Jon Kitna, the 41-year-old former NFL quarterback who came out of retirement this week to be the third-string quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday and said he would donate his $53,000 salary to his high school, is currently at his dream job–teaching math, impacting lives, and coaching a bit of football on the side for the most impoverished and troubled high school in his district. This is what Kitna has always wanted to do since he found God during his troubled youth.
In a December 2012 story in Yahoo Sports, Kitna details how he feels he is sitting on a “gold mine” and asked the high school (Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington) on his first day on the job to give him the most troubled students that all of the other teachers could not deal with and did not want.
And so again he told the principals to have the other math teachers select the students they didn’t want – the ones who didn’t listen, who didn’t try, who didn’t care. He would take them all. The principals nodded. Lists were made, class rolls prepared. The new football coach was handed three dream teams of troublemakers. They wished him luck.
Didn’t he see the numbers? Didn’t he know that four of every five of the students were on free or reduced lunches? That finding a meal was more important than understanding negative integers? Inspiring the best students was going to be difficult enough. Save himself, they advised. Start slow. Make it easy.
When he was advised to “start slow,” Kitna refused to listen.
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.”
Kitna has been shocked by the drugs and crime in the neighborhood, but “people he knows from the old days say the school was more violent when he was a student”:
Gangs roamed the halls. He remembers the gangs but many of those kids were also his friends and they shielded him from what they were doing. Perhaps his memories are sanitized. Maybe because he was surrounded by wealth for so long the hardship here is all the more unsettling.
Kitna detailed the challenges many of his students face before even stepping into a classroom:
For several moments no one said anything. Then slowly the stories spilled out. Terrible stories. Heartbreaking stories. The players told of homes without parents. They said nobody in the house asked to see their homework. They talked of barely existing at all. They said the only place anyone seemed to care was at school. And they told him that even then he was the only one to whom they could relate.
“It was eye-opening,” Kitna says. “It was tearful to hear kids say: ‘My parents when I am doing my homework tell me to stop doing my homework and go sell drugs.’ Or to hear a kid say: ‘I don’t ever eat because I want my mom to eat and only one of us can eat.’ “
He said he wept after a field trip in which he discovered that none of the parents really seemed to care about their children:
Not long after he arrived, Kitna took the football team to Seattle for a series of 7-on-7 drills at the University of Washington. When he sent notes to the parents, only three called to ask about the trip.
Then when the bus returned to Lincoln at 11:30 p.m., Kitna was stunned to discover not one parent or relative had come to meet them. He and the coaches split the players up and drove them home. It was 12:15 a.m. when Kitna dropped off the last of the players in his car. And as the door shut and the player waved good bye, Kitna wept.
“I could never fathom that my son would leave for school at 6:30 a.m. with no money for food and some coach I never met or know is going to take him to the University of Washington for 7-on-7 drills and I don’t even know what that means and then not have any transportation when he gets back,” he says. “That’s when it hit me how hard this was going to be.”
Kitna found his purpose in life after finding God. He admittedly got drunk, stole, and was a lost soul during his youth. On one occasion, Jennifer, who was Kitna’s girlfriend at the time and is now his wife, “came home to find him in bed with another woman. In the midst of the ensuing argument,” Kitna realized he had to change his ways and later found and committed himself to God. His wife says that she married a teacher and a coach instead of a football player. Kitna realizes that kids like himself have to be impacted when they are teenagers, and he has made it a point of taking away what is most precious to athletes–game time–for not doing things the right way or not standing up for those that may be weaker or less popular when they are getting bullied.
His purpose became clear. He would teach. He would go back into the cities, to the worst of neighborhoods and he would make children better. He would tell them about choices and respect and responsibility. He was going to change lives.
With Lincoln being a public school, faith is not a part of the lesson plan. Kitna understands this and seems to respect it. After all, he is teaching in a district where students come from all over the world and from a variety of religions. And don’t the lessons he is trying to teach apply to everyone regardless of belief?
And the lessons are harsh. One day this fall Kitna was told of a football player who watched another student draw a derogatory picture of a classmate. The football player had nothing to do with the drawing but he laughed. Kitna had a meeting with the player, the teacher and the student who was the target of the drawing.
“Well you didn’t do anything to help the situation,” Kitna told the player. “You didn’t reject passivity.”
Then he suspended the player for two series in the upcoming game.
Later that week, a group of football players surrounded a group of girl volleyball players from a different school who had come to Lincoln for a match. Two of the players danced suggestively in front of the girls. When Kitna found out about it the next day, he gathered the team together.
“Who was there?” he asked.
Two players raised their hands.
“Who else was there?” he demanded.
Eventually five more players stood before him with hands raised. “You who did it, you are out a half,” Kitna said. “And you who didn’t do anything about it, you are out for two series.”
Kitna even spent $150,000 to build the school a weight room. According to the Seattle Times, he got the approval of the district to construct the weight room, but he had purchased the equipment beforehand, not realizing the bureaucratic hoops he had to go through. Other NFL athletes and teams have helped Kitna as well:
To show his seriousness, Kitna spent $150,000 to fill the weight room with equipment as nice as that in any NFL practice facility. He had the walls painted and named it after his old Lincoln teammate and longtime NFL safety Lawyer Milloy. Soon others followed. Carson Palmer, a teammate in Cincinnati, bought two industrial washers for uniforms. Current Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo provided the money for new jerseys. Calvin Johnson, his old receiver in Detroit paid for new equipment as did Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Since the kids didn’t have their own spikes for practice, the Cowboys boxed up dozens of cleats. When Nike took over the NFL uniform contract in the spring, the Seahawks sold their now useless game pants to Lincoln at $1 a pair so the team could have practice uniforms.
There is a lot more in the Yahoo Sports piece, which also details the transformation of a student who was described as the “lottery pick” of the troublemakers. It will certainly make people view Kitna differently when the football world shines a spotlight on him and the Cowboys on Sunday evening.