Friday, September 07, 2001
A better man, then a better QB
By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The door to Jon Kitna's room creaked open. Jennifer, his girlfriend, who had returned to the unlocked apartment about an hour after leaving, stood silhouetted in the doorway. Jon was in bed with another woman.
That night was the turning point in Kitna's life. He had been arrested for shoplifting. He was a binge drinker, a womanizer and an underachieving small-college quarterback. He wasn't getting along with his parents and was about to lose the woman he loved.
But after that October night in 1993, sometimes slowly and often painfully, everything changed. It started when he rededicated his life to serving Jesus. Jennifer, sensing the heartfelt change, gave Jon another chance and would marry him the following summer. He gave up alcohol and reconciled with his mom and dad.
He also started to blossom as a quarterback. He would soon find himself on a path that would lead one improbable but prayerful step after another to the NFL.
After three uneven seasons with the Seattle Seahawks that ended with coach Mike Holmgren essentially running Kitna out of town, Kitna, who will turn 29 Sept.21, finds himself getting another second chance, in Cincinnati. Signed as an unrestricted free agent in March, Kitna will start his first regular-season game for the Bengals when they open the 2001 season Sunday against New England.
The worst thing I could ever do to her was the best thing that ever could have happened to us, Kitna said of his wife. Because without it, she was going to graduate that year. I still had two years left. We probably would have gone our separate ways. I wouldn't have my two kids. Only God can take something that's so horrible and make it something that's so great.
Jon and Jennifer Kitna are sitting in the food court at Tri-County Mall. It's 10 in the morning on a rare day off for him from training camp. It's her 30th birthday.
They've driven from their Mason home to take the kids to a gymnastics class. Jordan, 3, and Jada, 2, are running between the rows of empty tables. Jon, who sometimes dresses the kids and usually bathes them, put them in matching Los Angeles Lakers uniforms for the day.
Jennifer picks up with the story of the night she found Jon in bed with another woman.
It made me think, wonder what else wasn't true about him? she said.
Jon and Jennifer talked well into the morning. After classes the next day, Jon went to her place.
He said he knew he needed to make changes in his life, and whether we stayed together, he knew he had to go back to church, Jennifer said.
The first thing he did was stop drinking. The next thing he did was call a Eric Bowles, a former teammate at Central Washington and an evangelical Christian who was trying to make the New York Jets roster.
Jon had thought salvation was something to be found in the woods on a retreat, but Bowles told him it was a personal decision. After two weeks of beating himself up over what he had done to Jennifer, Jon was watching a Sunday night NFL game on television and decided to commit his life to Jesus.
It was like God was replaying my whole life, how I was raised but how I wasn't living that way, he said. I got down on my knees and started praying. After I got off the floor, the guilt was gone. Now did I change right away? No. I had to learn what it meant to be a Christian.
Bowles returned to Central Washington's campus in Ellensburg, Wash., in January 1994 and started a Bible study. Jon started to go, then Jennifer joined him.
I saw the same passion in him for Jesus Christ that he had shown for football, Jennifer said. I saw how serious he was about it.
relationship strengthened, and they married that summer. But there were challenges right away. Because they had signed and dated Jon's financial aid forms he was not on athletic scholarship a few days before they were married in August, Jon lost his financial aid as a junior. Jennifer had graduated and found a teaching job, so they lived off her small salary.
The Lord provided, she said.
With his personal life in order, Jon had more focus in football.
He became much more peaceful, and I know that helped him on the field, said Fay Kitna, Jon's 47-year-old mother, who lives in Tacoma, Wash.
As a senior in 14 games at Central Washington, Kitna threw for 4,600 yards and 42 touchdowns and led his team to the NAIA Division II national championship game.
But even those statistics failed to interest NFL scouts. Kitna wasn't invited to the league's scouting combine at Indianapolis in February.
In March 1996, Kitna did his student-teaching in math at a high school in Yakima, Wash. He was driving a white Escort. He and Jennifer had decided they would work at the same school and start a Christian ministry for children.
They were happy. We had a plan, Jon said.
He had all but given up on the NFL.
