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Archive for December 21st, 2012

Retired NFL QB Jon Kitna Now a Math Teacher and Football Coach

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With all of the terrible stories in the news lately, especially regarding sports figures (Jovan Belcher, Suzy Favor Hamilton, etc.), I thought it was time to discuss a really good, empowering story of hope and faith instead.

This is the story of Jon Kitna, retired NFL quarterback, as told to Yahoo Sports’ Les CarpenterKitna’s stats in the NFL were quite good — 29,745 yards, 169 touchdowns and 165 interceptions in a sixteen-year pro football year (spending his first year with the Barcelona Dragons in the old World League, later to be renamed NFL Europe) — but he’d never planned a pro career due to coming out of tiny Central Washington University.

Instead, Kitna thought he’d become a math teacher as he’d graduated with a degree in math education.  So he started applying for jobs.

This quote from Carpenter’s story describes how Kitna’s pro career came about:

Football was a miracle for Kitna. Even he never imagined he’d be in the NFL. It took years to become the starting quarterback at Lincoln. Nobody was waiting with a scholarship when he graduated. His parents helped him pull the money together to go to Central Washington, an NAIA school halfway across the state, where he found himself at the bottom of a long list of quarterbacks. Eventually he became the starter. His senior year, Central won the NAIA national championship, which got him mild acclaim in Washington but did nothing to further his career.

Assuming he was done with football, Kitna finished his teaching degree and began pursuing the dream he and Jennifer talked so much about: teaching and coaching. Lincoln was actually looking for a head football coach. He applied but was turned down.

Then a few days later Dennis Erickson showed up on Central’s campus.

The Seahawks coach at the time was there to give a tryout to his nephew, Jamie Christian, who was one of Central’s receivers. The tryout was a family favor, yet what amazed Erickson was the quarterback whose throws looked like rockets zooming into Christian’s hands. The Seahawks offered Kitna a contract and a spot in their 1996 training camp. He made the practice squad and after the season was placed on the roster of the Barcelona Dragons of the World League. Barcelona won the league title on home turf. Kitna was MVP of the championship game and left the field to chants of “Keeetna! Keeetna! Keeetna!” He was anonymous no more.

So just getting to the NFL took a lot of hard work on Kitna’s part, but he also had to be in the right place at the right time in order to get a chance to play. (Shades of Malcolm Gladwell’s OUTLIERS.)

Kitna had his career — a lengthy one by any standard, but most especially for an undrafted QB no one had ever heard of coming out of college — then retired after the 2011 season.  He found a job within a month at his old high school alma mater, that of math teacher and head football coach.

Here’s a description of Lincoln High from this story by Bob Harkins of NBC Sports:

Lincoln is a collection of well-worn, concrete and brick buildings located in a gritty section of Tacoma, about a 45-minute drive down Interstate 5 from Seattle. Like many urban high schools, it’s rich in diversity and light on financing. Seventy-five percent of Lincoln’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and most come from single-parent homes. The majority of locals have many priorities to deal with before high school football pops onto their radar.

So it was obvious Kitna was going to have his work cut out for him just being a football coach.  This team didn’t have good equipment, uniforms, or many parents who cared overmuch.

But then, Kitna also wanted to teach math.  So he did something unprecedented at Lincoln High. He asked for the worst students, those who other teachers couldn’t stand or couldn’t motivate, for his three math classes.  The other teachers, according to Carpenter’s article, wished Kitna luck.

But here’s what Carpenter said happened:

Only something happened in those three algebra classes, something no one could have imagined. The students who didn’t listen suddenly did. Those who never did work turned in assignments. And when the results of the math assessments came in, Kitna’s students were second best in the school. It wasn’t because their teacher was an NFL quarterback. Many of them didn’t have televisions at home. They had little idea who Jon Kitna was. No, this was something else. Something bigger. Something one of those two principals, Pat Erwin, considers in his office one recent day and finally calls: “The Kitna effect.”

Over the past year, Kitna’s improved many students’ lives.  He’s brought them meaning and purpose whether they’re football players or not. He’s helped to improve their lives, and has taught them that their lives do matter no matter what anyone else has ever said about them.

Oh, yes.  Because Kitna is still a football player and coach, he also bought a whole new weight room for Lincoln High and dedicated it to former NFL All-Pro safety Lawyer Milloy, another Lincoln High alum.

Not to be outdone, many of his friends around the NFL have donated to the school such things as new industrial strength washers (Carson Palmer, a teammate of Kitna’s in Cincinnati), new uniforms (Tony Romo, a teammate of Kitna’s in Dallas) and new football equipment (courtesy of Calvin Johnson and DeMarcus Ware, both of the Cowboys).  The Cowboys as a whole gave Lincoln High their used cleats, and the Seahawks donated used game pants for $1 a pair so Lincoln’s players would have  practice uniforms.

As this article from Danny O’Neil at the Seattle Times put it:

(Kitna’s) career is proof of the potential that is contained within these halls, something he points out. There are about 2,000 players in the NFL at any given time, and every year as many as 400 rookies come looking to take someone’s place at the table. Two years ago, Kitna went and looked up how many players from his rookie class remained in the league.

He counted six, and two of them attended Lincoln: Kitna and safety Lawyer Milloy, his high-school teammate and the best athlete to ever come out of Lincoln. That reality provides the backbone of the rallying cry.

“His message is, ‘There’s greatness in these halls,’ ” said (Lincoln High Principal Pat) Erwin. “That’s the exciting thing about having Jon here. Do I want to win football games? Sure. But I want him to be able to convey to kids his story and the greatness that is here in this school so that kids start to live up to their potential as opposed to live down to some of the expectations others might have.”

Kitna’s expectations are high. He has visions of an alumni association whose donating members number in the thousands, and Jennifer has turned the school’s booster club into a registered charity.

It’s obvious that Kitna’s a man of vision.  Dedication.  Honor.  Integrity.

Which is why he refuses to give up on these inner-city kids.

Kitna’s also an avowed Christian, something he believes turned his life around when he was in his early twenties and as his wife Jennifer put it in at least one of the above articles, “immature.”  But unlike some avowed Christian pro football players, whose faith seems ready-made for the camera but otherwise insubstantial, Kitna lives his faith.

That’s why he’s helping these kids at Lincoln High attain better lives.

And that’s why I decided to write about Kitna, because it’s great to realize that not every sports star is a spoiled brat who’s unaware of how difficult things are in the real world.

Much less wants to make a positive difference — and is doing so.


In case anyone’s wondering, Kitna’s Lincoln High football team went 5-5 in 2012.  Kitna’s son, Jordan, had to sit out the entire year due to arcane rules dealing with Washington state football eligibility and school transfers. (Jordan Kitna expects to play next year.  Like his father, Jordan is a quarterback.)

Written by Barb Caffrey

December 21, 2012 at 5:29 am