1-29-02, 2:35 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
NEW ORLEANS _ If the Bengals can't be the AFC team in the Super Bowl, then quarterback Jon Kitna would just as soon have his tailback from the East Side Express playing in the Big Game in the Big Easy.
Patriots Pro Bowl strong safety Lawyer Milloy may literally be at the center of the universe when his defense lines up against the Rams here this Sunday in the Super Dome. But Kitna wishes the good people of his hometown would take the time to notice.
"I just don't think the people out here understand how great a safety he is," said Kitna Monday from his new house in his old home of Tacoma, Wash.
"There's not much coverage out here and people just don't really notice," Kitna said. "But here's a guy who has used all the potential he had. He had every reason not to make it because of all the reasons guys give nowadays. He came from a tough background. He lived with a buddy in high school . But he realized his potential."
Milloy, who lost one game with Kitna in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades for the Pop Warner Express, took time to think about his friend as the Super Bowl security rushed him out of his introductory interview session Monday as if he were a presidential candidate in New Hampshire.
Kitna, white with two parents, hit it off early with Milloy even though he was an African-American with what Kitna calls not "an easy family situation." They hung out together at the East Side Boys and Girls Club in the pre-teen years, where they played all sports.
"Away from there, Lawyer pretty much did his own thing," Kitna said. "But when we were playing, we hung
out. And it seemed like we were always playing."
Want to know what kind of a guy Milloy is?
"I got more help than he did as far as going to a college," Milloy said of his Pop Warner and Lincoln High quarterback. "He deserves more credit than I do. He went to a NAIA school or whatever. He went the long way with free agency (coming out of college) and all."
Naturally, Milloy, the kid who hardly ever got tackled in Pop Warner and broke a kid's arm in a simple 7-on-7 drill in high school, would go to the big house. The University of Washington.
Even though their math teacher, Cookie Kitzman, remembers Milloy coming into class with shoe boxes full of letters from virtually every college in the land.
"You knew from the fourth grade," Kitna said, "that he was special. When he went to hit people, practice stopped so everyone could watch. And he was a leader right off. He wanted to lead."
That's what Milloy is doing now, as compared to his rookie year when the Bengals made the Super Bowl. On Monday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said he wouldn't name Tom Brady or Drew Bledsoe the starting quarterback until after Wednesday's practice.
But there is no question who is the defensive quarterback and on Monday Milloy admitted this Super Bowl means more than the one his first year. Belichick was also here five years ago as the defensive coordinator.
"Players like Lawyer Milloy, who was a rookie on that team, clearly now is one of our more established veterans and leaders and his role on the team, as an example, has changed so dramatically in that period," Belichick said, "that I don't think there's a great carryover from that team."
Kitna, meanwhile, didn't get a sniff from anyone in high school. When he was at a banquet for being named the Player of the Month while at Lincoln, the University of Washington recruiting coordinator approached him and Kitna's heart jumped. But the guy just wanted to know how to get a hold of Milloy.
So Milloy went to the bright Division I lights of Seattle. Kitna disappeared behind the mountains in the central part of the state. Central Washington to be exact, where he led the Wildcats to the NAIA title game as a first-team All-American.
They didn't play football against each other until this year's season opener, when Milloy pitted his two Pro Bowls against Kitna's first Bengals' start since leaving the hometown Seahawks as a free agent.
"I was a little nervous, but it's one of the funnest games I ever played in," Kitna said.
That's probably because he won, 23-17. In the first half, the Pats sent Milloy on a blitz and he blew past Bengals running back Corey Dillon as Dillon chewed up 40 yards on a draw play. Milloy would later tell Kitna that he wanted to hit him so much that he lost track of Dillon.
"Perfect play for the perfect defense," Milloy said. "I thought he still had it and they slipped the ball to Dillon."
Milloy had to leave the game later with a back problem, which crushed Kitna because, "I really wanted him to be on the field so we could say that we went out with the other guys' best. I was a little down about that."
Milloy nodded. "Jon is a fierce competitor. We're of the same creed,"
At 28, Milloy is a year younger than Kitna. But not in football years.
"He's called me a few times. I've called him," Kitna said of this see-saw season for both. "Even though he's a year younger, he's more my mentor. He was telling me, 'You can play at the top level.' "He kept my hope alive as I was getting better."
Which is why if it couldn't be Kitna Sunday trying to outscore the Rams' vaunted defense, it might as well be Milloy trying to stop the best offense of the day. Just as if he was leading the East Side Express to other side of town.