But then his prayer was answered. He had played his senior season at Central with Jamie Christian, the nephew of Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson.
Christian called Kitna and said Erickson wanted to work them out the next day in Seattle. It was the day NFL scouts would be there checking out players from the University of Washington.
Two hours into the workout, not one scout had come to watch Kitna and Christian. Then Erickson told them, I'll work you out myself.
I think he felt sorry for us, Kitna said.
They ran the 40-yard dash and were preparing to run a second one when Erickson said, Don't worry about it.
Without any wide receivers to pass to, Kitna ended up throwing to Erickson's 15-year-old son. The kid didn't run any patterns. Erickson just had him stand at different spots on the field.
I start throwing, and things are going pretty well. Pretty soon 10 minutes turned into 20. I worked out for an hour, Kitna said. Randy Mueller, the player personnel director who's now with the Saints, comes down and gets all my information. Then they bring me back two weeks later. Two weeks after that was a draft, and they signed me as a free agent.
What better answer to a prayer than to work out for the head coach.
Kitna spent the 1996 season on the Seahawks' practice squad, while Rick Mirer, John Friesz and Stan Gelbaugh each got starts for the 7-9 team.
After the season, the Seahawks sent Kitna to Europe to play in the World League for Barcelona. He threw for 2,200 yards and 22 touchdowns in 10 games and led the Dragons to the World Bowl title, of which he was named MVP.
Again, his faith sustained him and contributed to his success.
In Barcelona, guys were coming to the Lord right and left, Kitna said. We used to say whatever end we were going to, God was sitting on the goalpost. ... And that's what sparked us. I better do my best. He wants everything you've got.
If you see our film, you see us pointing to the goalpost after touchdowns.
Back in Seattle, Kitna made one start in 1997 for the injured Warren Moon and led the biggest comeback in Seahawks' history, 22-21 at Oakland after trailing 21-3. In 1998, he started the last five games of Erickson's final season in Seattle. The offensive coordinator was Bob Bratkowski, hired in January by Bengals coach Dick LeBeau.
Kitna started 15 games for Holmgren in 1999, throwing for 3,346 yards, 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions for the 9-7 AFC West-winning Seahawks.
But last season with Holmgren was rockier for Kitna, who started the first five games but was benched after throwing eight interceptions. He didn't play in Week 6 and was in and out of the lineup until regaining the starting job for Game 13. He was AFC Offensive Player of the Week when he was 22-for-33 passing for 231 yards against Jacksonville, with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
I liked how he played when he got the job back, LeBeau said. He's got resiliency.
Kitna's tie to Bratkowski was one reason he chose Cincinnati in free agency.
Kitna won the quarterback competition during training camp over Scott Mitchell and Akili Smith and earned the respect of teammates.
He communicates great with everybody, said cornerback Tom Carter, who joins Kitna in the team's weekly Bible study.
Kitna's closest boyhood friend, E.J. Henderson, a graduate football assistant at the University of Louisville, seconds Carter's observation. Kitna was the only white guy among a group of friends who played youth football together.
He's a great leader, Henderson said. He gets along with everybody.
Already, Kitna's presence is being felt in the locker room. He maintains faith-based relationships among players, such as Carter and Corey Dillon, who attend Bible study. Kitna also finds ways to get along with other teammates. He was working with Dillon on his golf swing, and he and offensive tackle Mike Goff work crossword puzzles together in the locker room.
But Kitna's presence extends beyond the locker room. In Seattle, he was active in the Boys and Girls Clubs and started a Christian mission for teen-agers that involved Seahawks teammates and his wife. Kitna plans to get involved in similar programs in Cincinnati.
Football was how God got me here, he said. But that's not my purpose here. My purpose is to reach out to some guys.
I want to win, said Kitna, who was 36-for-69 passing for 368 yards in the preseason with one touchdown and two interceptions. I'm willing to accept it when things don't go my way. But it burns me not to win.
Kitna finds guidance in the Bible, in Colossians 3:23, which said do everything unto the Lord and not unto man.
Kitna said, I know God is in control of everything. But that's not an excuse to go out and not do my best.
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