So myself and my daughter [Jordanne, Michael’s older sister]we would speak for him.
“I was always in school. I volunteered, I provided shelter for him, I made sure he didn’t have to read aloud so he could read his speech privately to his teacher. I tried to make it so that he didn’t have to speak in front of others.”
Randall and Jordanne were vociferous defenders. And Randall’s persistence in getting Michael into speech therapy classes paid off. He learned important strategies for navigating his stutter, which he uses to this day.
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t hard times. His mother couldn’t always be there.
“Especially at a young age,” Michael said. “Now, sometimes it bothers me, but I’m cool with it. But then it was just the pressure, everyone looking at you like, ‘He’s weird.’ Nobody wants to experience that.”
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Football has defined much of Pittman’s life, so it’s not surprising that it also played a part in this part of his story. Pittman was always drawn to the game. His father, Michael Sr., played 11 seasons in the NFL.
Over the years, an interesting thing happened: The longer the younger Pittman spent with the game and his core group of teammates he’d grown up with, the less his stuttering seemed to matter.
Pittman’s teammates became like an extension of his family. They understood him and accepted him.
“You develop a team of guys who see you so often they almost forget,” Pittman said.
But there were still nerve-racking moments for Randall. When Pittman began to gain attention as an elite prospect in Southern California, his All-American status drew interview requests and plenty of recruiting buzz. He was always in situations where he could get stuck and started stuttering.
“Now when I hear him speak in an interview or on TV, I’m amazed because I couldn’t even do better myself,” said Randall. “He’s a great public speaker now, which I never thought I’d say. That was the one thing that terrified me when he was in high school, because he started doing interviews, and when an interview came along, I was like, ‘Okay, come on, let’s talk about it. Tell me what you’re going to say.’ He would say, ‘No, I get it.’”
Mother and son did mock media interviews at home to prepare him for the potential to get out of situations where his words stopped flowing.
Now football remains a source of confidence for Pittman. As the Colts’ top wideout, he naturally has a leading role. It’s a position he has embraced.
“With the type of person and player he is, it exudes confidence,” said Colts receiver Parris Campbell. ‘He is [lived] with this for as long as he can remember. He knows and he is aware of it and he can deal with it.
“Whatever the challenge, he’ll step up because that’s the kind of leader he is.”
RADEMACHER WAS EXCITED to hear about Pittman’s willingness to tell about his journey. Pittman is an emerging star on pace for his second straight season in the 1,000 meters, and he’s a great public face, she said.
“It’s not entirely within their power to just slow down or say it again easily or do all those things that people think should work,” said Rademacher, a local chapter leader for the National Stuttering Association in Bloomington. , Indiana. “So that starts that pattern of that response from kids who stutter to not talk as much, maybe not contribute as much in class or be willing to participate in things that require talking.
“It’s just, again, that public misunderstanding about why someone stutters and how you can help them?”
Because such a small percentage of the public stutters, those who do may feel isolated.
Pittman has been there. He described the feeling of being stuck in the middle of a sentence while trying to convey a thought as similar to paralysis: “Where you can’t move.” You are very conscious, but you just can’t move. You know exactly what you want to say, but you just can’t.”
But Pittman’s perspective has driven him beyond those isolated feelings. He looks forward to sharing his story with Mila one day. Whatever challenges she faces, her father sees an applicable lesson in his own path through life.
“Hey, not everyone loves every part of themselves,” he plans to tell her, “but you have to learn to love it.”