Of Kitna, Akili and Jack T.

3-08-01

BY GEOFF HOBSON

There are a few ironies of it all.

On Thursday, the day new Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna signed his Cincinnati contract in his Seattle home, Bengals quarterback Akili Smith was in Seattle meeting with his financial people.

Smith couldn't be reached for comment for reaction to the news that it's Smith vs. Kitna in what Bengals coach Dick LeBeau is calling "a fair, open, honest," competition in training camp.

Ray Smith, Akili's father, said his son isn't afraid of the competition and thinks his son will thrive on it.

"I think this is good for both Kitna and Akili," Ray Smith said. "It gives both of them a chance and hopefully there will be a good relationship where they can learn from each other's mistakes."

Kitna, known as a tremendous locker-room presence with a Christian view and blue-collar upbringing, did more than hold out the olive branch to Smith.

Kitna has lived all but one of his 28 years in the state of Washington, so he knew about the kid with the rocket arm down in Oregon a few years back. If Smith likes to golf, Kitna says he'll golf with him. If Smith likes to shoot hoops, he says he'll play basketball with him.

"Competition draws out the best of you. I'm excited," Kitna said. "We're up here in the Northwest and I saw him play. His arm strength is way above average."

The other massive irony is that if there's one guy who knows about a quarterback competition in Bengaland, it's Jack Thompson.

The same Jack Thompson who was Cincinnati's No. 1 pick in 1979 (yes, the third pick, just like Smith) and was supposed to unseat Ken Anderson as the franchise quarterback.

The same Jack Thompson who spotted Kitna as a 10th grader at his quarterback camp in Everett, Wash., and loved his competitiveness.

"If I knew he was going to make this much money," Thompson said Thursday from Seattle, "I would have charged him more."

As every Cincinnati school kid knows, Anderson remained the quarterback and ended up being the NFL MVP and took the Bengals to the Super Bowl in 1981. Thompson watched and became best known as a successful coffee company executive.

"Kenny and I had a great competition through the summer

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and I hurt my ankle," Thompson said, spicing the memories with good-natured humor and admiration.

"He had a tough opener and I had to watch with my big ankle and Turk (Schonert) won it for us by handing off to Pete Johnson. I could have done that," Thompson said. " But I give Kenny credit.

"He went in and had a heart-to-heart talk with (head coach) Forrest Gregg and then he took us to the Super Bowl. I like to think I helped him, that I pushed him with competition and made him better," Thompson said. " That's what makes sports sports. Competition makes everyone better."

Thompson has had a 50-yard-line seat for Kitna's improbable rise from the NAIA (Central Washington) to the NFL playoffs as quarterback of the hometown Seattle Seahawks.

Maybe this is where Kitna and Smith have more in common than not. Both grew up in tough neighborhoods and went to hardscrabble high schools named Lincoln – Smith in San Diego and Kitna in Tacoma. And while Smith is gifted, he had to convince people the hard way at Lincoln, Grossmont Junior College and Oregon that he could play quarterback.

"I never had anything handed to me," Kitna said. "I've had to go out and fight and scrap for everything that I got."

Thompson admires Kitna's ability to reach out in a locker room and fit in with any group, a huge asset in any quarterback scrum. Thompson thinks it stems from Kitna, who is white, growing up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Tacoma.

Look for him to do work for the local Boys and Girls Club. That's where he hung out to avoid trouble, and ended up being on special teams with future Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy since fifth grade.

"Jon comes from a very unique background," Thompson said. "If anything, he's a minority. He's got the rare ability to relate to everyone. Guys of color, the trainers, everybody. Jon will fit in no matter where he goes. He's an intelligent guy and his work ethic will be pleasing to the guys there."

Thompson loves the way Kitna plays and thinks Cincinnati will, too. Just when you think he can't do it anymore. . .

" If there's time left on the clock, I figure we have a chance to win," said Kitna, who won his first NFL start by rallying Seattle from a 21-3 half-time deficit in Oakland to a 22-21 victory.

"He can take a shot and not get rattled," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, who was Kitna's coordinator for three years in Seattle. "You can see it in his eyes. Some guys get shook up and you can see it in their eyes. Never Jon."

Kitna would probably like to stare down Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, although he takes the high road and just says it might be time for a change of scenery. But Holmgren clearly clashed with Kitna and apparently never let him forget it was the previous Seattle coach, Dennis Erickson, who gave Kitna his shot and not him

While some wonder why the Bengals would sign a quarterback benched by a Super Bowl coach, Bratkowski responds, "I think Mike wonders why all his quarterbacks can't play like Brett Favre. Well, there's only one Brett Favre. If you look what's happened since he came to Seattle, there's practically no one left from when Coach Erickson was there."

Kitna lived for a year in Arizona when he was a freshman in high school, while his father helped a friend start a company. That's the only time he's lived outside Washington. But he's ready for that change of scenery.

Actually, it's a reunion. With Bratkowski's playbook, where Kitna says the quarterback "gets a clean read."

"He uses a lot of three and four wide receivers," Kitna said. "Not 75 percent of the time, but it's a staple. It clears out the box and it allows you to get some good mismatches. It's a proven offense."

Smith and some of his receivers are due in here next Monday to start throwing. Bratkowski figures Kitna will be here some time before the official off-season program begins April 2.

One of Kitna's first priorities when he reaches town is finding a church for his wife Jennifer and their two children under the age of four.

"It was the one hangup," said Kitna of moving from their hometown. "But if you live in Seattle, you're used to having the longest trips in the NFL."

He's already come a long way before even taking a snap in stripes.

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