Pitre's perspective helps teammates

His mom's life was slipping away after a six-year battle with cancer. His disconsolate dad was out of work. His football season had been wrecked by a career-threatening neck injury.

It would be fair to say there was a lot on Michael Pitre's mind during his senior year of high school. Not that he had much time for introspection, considering that he worked 25 to 30 hours a week to help pay the bills at home.

He had experienced the jagged edges of life for much of his adolescence while his peers primarily fretted over finding the right pair of jeans for the weekend.

He wasn't depressed any more than would be expected or angry with fate or convinced that everything was meaningless. But he was finding it difficult to retain his passion for football, which he had been playing since he was 7.

"I was so worried about things," he said. "The importance of football to me, I kind of lost it. There was a lot going on, and I needed to help out."

Pitre knocks people over. That's what fullbacks do, and the 5-foot-11, 230-pound redshirt freshman already is one of the best in the Pac-10, lead blocking for a UCLA rushing attack that ranks 18th in the country with 207.6 yards per game.

He loves football these days, and he loves playing fullback -- "It's fun," he said. "You get to beat the crap out of somebody." But all he has to do is look at the tattoo on his right shoulder to remember that life can knock even the toughest guy on his rear end.

His tattoo is his mother's face. It reads, "In loving memory, 9-26-58 to 3-27-03."

Things were going pretty well for Pitre until his sister started picking him up from school in sixth grade. That always had been his mom's job. He knew something was wrong.

His parents sat him down and told him that his mother, Allison, had a rare form of thyroid cancer. She would be going through chemotherapy, and she wanted him to be comfortable with her hair loss.

"I knew the seriousness of that," he said, "but being just a kid ... I was in a weird place."

That started a six-year emotional roller coaster for his family, which includes three sisters. His mother would have good days and bad days, and the family would correspond with days of optimism and days of terrible sadness.

Pitre was preparing for his junior high graduation trip when his mother needed emergency surgery. He wanted to stay with her. She told him to go with his friends. The surgery lasted 12 hours. She was not expected to live. She did.

"That was the process over and over again," he said. "At one point, they thought they had removed all the cancer, but it never really left her body."

She drove Pitre to school during his freshman and much of his sophomore years. Then the cancer spread to her brain and the rest of her body. She was confined to a wheelchair. Sometimes she'd sleep for 16 hours. She started having seizures. He and his girlfriend would watch television with her to keep her company and call it a date.

Pitre had no illusions about the endgame. He knew his mother was dying. And he had to watch it slowly happen, never really knowing when it would end, only that it would before he was ready.

"As I got older, I was a little smarter," he said. "They didn't have to talk me through it. I could tell."

After losing a playoff game his junior year at El Modena High School in Orange, Calif., he looked up at the stands, and his mother wasn't there. She always came to his games.

It was like a whip: the familiar but always heartrending snap of recognition. She'd had another setback.

When his senior year ended after six games because of a neck injury, he started to wonder if he wanted to continue playing football.

"I lost my drive," he said.

Then-UCLA coach Bob Toledo saw drive. He saw Pitre driving defenders 10 yards down field like they were on skates before they ended up hazily staring at the night sky. Toledo offered a scholarship after watching one game film.

Then Toledo got fired. Pitre committed the same day, figuring it would be the best way to make sure a scholarship would be available when the new staff took over. And playing for the Bruins was the only way he could stay close to his mother and the rest of his family.

New coach Karl Dorrell called a few days after he was hired. He wanted Pitre.

Seven weeks after Pitre signed with the Bruins, his mother died.

His transition to college football wasn't easy. He had a lot on his mind, and he was worried about his neck. A friend from high school was murdered. It was hard to focus.

He redshirted, sitting out full-contact work, and contemplated quitting. Dorrell and running backs coach Eric Bieniemy told him they would support him whatever his decision.

He ballooned to 258 pounds before he decided that he needed to get into shape and that he wanted to play again. That meant starting spring practices at No. 5 on the depth chart.

"(Coach Dorrell) told me later that he didn't think I'd make it back mentally or physically," Pitre said.

At the end of spring practices, he was No. 2. By the season opener against Oklahoma State, he was the starter. Though he doesn't carry the ball much -- OK, he's carried it once -- he's caught nine passes for 124 yards with a touchdown. He's also become quite adept at knocking people over.

But Pitre has something his teammates respect even more than a few highlight-reel pancakes: life experience.

When sophomore tailback Maurice Drew's high school teammate and Oregon recruit Terrance Kelly was murdered, Pitre provided some perspective. He'd already walked that dark road.

"I can help guys deal with situations a little bit better," he said.

When his football career is over, he wants to be a coach.

Before every game, he says two prayers, one in the locker room and one on the field. He believes that everything happens for a reason, even if he's not exactly sure what those reasons might be just yet.

"I'm thankful every day I wake up being a part of something special with these guys on this football team," he said. "And I'm thankful for my family and friends."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.