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Faith, Family, Football: A Mother’s Pleasure in Helping Pitt LB SirVocea Dennis to His Dream



It’s thankless work more often than not. It’s long hours, no pay, and in the eyes of many, you’re just expected to do it. No excuses. But if you actually ask a mother, it’s usually their most rewarding work. If you ask Corliss Dennis, while it may not always be exciting, it’s her life’s work.

She’s happy to be a mother. Her private Twitter account — with 26 followers — is a virtual scrapbook. You’ll find prayers, words to live by, and maybe most of all, posts about her son SirVocea. But that’s just because SirVocea is one of the newest Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

If you scroll, you’ll find her husband SirVantis, and her children SirVantis Jr. (Sir) and Aisha, too. The important things in life. Faith. Family. Football.

Corliss and SirVantis are the incredibly proud parents of three young adults. They’re also U.S. Army veterans who met while in the service together, and after SirVantis was shot and injured while serving in Iraq, the young couple decided to relocate to Corliss’ hometown of Syracuse, New York — near one of the best Veterans hospitals in the US.

The military has played a major role in the lives of both Corliss and SirVantis’ lives, of course, but also the lives of Sir, SirVocea and Aisha. If there was ever any lesson that Corliss wanted to pass on to her children, it was to work hard, persevere and never, ever give up.

Which only made SirVocea’s graduation Sunday that much more emotional. As he walked across the stage, earning his degree in Law, Criminal Justice and Society, he was beaming. He was happy. But he was also retrospective.

He stopped Corliss and thanked his mother for not being one of those parents who harassed the Pitt coaches when things weren’t going his way. She, admittedly, was confused. What do you mean? What does that have to do with graduation?

“He said, ‘Once I committed, you let me grow up and be a man, and I was able to make my mistakes and grow and learn,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I am so happy that that’s what you took away from your experience. You grew up.’ So, I just wanted to tell the Pitt coaches how much our family really appreciated the experience and just thank you from my aspect as a parent today, genuinely say thank you to Pitt.”

Pitt helped SirVocea grow into the man — and the football player — that he is today, but it would not have been possible without his mother in his corner every step of the way.

Photo courtesy of Corliss Dennis.

“Ew, why are you going to Pitt?” Sir scoffed, clearly unimpressed by his little brother’s choice. “I’m going to Florida. I’m going to be a Gator.”

“Really? They suck,” SirVocea fired back immediately, undeterred. “I’m going to Pitt.”

It’s been 15 years, and Corliss still doesn’t know how SirVocea came to such a decision. But she knows he meant it. He was just a boy, but he told anyone who would listen that he wasn’t going to Syracuse, he was going to Pitt. Corliss herself didn’t know the first thing about Pittsburgh back then. “I just knew Pittsburgh had bridges, and I was trying my damnest to not go to Pittsburgh,” Corliss said. 

Wait, what? Bridges? Well, it’s important to note that Corliss hates bridges. So, while there may have been a bridge or two making the drive out to Temple or Villanova or Northwestern, it would’ve been impossible to avoid bridges in the City of Bridges. But SirVocea adamant. He was going to Pitt, and it got serious as he finished his sophomore year at Christian Brothers Academy.

“Pitt, really? Why? You know, your mom is afraid of bridges,” Corliss reminded him. “How am I gonna get there to see you?”

“Mom, you can do it,” He reiterated, years after first telling Sir. “I wanna go to Pitt.”

What was Corliss going to say? No? How could she? So, she took a deep breath and said: let’s do it. And in the summer before SirVocea’s junior year, they drove out to Pittsburgh for a camp. No offer. SirVocea wasn’t deterred; he had a plan for the camp before his senior year. He bought a pair of shiny, gold cleats, the kind that the Pitt coaches wouldn’t be able to miss.

So, Corliss once again drove SirVocea down to Pittsburgh for a camp, and sure enough, a pair of shiny, gold cleats wound up trending on social media.

