Jon Kitna’s days are very different now since he retired from the NFL after a 15-year-career as a quarterback. That doesn’t, however, mean that they’re any less tough. Merely a month after announcing that he was leaving the world of professional sports, Kitna signed up to become an algebra teacher and the football coach at his alma mater: Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington.
His post-retirement plans were a question Kitna and his wife discussed a great deal, especially during the course of his last season with the Dallas Cowboys. The goal has always been to avoid the path laid down by many other retired athletes that lead straight to a golf course; Kitna wanted an experience that could “make the greatest impact.”
In the end, that place turned out to be in front of a class and on the football field of his old high school, and Kitna insists that this is where he wanted to be all along. Calling his NFL career “a detour,” Kitna explains that being a teacher and a coach has always been his real dream.
NBC Sports caught up with Kitna a few months into his new job to get his impressions on the new setting.
Kitna runs a hand over his closely shaved scalp and leans back in his chair. The windowless, concrete bunker that passes for an office is decorated sparingly. There’s a desk, a computer and a large cabinet. A white board is attached to one wall, with names scrawled on it in black ink, grouped by position. The list under the heading “WR” is exceptionally long. The head coach must have been a quarterback.
Although his current salary is barely a tiny fraction of the $3 million he made backing up Tony Romo in Dallas, for Kitna, this was never about the money. Instead, it is about transforming the lives of kids growing up in difficult circumstances in one of the city’s tougher communities and giving them an opportunity to succeed, be it on the football field or in the classroom.
When Kitna first became familiar with the magnitude of the challenge he was taking on by agreeing to oversee the school’s Abes football team, it was initially overwhelming. The equipment used by the team, including the helmets and the video equipment, was outdated and practically unusable.
Things are improving, in no small part due to Kitna’s efforts and connections. The Cowboys donated used cleats, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer gave an industrial washer and dryer, and another donor gave money for new helmets. A local drug store offered a buy-one-earn-one-for-Lincoln program that brought in things such as shampoo and deodorant for players.
Kitna’s wife, Jeni, has taken the reins of the Abes’ booster program, seeking help from local businesses and alumni. The goal is to find 2,000 alumni and supporters willing to donate $100 a year.
In the end it isn’t victories Kitna is after, although he won’t turn them down. He measures success via metrics like graduation rates and college attendance. He believes, however, that the football program has a role to play in bringing about those kinds of improvements. And he wants to help it be the best tool for opportunity it can be.