Kitna an inspiration for Bengals

Team's newest QB provides football and spiritual leadership

September 22, 2001|By Mark Curnutte | Mark Curnutte,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CINCINNATI - Cincinnati Bengals starter Jon Kitna is an improbable NFL quarterback.

As a 10th-grader in Tacoma, Wash., he didn't know to hold a football with the laces to throw it. He wanted to play wide receiver as a senior.

Baseball was his best sport, but he ended up going to NAIA Central Washington without a scholarship to play football. He was 12th-string quarterback on his first day of practice as a freshman.

Kitna didn't begin to show the slightest potential as even a long-shot NFL prospect until he put his life in order. His road back to self-respect and longer road to pro quarterback started when his life bottomed out in October 1993.

That's the night his girlfriend, and future wife, Jennifer, discovered he was having an affair. The next day, he told her whether or not they stayed together, he knew he had to get God back into his life.

"The worst thing I could ever do to her was the best thing that ever could have happened to us," said Kitna, who turned 29 yesterday. "Because without it, she was going to graduate that year. I still had two years left. We probably would have gone our separate ways. I wouldn't have my two kids.

"Only God can take something that's so horrible and make it something that's so great."

After five up-and-down seasons in Seattle, he signed a four-year, $4 million contract with the Bengals in March as an unrestricted free agent. After beating out Scott Mitchell and Akili Smith in training camp, Kitna threw for 204 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions in Cincinnati's 23-17, season-opening victory over the New England Patriots.

The Bengals will play host to the Ravens tomorrow at Paul Brown Stadium.

Football clearly is not Kitna's top priority in life. He has a personal hierarchy: God, wife, children. Then football.

"I want to win," said Kitna, who led Seattle to the playoffs in 1999 before falling out with coach Mike Holmgren last season. "I'm willing to accept it when things don't go my way. But it burns me not to win.

"I know God is in control of everything. But that's not an excuse to go out and not do my best."

His best has been better than what the Bengals got from Smith and Mitchell last season. Cincinnati had the NFL's worst pass offense at 122 yards a game and six touchdown passes in 2000.

In the off-season, the Bengals were active in free agency. They offered Elvis Grbac more money than he took to sign with the Ravens. Cincinnati also was interested in Brad Johnson, who signed quickly with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and simultaneously offered the same deal Kitna would sign to the Denver Broncos' Gus Frerotte.

In Cincinnati, Kitna has been reunited with his former Seahawks offensive coordinator, Bob Bratkowski, and the offense they ran in Seattle. Kitna's main task is to guide a competent pass offense that provides some balance for two-time Pro Bowl tailback Corey Dillon.

So far, so good. The 104 yards Dillon gained rushing and the 104 yards receiving by veteran wide-out Darnay Scott against the Patriots was the first time the Bengals had a 100-yard rusher and receiver in the same game since Dec. 5, 1999. Kitna led the offense to five consecutive scoring drives spanning the second and third quarters.

"We have a lot of weapons in this offense," Kitna said of Dillon, Scott and wide receivers Peter Warrick and Chad Johnson. "My job is to get the ball into their hands."

Kitna also has become a leader in a clubhouse that needed some. He and Dillon are regulars in the team's weekly Bible study class. Kitna and guard Mike Goff have struck up a friendship based on their common interest in crossword puzzles. Kitna, who's white but grew up in a predominantly African-American, working-class Tacoma neighborhood, has no trouble getting along with any of his teammates.

"He communicates great with everybody," veteran Bengals cornerback Tom Carter said.

The root of Kitna's strength, he says, is his faith.

"The amazing thing is to see God use Jon," Jennifer Kitna said. "It amazes me to watch him lead other men to God."

First, though, he had to be led.

Once he dedicated his life to his religion, his football career took off. Kitna led Central Washington to the NAIA title game as a senior, throwing for 4,600 yards and 42 touchdowns as a senior.

But there was little interest from the NFL until former Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson gave him a tryout. He earned a free-agent contract and, two years later, under Holmgren, he would lead Seattle to the playoffs while throwing for more than 3,300 yards.

Still, conversations about football with Kitna frequently come back to his faith.

"Football was how God got me here," he said. "But that's not my purpose here. My purpose is to reach out to some guys."

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