Walking the walk

9-11-02, 8:40 a.m.

Jon Kitna's West Chester home is as busy and as varied as a college dorm. Which is just about right because that's pretty close to the median age of the people that come through a front door that is more like a turnstile.

Kitna doesn't turn 30 for 10 more days and he may no longer be the Bengals starting quarterback. But on this Monday night in the season, he is playing the venerable father-knows-best-role with superb huddle presence.

Here he is helping a son breeze through some Algebra I homework. There he is pouring a dinner drink for a three-year-old daughter. Now he is making sure that Kobie the dog doesn't maul a guest with interest.

"I always name my dogs after athletes. And I've already got a son named, 'Jordan,'" says Jon of his five-year-old.

He and wife Jennifer also have two adopted teen-age sons, Jon's cousins from Tacoma, Wash., Chris and Casey Kjos. They are also cousins and the Kitnas share joint custody with their parents. Jen's two brothers spent the summer with them while they worked at Kroger putting away money to go back to the University of Washington.

Call it Hotel Hike.

"We've had Chris for three years, so we were about 26 and 27 and there was a little adjustment there," Kitna says. "That was definitely Teenager 101."

Casey, 15, who has been with the Kitnas for six weeks, laughs.

"I'll jump in on that one," says Casey, whose jobs include the pooper-scooper and setting the table. "We've got our chores and we've got to do them."

When it comes to walking the walk, there is no dogging it in the Kitna house. Jon and Jen know they are in the middle of the dream decade they never expected, so they have never stopped being the high school teachers and coaches they were going to be before he hopped in his Escort and drove two hours to a what-the-heck NFL workout.

And the ones they will be when the ride is over.

"God hasn't blessed us with all these possessions to hoard them," Jon Kitna says. "He hasn't put us here to see how much money we can amass."

Which is why when he was making about 50 grand a year on the Seahawks

practice squad several years ago, the Kitnas opened their small home to one of Jen's basketball players from the Yakima high school where she taught and coached. They thought it was best for her to get out of Yakima, so they helped her get a scholarship to a community college in Seattle and then let her stay with them. When the improbable ride continued and the checks got bigger, Jon and Jen moved to a house more than double the size. Big enough that they prayed.

"Lord, if you want us to have this house, we want to have it so we can help others out," Jon Kitna recalls of the prayer. "Give Chris a place to come and live, and we didn't know who else."

Chris, 16, was a natural to come live with them. He had banged around the Dakotas and Montana, never staying in the same school for more than a year. He wouldn't know his own father if he tripped over him. When he moved back to Washington and the small rural town of Yelm in the foothills of Mount Rainier, he and Casey found themselves hanging out a lot with Jon and Jen in the city.

"My grandparents moved out to Yelm when things in Tacoma started to go bad and a lot of my family moved out there. My parents are the only ones who have stayed in the city," Jon says. "Things have deteriorated a little bit in Yelm, now too, so everybody thought if Chris came with us, he would have a better chance educationally."

The first year they had Chris, they spent every night with him on his homework, just trying to catch him up. Now, on Monday night, Jon helps him with two problems on his math review sheet for the first time this year as Chris starts the third week as a sophomore at Lakota East.

"It took me about two or three weeks to get used to living with them," Chris recalls. "It was the first time I was living a natural life. I wasn't used to that. In school, I always had different teachers teaching me different things and if I didn't get it the first time, they didn't hear me."

Since the Kitnas are teachers, they knew the kids that stood out to them were the ones who had the interested parents. So they made themselves appear at open houses, call on the phone, write notes. Now Chris regularly pulls As and Bs in his schools at Lakota and Seattle.

"All his teachers rave about how hard he works," Jen says. "He's made friends easily and it's just so good to see."

Casey had a different situation. He was pulling a 4.0 back in Yelm and he was active in student council and sports. But he and Chris grew up inseparable and the times when Casey showed up at Jon and Jen's in Seattle after some problems at home, Chris was usually already there.

"I thought I'd get better educational opportunities if I came out here with them," Casey says. "And they've strengthened my walk with Jesus Christ."

When Chris was in Seattle and the kids realized he was living with the Seahawks quarterback, they did what kids can do and made life miserable for him.

"They'd ask me why I wore the clothes I did and why I didn't wear things to show that I had money," Chris says. "I told them, 'I don't want the money, I don't have the money.' I just wanted to live my life."

After Sunday's game, they all went out to eat and Chris ordered a bacon cheeseburger. Jon told him, "Have a steak, this is dinner," and Chris said, "Too much money."

Now Chris is living the life of your basic Midwestern high school sophomore. He's a defensive end for the Lakota East junior varsity football team, he just got his driver's license, and along with Casey, he's a big-time babysitter.

"We try to help out Jen as much as we can," Chris says. "Driving to the store or helping with the kids."

They also take care of the lawn. One mows the grass and the other weeds. For Jon, who places each hanger in his closet a few inches apart for maximum result, that's a big concession.

"That was huge when I gave up doing the grass," Jon says. "I'm a pretty meticulous person. I like everything just right. But they do a good job. They're great kids. They don't give us any problems at all. They do what we ask."

With both teen-agers playing football, dinner is usually between 7 and 7:30 p.m. It won't be long after that when Jordan and Jada go to bed, as Casey and Chris collect the dishes and wash them.

"It's funny," Jon says. "Here we were offering Chris stability and after one year with us, we sign with Cincinnati. We brought him out for about four days to look at the place when we bought the house and that's hard for a kid to make a decision to come to a place he's never seen. But what we had for him was stability in the home and helping him with school."

They have the big house on the golf course with the big life. But they're still walking the walk that took them there and will take them back.

Kitna doesn't know when this magical ride that began as the 12th-string quarterback for a NAIA college is going to be over. But he knows what he'll do when it's over. He'll be a high school math teacher coaching a football team.

A math teacher back at his alma mater of Lincoln High School?

"If not Lincoln, somewhere in Tacoma," Kitna says as he walks his guest to the front hall. "If that's where God wants me."

But there might be a delay.

"I might take a year off and go around and watch high school games," Kitna says. "That way I'll know what teams are running before I start coaching."

Kitna smiles and shuts the front door that is never closed.

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