“Mom, mom, mom, mom!” SirVocea called out, running into the kitchen to show Corliss his phone when he noticed. “Look! It’s on social media, my cleats!” Except it wasn’t SirVocea wearing the cleats. It was another camper wearing the same exact cleats. He was crushed, devastated. His plan worked… for another camper. It wasn’t a problem though. It was just a bump in the road.

But after he returned the summer before his prep year at the Peddie School, Corliss and SirVocea making the third year in a row, he still didn’t receive an offer.

“Mom,” he said, finally showing doubt. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m not going to Pitt.”

“No, no, you’re going, you’re going,” Corliss was quick to say. “No, you’re going. You’re going to Pitt. Don’t worry about it.”

Photo courtesy of Corliss Dennis.

Dartmouth wanted SirVocea. But not until he spent a year at a prep school, put on some weight and started to play on the defensive side of the ball. And because Dartmouth head coach Buddy Teevens’ cousin was the head coach at the Peddie School, an opportunity arose. If he did what he needed to do and spent a prep year at Peddie, Dartmouth would snatch him up.

It wasn’t Pitt, but it was an opportunity. So, SirVocea said okay. The Peddie School it was. And while the Peddie coaches wanted him to play quarterback, he said he’d only do it as the backup — sparingly-used. He wasn’t there to be a quarterback. He wanted to play defense, and after playing a bit of safety at CBA, that appeared to be a logical progression, but it wouldn’t be the case.

Peddie saw a linebacker. A linebacker? Really? Okay. That was new, but it wasn’t that far off from safety. Alright. Let’s do it.

So, with that figured out, Corliss drove SirVocea the five hours to the Peddie School.

“Okay,” she told SirVocea as they unloaded the car together. “I’ll see you when I see you, brother. You’re on your own. No one’s gonna be here to cook for you, clean for you, wash your clothes. This is gonna be your test.”

“Mom, I’m still going to Pittsburgh,” he reminded her — and himself. “This is just a pit stop. I’m just coming here to learn how to be a linebacker.”

It was certainly a learning experience. Peddie, unlike his prior experiences, was different. Peddie, for those unfamiliar, is a boarding school that focuses on developing its students into proud young men and women. It was certainly unlike the largely family-focused upbringing SirVocea had experienced. From around family at all times to all on your own. It was weird for a then-shy, introverted young man, and it wasn’t easy. The Peddie coaches saw an aggressive, hard-hitting player on the field, but they didn’t see the reserved, relaxed kid off the field.

“Mom, I don’t like it here,” he confessed to Corliss a few weeks after arriving. “But I understand I gotta stay here just to get to Pitt.”

“Okay, well, I’ll see you in a week,” Corliss reassured him.

“No. You can’t come until the first game.”

“What? Why?”

“We have a curfew. They’re teaching us how to be independent. They’re teaching us how to be men.”

“You’re really serious about this. Okay. Well … we’ll see you at the first game.”

Corliss was surprised that when she did come out for SirVocea’s first game he wasn’t wearing his usual 17. He was wearing 8. He was smiling. Corliss could tell he was happy. “You look good,” she told him, unable to do anything but smile herself, seeing that he was wearing both his and her favorite number. However, as the game started, she didn’t see him. She thought he’d be the quarterback. “Where’s Voss? Where’s Voss?” she asked, looking around. She didn’t see that No. 8 until the defense trotted out onto the field. It was a surprise to see SirVocea as a linebacker.

“But he was killing them,” Corliss said. “He’s getting pick sixes, he’s putting people on their butts, he’s killing them. I’m like, ‘Oh, this is different.’ I’ve been running around screaming don’t hit my son! This is different. It’s more, oh, I like this.”

And SirVocea certainly made an impact in the lone season he spent starring at Peddie.

“Let me start by talking about Voss off the field,” Peddie School defensive coordinator Mike Tedeschi said. “He’s just a special young man. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with him as a person. I’ve been coaching for quite some time and he is one of those special kids that you get to coach once in a while in your career. His dedication to the team on and off the field is just unparalleled. He is a fantastic young man. We were lucky enough to get him as a post-graduate. I think he was vastly under-recruited in my opinion.”

