TACOMA, Wash. - You would think that after 15 years of getting beaten up, pushed around and run over, Jon Kitna would be ready to take a break. But in reality, after surviving the physical pounding of a long NFL career, he has just begun his work.
Most retired quarterbacks might head straight to the golf course or out for a tropical vacation. Or if they feel the need to work, take broadcasting gigs or lucrative pro coaching jobs.
But Kitna, who turns 40 on Friday, has taken a different path. He had a plan to follow, a purpose bigger than himself and more important than money. It was late January, less than a month after announcing his retirement from the Dallas Cowboys, that Kitna returned to work, accepting the job of head football coach and algebra teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Wash.
“My wife and I just always thought, ‘Where can we make the greatest impact?’ ” he says. “We felt that was at the high school level at this point.”
But this isn’t just any high school job, this is his alma mater. And Kitna insists that this — not pro football — was his dream job all along.
“When the NFL happened,” he says, “it didn’t change the dream, it just refined it.”
A MISSION BEYOND FOOTBALL
Kitna runs a hand over his closely shaved scalp and leans back in his chair. The windowless, concrete bunker that passes for an office is decorated sparingly. There’s a desk, a computer and a large cabinet. A white board is attached to one wall, with names scrawled on it in black ink, grouped by position. The list under the heading “WR” is exceptionally long. The head coach must have been a quarterback.
This is a long way from the glitz and glamour of the NFL, where Kitna passed for nearly 30,000 yards and 169 touchdowns. Last season, he made $3 million as the Cowboys’ backup quarterback. Now, he makes roughly one percent of that to teach at Lincoln High School and coach the Abes.
Casey Madison / AP
Jon Kitna eats his sack lunch in his office at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Wash.
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.
“Our challenges are all the way around the outside of the football field,” says Lincoln athletic director Mike Merrill, Kitna’s predecessor as football coach. “It’s getting them to here,” he says, pointing to the imaginary football field in the center of his desk, “that’s the hardest part. It’s grades, it’s family, it’s friends, it’s peer pressure. There are so many excuses not to get here.”
Kitna is trying to take away those excuses, to give students a place to receive guidance and discipline they might not otherwise get.
Part of that involves building pride in the football program, which hasn’t been an easy task. When Kitna arrived, he found a host of problems. Helmets were outdated, video equipment broken, workout gear a joke.
“This is supposed to be black and gold,” Kitna deadpans, holding up a well-worn jersey during a recent equipment room tour. “Looks more like black and puke-green.”
Things are improving, in no small part due to Kitna’s efforts and connections. The Cowboys donated used cleats, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer gave an industrial washer and dryer, and another donor gave money for new helmets. A local drug store offered a buy-one-earn-one-for-Lincoln program that brought in things such as shampoo and deodorant for players.
Kitna’s wife, Jeni, has taken the reins of the Abes’ booster program, seeking help from local businesses and alumni. The goal is to find 2,000 alumni and supporters willing to donate $100 a year.
“We knew there was some work to be done,” says Jeni. “Obviously a lot of schools are in situations where funding is down. So we expected a little bit of that. I don’t think we expected it to be quite as bare bones as it is.”
To set an example to prospective donors, the Kitnas spent $150,000 of their own money on a new weight room, which Jon wants to name after four-time NFL Pro-Bowl safety — and former Lincoln teammate — Lawyer Milloy.
“If we were going to go out and ask people to help us and partner with us and donate things, we wanted them to know we’re invested,” says Jon.
Bob Harkins / NBCSports.com
Lincoln High School boasts a new weight room that was purchased by the Kitnas.
And invested they are. Jon’s brother Matt is an assistant coach, and Matt’s wife, Meta, is aiding Jeni with the booster club. Jon’s father, Martin, is also a coach, and cousin Casey Kjos, a former receiver at Oregon State who moved in with the Kitnas at age 14, is the defensive coordinator and runs the weight training program.
The Kitnas are all-in, and so far the results on the field have been stunning. Despite installing brand new schemes on both sides of the ball, the Abes (who finished 4-5 last season) have surged to a 3-0 start, outscoring their foes 145-20.
But Kitna’s aim is not merely to build a football factory. It is to bring wholesale changes to a culture that has been damaging to the community.
“The whole reason we’re doing it is not to win a state championship. That’s a byproduct,” he says.
“We want to create a family environment for these young men in this building that gives them something they’re missing, quite honestly.
