9-5-01, 11:15 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Cookie Kitzman, a veteran of Tacoma's inner-city schools, knew the only way she would get the kids in the back row to learn geometry was to reach the big kid.
Even though whites made up just 25 percent of the school, the back row seemed to be taking its cue from him.
But Jon Kitna didn't think he could learn math. So he sat there with his arms folded in you-can't-teach-me-defiance. That was second semester sophomore year during another day in a tough school with a 90-percent free breakfast and lunch program,
But for the rest of his time at Lincoln High School, Kitna got his schedule changed so he would have Mrs. Kitzman. There was Algebra II. Then there was pre calculus. Next thing she knew, the big kid was reaching the kids in the back row as her student teacher.
So the geometry teacher thinks it is logical she should make the trip to Cincinnati this weekend to watch Kitna make his Bengals' debut Sunday in the club's 1 p.m. NFL opener against the Patriots.
"Just seeing him back there, I knew that the other kids would pretty much do what he was going to do," said Cookie Kitzman this week from Tacoma. "Jon just has that kind of personality. People are drawn to him."
As Kitna begins his attempt to get the Bengals to follow him into the playoffs, Sunday's gathering at Paul Brown Stadium is more like a neighborhood get-together on Tacoma's East Side.
Kitzman is bringing her son. Kitna's parents, Martin and Fay, planned for their vacation days on Friday and Monday back when the schedule came out, and are heading up an expedition of about 15 or so family and extended family members. Fay Kitna is the starter, but she says the contingent includes some of Jon's "back-up Moms."
And then there is Lawyer.
Lawyer Milloy, a year behind Kitna at Lincoln, will
say hello from the New England secondary as he begins his attempt to reach a third Pro Bowl.
Everyone at Lincoln and the East Side Boys and Girls Club knew Lawyer was going to be big time. Cookie Kitzman remembers him showing up for class one time with three shoeboxes full of letters from colleges.
Lawyer ended up going to the University of Washington, the center of Northwest sports. Cookie remembers when Kitna went to Central Washington to play behind the mountains, he had to bring his own football because there weren't enough to go around at the tryouts.
That is ultimate Kitna. He is your brother, the boy next door, the guy in the back of the class who made it.
When Kitna bought a BMW after signing his four-year, $7 million contract with the Bengals back in March, Jennifer gave him some loving grief.
"My wife said, 'That's shattering everything that you are. That's not the car of the boy next door,'" Kitna said. "I think everyone is pretty much that way. It's just that the media makes the stars and the superstars."
Kitna isn't declaring war on the media, but he's just not paying attention. He made up his mind during last season's grind in Seattle that it didn't do him any good.
So he has no idea that the scout in "Sports Illustrated," said he never had a prime.
"I just decided not to read anything about it or watch it on TV," Kitna said. "No one is writing anything positive about me right now. It would be useless for me to see it. They'll write something when we're 10-4 with two games left in the season. Then they'll write something and I still won't read it.
"My wife will save it all and I'll read it when I'm 10 years retired," Jon Kitna said.
Cookie Kitzman is pretty sure she knows what Kitna will be doing when he's been retired. She thinks he'll be back at Lincoln teaching math and coaching. That was the track he was on when then-Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson called him out of the blue in 1995 for a tryout.
"When he was with the Seahawks, he would just show up unannounced in my class to say hello," Cookie said. "Of course, the kids really loved it and we would take a break and he would talk to them."
But the hometown dream was too good to be true. After playing every game seemingly just a few blocks from the house, his home game is now a four-hour plane ride away.
"It was tough at first, but I think in the end it was a good thing," Martin Kitna said. "New town. Fresh start. It was great when he was here, but you'd be listening to the radio and you'd have to turn it off. There were things that were tough to hear."
It's tough on Fay not to have the grandchildren (Jordan is three and Jada two) close by. Plus, Fay is one of seven children who are all still in the area, as is Martin's family.The Kitnas are tight-knit enough that they have once-a-month prayer meetings.
"There was always family around and I think that was a blessing for him," Fay Kitna said. "And he was always into sports."
Martin and Fay have always worked, so if an aunt or an uncle wasn't watching him, Jon was probably heading down a few blocks to the Boys and Girls to play ball with Lawyer and E.J. Henderson, his best friend who is now a graduate assistant coach at Louisville.
"Blue collar," is how Martin Kitna describes his neighborhood and the first 20 years of his career in the lumber industry. He was a commercial carpenter hanging at times 50 feet in the air to put roofs on warehouses.
Now he's the manager of a millwork division that sells packages of housing materials. But first he had to negotiate the two weeks vacation so he could get to Cincinnati for games. Fay works for the state of Washington collecting child support.
Same house. Same neighborhood. Same careers. Cookie Kitzman once visited when Jon was in high school and thought how nice it would be if the Kitnas had a dishwasher. But it wouldn't fit, anyway.
"The family is close by. We've always lived around here," Martin said. "Fay and I went to Lincoln and I think I'm a fourth generation."
Cookie Kitzman has always managed to stay in touch. Once when Kitna was still playing in Seattle, she received a reference form to fill out. It seemed Jon wanted to work one day a week with troubled teens at a juvenile center. What impressed her maybe even more was that she never read about it.
But Kitna made sure she got some media attention. He nominated her for the NFL's Teacher of the Month program, and she won it in October of 1999.
"He still loves math," Cookie Kitzman said. "I think it probably does help him with understanding football."
The Bengals hope it's all logical: A guy that lead his team to the 1999 playoffs can do it again across the country in the next odd year.