But despite his rapid success at linebacker, growing into an irreplaceable piece in Peddie’s defense, it resulted in just a couple of new offers. The Ivy League schools were interested, and there was no question that he’d be able to handle the rigors of such challenging academic institutions, but SirVocea’s mindset changed when he received an opportunity from a service academy. Air Force came to visit the Dennis house in Syracuse, Corliss cooked and the coaching staff offered to fly them out to Colorado.

It wasn’t Pitt. But it was an opportunity to follow in his parents’ footsteps.

“Is this what you wanna do?” Corliss asked him after the in-home visit.

“Well, you guys served in the Army,” SirVocea replied. “Army didn’t offer me. But Air Force said they would take me.”

The plan had been to take the Ivy League route. Dartmouth led him to Peddie, but Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Penn were all calling. The military path wasn’t exactly expected, but it certainly wasn’t unfamiliar. Alright. Air Force it was. SirVocea felt comfortable committing to Air Force. It was familiar, coming from a lifetime of private education and military parents, and it was easy.

He breezed through the entrance exams. Math and science and push-ups and pull-ups, all of it. Easy. But a problem arose with his medical exam. The Air Force cannot waive serious peanut allergies. And SirVocea has a serious peanut allergy.

“You can not go to the military with a severe peanut allergy,” Corliss said. “So, we’re all just looking at each other like, wait, what just happened here? Now Air Force is off the table.”

Not ideal. Villanova reached back out once the coaching staff heard that Air Force had fallen through. But Villanova never really wanted him — and they wanted him at running back. No, that wasn’t it either. The search went on. 

And on a fateful February day, as Pat Narduzzi and Tim Salem made a visit to Peddie recruiting a couple of SirVocea’s younger teammates, SirVocea himself made the most of a chance encounter. SirVocea threw down an impressive dunk and a few hours later, Narduzzi officially called him to extend an offer. Corliss will never, ever forget it.

Salem, who was just an unsaved number on Corliss’ phone, sent a short message right after Narduzzi extended the offer. “We just offered your son.” Huh? Corliss replied, “Which son?” It was just a couple of days until National Signing Day, and she had no idea who was texting her. Was this about Sir or SirVocea? So, Corliss went on the offensive, wondering if someone was messing with her.

“How’d you get this number?”

“Which son are you talking about?”

“What are you talking about??”

“Oh, we didn’t know you had another son,” Salem sent back. “We just offered SirVocea to the University of Pittsburgh.” Corliss’ phone fell to the floor. She fell to her knees and simply thanked the Lord. She couldn’t do anything but thank the Lord for answering her prayers. Everything that SirVocea did was to get to Pittsburgh. Even when it didn’t look like it would work out, SirVocea kept the faith. And, in singular one moment, all of his — and by extension, Corliss’ — dreams came true.

Pitt was SirVocea’s dream. When Corliss would ask SirVocea what his backup plan was if Pitt didn’t work out, or even if he had a second option, he told her he didn’t have one. It was always Pitt. Okay, but what about — no. No. That camp wasn’t good there. He didn’t feel good here. It didn’t compare to Pitt. Not at all. It was Pitt or nothing.

“Pitt? That’s it?” Corliss asked. “That’s on your vision board? That’s what we’re gonna do. You gotta name it and claim it. Go to God with it. We’re done? No, no, no, no, no. So, God is funny in that way. He makes you really have patience and it’s in God’s timing because he was determined.

“And in all honesty, to my knowledge, because you have to do everything through your counselors, he’s never applied to any other school than Pitt. Because you know, when your counselors tell you you have to have a safe school, a school you’re guaranteed to get in and then dream school, right? All three were the University of Pittsburgh.”

Photo courtesy of Corliss Dennis.

