INDIANAPOLIS -- Like any high-level athlete in pursuit of perfection, Michael Pittman Jr. had overprepared for the task at hand.
In this instance, the undertaking for the Indianapolis Colts wide receiver was not beating an opposing defensive back off the line of scrimmage. It was, rather, delivering an address during a recent meeting of the team’s leadership council.
“I had this speech all prepared,” Pittman said. “I had rehearsed it. I knew every single word of it ...
“But I just couldn't do it.”
This wasn’t a matter of willingness. It was, instead, something beyond his control.
The 25-year-old Pittman has stuttered for as long as he can remember.
Pittman, like many people with a stutter, is unable to control or predict when instances might occur. And this time was no different.
“I just botched it and shortened it up because I was sitting up there, saying ‘Duh, duh, duh,’” Pittman said.
Pittman made it through the speech. He knew what he wanted to say, but he still doesn’t know whether it was conveyed.
“Basically, my message was don't be satisfied,” he said. “That was after we had just won two straight. So, that was my main message that I couldn't really get across.”
Pittman’s willingness to put himself out there, to embrace the challenge of delivering a speech in front of his peers, tells you everything you need to know about how he has handled his stutter.
“He’s never let it stop him from doing anything,” Pittman’s mother, Kristin Randall, said. “He has always gone forward.”
Pittman’s evolution on the field, where he has become the Colts’ No. 1 receiving threat and is seventh in the NFL with 67 receptions and 16th in receiving yards with 678, is accompanied by one off the field. He has refused to let an often-misunderstood speech disability define him, and in the process, has become something of a role model for the roughly three million Americans who stutter.
WHEN PITTMAN FINALLY got up the nerve to ask his teenage girlfriend to go steady, he wrote it down.
“I had just turned 14,” he said. “I just knew I was gonna stutter. So, I took a marker and wrote it to her on a mirror. I didn’t even get to finish before she said yes.”
For Pittman, there was too much at stake.
“I didn’t wanna mess that one up,” he said.
He didn’t. Michael and Kianna have been married for two years now and have an infant daughter, Mila.
Michael no longer worries about stuttering around Kianna, but the genesis of their relationship is an indicator of how extensively a stutter can impact a person’s life.
“A lot of people who stutter will try to avoid certain interactions if they can do it over the phone, in a text or an email,” said Julia Rademacher, a speech pathologist and professor at Indiana University. “A lot of people who stutter will just search out other ways to communicate just to avoid some stuff.”
Interactions can be particularly daunting for children because of a lack of understanding by other kids. Pittman can attest to this. So, too, can his mother, who made it her mission to protect her son whenever possible.
“When I was around, the environment was controlled,” Randall said. “When I wasn't around, there was no control of what was said or what people were saying around him. I always understood what he was saying. I could understand him, but others couldn't. So, myself and my daughter [Jordanne, Michael’s older sister], we would speak for him.
“I was always in the school. I was volunteering, I got him accommodations, I made it so he didn't have to read out loud, so he could read his speech privately to his teacher. I tried to make it so he did not 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 dividends. He learned key strategies to navigate his stuttering, some of which he uses to this day.
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t difficult 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 back then, it was just the pressure of it, everybody looking at you like, ‘He’s weird.’ Nobody wants to go through that.”
Football has defined much of Pittman’s life, so unsurprisingly, it played a role in this part of his story, too. Pittman had always gravitated to the game. His father, Michael Sr., played running back in the NFL for 11 seasons.
An interesting thing happened over the years: The longer the younger Pittman spent around the game and his core group of teammates he’d grown up with, the less his stutter 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 that see you so often that they almost forget about it,” Pittman said.
But there were still nerve-racking moments for Randall. When Pittman started gaining attention as an elite prospect in Southern California, his All-American status attracted interview requests and significant recruiting buzz. He would invariably find himself in situations where he could get stuck and begin to stutter.
“When I hear him speak now in an interview or on TV, I am amazed, because I couldn't even do better than that myself,” Randall said. “He’s a great public speaker now, which I never thought I'd say. That was the one thing that scared me to death when he was in high school, because he started doing interviews, and when there was an interview that was coming, I'd be like, ‘OK, come on, let's talk about this. Tell me what you're gonna say.’ He'd be like, ‘No, I got it.’”
Mother and son would do mock media interviews at home to prepare him for the potential of getting out of situations where his words stopped flowing.
Now, football continues to be a source of confidence for Pittman. As the Colts’ top wideout, he naturally finds himself in a leadership role. It’s a position he has embraced.
“With the type of person and player that he is, the confidence oozes out,” Colts receiver Parris Campbell said. “He’s [lived] with this as long as he can remember. He knows it and he’s aware of it and he’s able to handle it.
“No matter what the challenge is, he’s going to step up because that’s the kind of leader that he is.”
RADEMACHER WAS THRILLED to hear about Pittman’s willingness to open up about his journey. Pittman is an emerging star on pace for his second consecutive 1,000-yard season, and he is a great public face, she said.
“It’s not fully within their control to just slow down or say it again easily or to do all those things that people think should work,” said Rademacher, a local chapter leader for the National Stuttering Association in Bloomington, Indiana. “So, then that kind of starts that pattern of that response of kids who stutter to not talk so much, maybe not contribute so much in class or be willing to participate in things that require talking.
“It’s just, again, that misunderstanding by the public of why does someone stutter and how can you help them?”
Because such a small percentage of the public stutters, those who do can feel isolated.
Pittman has been there. He described the feeling of being stuck midsentence while trying to convey a thought as comparable to paralysis, “Where you can’t move. You’re very conscious, but you just can’t move. You know exactly what you want to say, but you just can’t do it.”
But Pittman’s perspective has propelled him past those isolated feelings. He looks forward to one day sharing his story with Mila. Whatever challenges she is confronted with, her father sees an applicable lesson in his own road through life.
“Hey, not everybody loves every part about themselves,” he plans to tell her, “but you’ve got to learn to love it.”