“Eighty percent (of Lincoln students) have no father. Eighty percent! So what we want to do is use football to hopefully stem that tide. Teach them about perseverance, about sticking with something even when it’s hard, and having a vision outside of your own self. A multi-generational vision, if you will, that says, ‘I want to be the one that says “it ends with me.’’ ’ And then hopefully we stem the tide of what’s going on in this building.”
A PATH OF DESTRUCTION
When Jon Kitna talks of real men, he says it with emphasis on real. It’s an acronym, you see:
That’s his mantra, and he admits it’s incredibly hard to follow. He struggled to do so himself.
When Kitna left Lincoln for Central Washington in 1992, he was oozing with potential. He was smart. He was a gifted athlete. He was funny and likeable.
Jeni certainly noticed him. And although she wasn’t sure what she thought about the skinny kid who reminded her of Jim Carrey’s “Fire Marshall Bill” character, there was no denying his charisma.
“He always had a great energy about him and a zest for life,” Jeni says. “He attracted people to him through his personality and natural leadership ability. I don’t think he was an awful person. He was young and immature.”
But Jon remembers a different person. He remembers a young man full of potential standing at a crossroads, and although the proper path seems obvious with the benefit of hindsight, at the time he had no idea which way he was heading.
“I was just lost,” he says. “I was selfish. I was trying to be somebody I wasn’t.”
Kitna found himself on a path of destruction, crossing the line from harmless college fun into something darker. He drank far too much, and would then sometimes slip behind the wheel of a car. He got in fights. He was a thief. He was a womanizer.
Then one night, his then-girlfriend caught him in bed with another woman. That’s when he finally shook himself awake.
“That made me really ask, ‘Who am I, really?’ ” Kitna says. “That was when I accepted Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. My whole life completely, radically changed. Who I was before that and who I am now are two totally opposite people.”
‘I FEEL THE SPIRIT’
Someone misses an assignment on defense, and Kitna blows up.
He stops the action, stalks into the middle of the play and lets loose. He screams at his players, then screams at the coaches, saving a particular bit of venom for his cousin Casey, the defensive coordinator. Then he makes everyone run the play again, with himself taking the spot of the offending player to show everyone how it’s done.
This is hardly unusual for a high school football practice. What is unusual is what happens later, during a break in practice, when Kitna gathers his players at midfield.
“First of all,” he says. “I’d like to apologize to you, and I’d like to apologize to Coach Casey. That is not how I should have handled that. That’s not how real men react.”
Bob Harkins / NBCSports.com
Kitna apologizes to his players after blowing up during a practice at Lincoln Bowl in Tacoma, Wash.
He then praises his players. He knows they’re learning brand new schemes on both sides of the ball, and things are coming along nicely. And he knows they are learning even more off the football field.
The momentum is building, and Kitna isn’t about to lose his players by not adhering to the rules he demands they follow.
Peau Seigafo, a senior defensive lineman who aims to play college football and earn a business degree, says the players are biting, hook, line and sinker. Seigafo barely even mentions football, instead speaking of “integrity” and “respect”, of being “a good citizen,” and “helping out in the community.”
“I see something new coming, you know?” Seigafo says. “I feel the spirit, and a new kind of teaching. Everyone is trying to work together as a family … We call each other brothers.”
Brothers. And leaders. And real men.
‘I’M WILLING TO DIG DITCHES’
Kitna knows this is the just the beginning. The victories on the field are nice, but that’s not his mission. Ask him what he would consider success, and he mentions graduation rates, not league titles and playoff appearances.
He dreams of players leaving Lincoln with a plan, not just skipping by. He prays that he doesn’t lose any of them to academics or gangs or drugs. And he fantasizes of them returning to run programs of their own, to further change the culture in the community that they all love.
When asked if he thinks he’ll see the kind of massive cultural shift he dreams of in his lifetime, Kitna is blunt: “Probably not.”
But then he pauses a moment, deep in thought. When he speaks again, his voice starts softly, slowly rising in volume, calm but intense.
Like a preacher.
“There’s a famine in the land and the prophet came to God and said ‘Lord there’s a drought in the land and we need some rain, we need some rain. Lord you’ve got to give us some rain.’ And God said, ‘Start digging ditches, because the rain’s coming and you need to store the water.’
“I’m willing to dig ditches for when the rains come.”
For more on Lincoln High School football, go to LincolnGridiron.com
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