There was never another option. Corliss had no other option. SirVocea was so tuned in to Pitt that he left himself ripe for disappointment. But that was never, ever an option for Corliss. If SirVocea wanted it, Corliss would do all she could to make it happen.

So, when SirVocea finally signed his National Letter of Intent in February of 2019, he wasn’t able to enroll early, but he could still get there as soon as possible. He hadn’t finished at Peddie, but he was told that since he had already graduated from CBA, he was able to apply to Pitt. SirVocea was one step ahead as usual. He’d already applied — and been accepted — after he graduated from CBA in 2018. “I always knew I was going to Pitt,” SirVocea told the coaches. “I just wanted to play football.” So, he was good to go. Summer classes began on May 13.

He packed up his car, left Peddie early and made the drive from New Jersey to Pittsburgh by himself — without telling anyone. Peddie called Corliss and informed her that her son was not at school anymore. Wait, what? Where was he? Where did he go?? Peddie was under the impression that SirVocea had gone home. He actually was going home, but it wasn’t back to Syracuse.

Corliss called SirVocea immediately: “Yo! Where are you? What’s going on???”

“I’m on my way to Pittsburgh,” SirVocea told her.

“Wait, what??”

“I won’t be home for your birthday, but I’ll be enrolled in summer classes.”

“Whoa, Voss, you can’t just leave school, you’ve got to graduate! You’ve got to finish!”

“I already graduated,” he reminded her. “This is a secondary degree.”

“You can’t quit!”

“Mom, I’m not quitting. Trust me, it’s all gonna pay off. It’s all part of the plan. I’m going to Pitt, I will be enrolled in summer classes. May 13 is the start date.”

And with that, SirVocea arrived at the University of Pittsburgh and began both his academic and his athletic career. He started classes on May 13, Corliss’ birthday, and he walked across the stage at Pitt nearly four years later. It was the culmination of a lifetime — truly — spent chasing a Pitt offer.

As SirVocea, Corliss and SirVantis sat at dinner with Narduzzi, Randy Bates and then-linebackers coach Rob Harley on that official visit, just a couple of days after the official offer, everything fell into place. It felt like family. All of those days and weeks and months and years paid off. It felt right. It felt like family.

“And talking to the AD there, we were just talking about the underclassmen and he said, ‘Gosh, I think one of our best players is still this linebacker that hasn’t signed anywhere yet.’ And I said linebacker? We could use a linebacker,” Narduzzi said. “So, we just stayed talking SirVocea, and I said let me see his highlight tape. So, I Googled him, and I’m just watching him on my phone play and it’s like, ‘he’s pretty good.’ And I hear the story of why he’s still out there, which I don’t know if anyone really knows the story, I think he’s a diamond in the rough, but he was a quarterback in high school as well as a defense back, but played quarterback primary.”

“I never, ever, ever, ever, not one time, had to call that school because I was concerned about my child, not one time,” Corliss said. “Did I ever fear, ‘Oh, we made a bad mistake? This isn’t a right fit?’ Not one time. Did any of that ever cross my mind? No, I knew when I met these folks. Day one. Day one, honest to goodness, and I said, ‘Okay, thank you, Lord. He is in good hands.’ This is family. I don’t have to worry when a mother has that in the pit of her stomach. She can sleep well at night.”

SirVocea’s life prepared him for Pittsburgh. As the son of Army veterans, he attended both private and boarding schools. He was raised in a way in which he knew how to do laundry. He knew how to write papers and solve mathematic formulas. He even knew how to go shopping, budget for meals and even save money. He was taught how to be a man. The only unfamiliar when he arrived at Pitt was playing linebacker, with just one season under his belt, but that’s what he wanted to do. Corliss believed in him. And SirVocea was determined to show that once Pitt’s coaches put him on the field, he wasn’t coming off. He was the best of the best, and he was determined to show it.

“Each year, he got a little better,” Corliss said. “He’s always written his goals down. He gets that from me. I write everything down, so that I can see it, what’s going on, what we need to pray about, what we need to pay, what we need to do. You know, everything is always journaled and organized, right? And, and that’s what he does.”

Obviously, it’s worked. All-ACC. All-American. ACC champion. SirVocea helped lead Pitt to its first conference championship in quite some time, but he also emerged as a leader of men — a second coach in the linebacker room. He was a team captain, but he was also one of the most beloved members of the locker room in quite some time. He was even selected as a fifth round selection by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2023 NFL Draft.

And when the name, image and likeness madness truly exploded after the 2021 season, as Corliss had schools calling her, sending her emails and texts and all sorts of things, she was just left wondering how they were able to get her information. “SirVocea, he’s like, ‘Mom, these schools are offering me this and that and this and that, I’m not going anywhere,” Corliss said. “Little do they know. They can offer me the moon, they can tell me this, they can tell me that, I’m not going anywhere.” There were big-time programs coming after SirVocea. But Corliss didn’t care. She picked up the phone, called Karlo Zovko and told him to tell Narduzzi to have a conversation with the entire defense. And no one wanted to leave.

“So, all of those gentlemen that you’ve seen go into the draft from Pitt,” Corliss said. “All of those kids were approached. Every last one of our draftees was approached. All six guys. It’s ridiculous, but it shows you the strength of Pitt. It shows you the family, the values, the love.

Pittsburgh has become a second family for Corliss, SirVantis and SirVocea, outside of Syracuse, but the new home is Tampa. And ironically, it’s a quick drive from where SirVantis is from in Tampa — which explains the Tampa Bay jerseys on SirVocea’s draft night. In fact, SirVocea has been repping Tampa Bay since he was just a child.

When SirVantis returned home from deployment in 2004, SirVocea was three or four years old. There was a welcoming ceremony in Fort Stewart, Georgia. It was Corliss, her mother and Sir, SirVocea and Aisha — all decked out in Tampa Bay Buccaneers gear. He had missed the Bucs winning the Super Bowl while he was in Iraq, but he came home to the next best thing. 19 years later, SirVocea is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.

“That’s God,” Corliss said. “He has always had his hands on my, my child’s life. So when I say faith, family, football, that’s how it is in that order. Faith, family, football.” 

It’s safe to say Corliss — and the entire Dennis family — loves the University of Pittsburgh. “They have been such a blessing to this house,” Corliss said. “I wouldn’t care if Narduzzi lost every single game going here on out because he produces men.”

Pitt was the leading edge in SirVocea’s life, and after four years in Pittsburgh, he grew into the man that Corliss always wanted him to be. In those four years, if Corliss saw anything, she saw Pitt produce not just football players but men. But it was never as if SirVocea was too big. He learned every day. From Narduzzi and Salem and Zovko and especially from Ryan Manalac.

“He has always said, ‘Mrs. Dennis, your son, he’s so good. He doesn’t need to be coached.’ I’ve said, ‘Everybody needs to be coached.’ Even if they’re doing something right, they still can tweak it,” Corliss said. “You still can always get better.”

Even if SirVocea has been that coach-on-the-field, the second pair of eyes in the locker room, Corliss knows her son can get better — he can be better. And that’s all because of his experience at Pitt.

“I would tell any recruit you don’t wanna just play football, you wanna earn your degree, you wanna be where you’re appreciated, you’re valued and you’re loved,” Corliss said. 

“Like I said, me and my husband, from the bottom of our family, from the bottom of our hearts, we wish the University of Pittsburgh nothing but success. We thank them. We really, really appreciate what they’ve done for SirVocea.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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Corliss Dennis
Corliss Dennis
1 year ago

Amen. Always strive to be a blessing to others.

PJ Dickey
PJ Dickey
1 year ago

This article was pure joy to read. As a Pitt loyalist, it gives me great hope for the future of the football program under the guidance of Pat Narduzzi and his coaches. I would suggest that a copy should be sent by the athletic department to the parents of every HS student Pitt recruits for football moving forward. What an inspiring young man, and what an amazing family. Hail to Pitt!

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