Jon Kitna tried to arrest the folklore growing up around him this week. He was bound to fail.
He really is a 41-year-old schoolteacher and coach making an instant reversion to backup Cowboys quarterback and planning to give his $53,000 game check to the kids of Tacoma's Lincoln High. There's not much anyone can do to unravel that tale. Kitna pried apart little pieces of the story and put other elements into context. Once he rearranged the details, this is how his version added up: He and his wife, Jennifer, have given away large chunks of their income for years, including his salary at the school and, before that, 20 percent of his NFL wages -- as much as $1 million some seasons. So what's another $53,000?
"I just have always been taught that your money is not your own," Kitna said by phone from Texas on Thursday night. "Our resources don't come from ourselves. They're given to us by God, and we need to have an open hand and let him do with it as he wishes."
OK, then. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Kitna said he never intended the information about his Cowboys paycheck to go public. He explained his plans in what he considered a private exchange, he said, and the information went out on the wires before he had even spoken to a media member. He said he didn't expect much fuss over the decision back in Tacoma, where he grew up and attended Lincoln, especially among the kids he coaches.
"Quite honestly, a lot of them don't know I'm here," he said. "They don't get to go on the Internet or read a newspaper." The school serves a large proportion of low-income students, which is exactly what drew Kitna back when he finished playing after the 2011 season. He and Jennifer initially spent $150,000 to outfit a new weight room, a story documented in the past. When they first made the offer, the school's principal said he would have to clear the idea with the board. One problem, Kitna said. He'd already bought all the equipment.
He began his new venture by teaching math as well as weight-training classes, and running the football program. He said he pulled away from the math department as his slate of public speaking engagements, from corporate gigs to men's groups and Christian couples retreats with his wife, expanded. He couldn't do the job properly and be away from Tacoma 30 to 40 days a year.
"I always knew teaching was hard, but I have a whole new respect for teachers," Kitna said. "… It's definitely even harder than I thought."
So to anyone whipping out a film treatment: The part about him being a math teacher is now fiction. Then carry on. The man just ran the Dallas Cowboys scout team only weeks after he did the same thing for the Lincoln Abes of the 3A Narrows League. He played in a church's Thanksgiving weekend game with teenagers and men considerably older than himself. He lined up at wide receiver and eventually got some snaps at quarterback.
"I was just catching passes from him in the Turkey Bowl, and to think he'sgoing to be throwing to Dallas Cowboys players this week," said Tony Brooks, a junior high school teammate of Kitna's who now volunteers as the Lincoln running backs coach. Brooks, an All-Big Sky wide receiver at Eastern Washington in the early '90s, runs his own insurance agency. He is one of more than a dozen volunteer assistants recruited by Kitna.
"I love football, but if it was just about coaching the game," Brooks said, "I don't know if any of us would be in it."
When he heard that Kitna would funnel his Dallas check back to Lincoln students, he wasn't surprised. "That's just the kind of person he is," Brooks said.
The Abes went 5-5 in Kitna's first year, then 8-2 this season. Ask him to describe the most memorable moments of each year, and he won't mention a play.
At a team meeting in the first season, the coaches noted a trend: Players would make progress in their classes, getting a string of A's and B's, and then, out of nowhere, a failing grade would appear. Once the conversation started, it stretched more than an hour and a half, putting everything else, including the training meal provided by Kitna family funds, off schedule.
"We wanted to know: 'Where is the disconnect? You're doing great here and there, then what happens?'" Kitna said. "… It was just a really sweet, sweet time listening to them talk. … I have to be careful here, you walk such a fine line of not violating some of their vulnerability. But they told us: 'Man, sometimes I just give up because I think of this at home or that at home, and I use it as an excuse. And sometimes, I just think nobody cares.'"
This season, another conversation went deep into overtime. The staff put together a presentation about the effects growing up in a fatherless home, a circumstance all too common among the Lincoln players. "We're always talking about breaking the cycle," Kitna said. "So we found this video and showed it to them and the session after that was tremendous. Coaches were crying, kids were crying."
The Kitna family runs the boosters association now, drawing in sponsors as well as relying on funds from the head coach and his wife. Because he doesn't need his salary, Kitna said he gives it to the team and to students facing a crisis or simply a Christmas without any gifts. "We step in just like a lot of teachers do," he said. The only difference is the amount "because we've been blessed and we don't need to live on a teaching salary."
His employers and teammates from a 16-year NFL career have come to Lincoln's aid too. Kitna starts rattling off contributions. Used cleats and extra gloves and shoulder pads from the Seahawks and Cowboys. Carson Palmer, whom he backed up in Cincinnati, donated $10,000 to pay for an industrial washer and dryer. Calvin Johnson came up with 120 pairs of brand-new cleats, perfect for game day. Tony Romo, whose back injury prompted Kitna's return to Dallas this week as insurance, donated money for uniforms. So did fellow Cowboy DeMarcus Ware. New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis heard about the program and offered used Saints practice gear.
Kitna goes on and on with this list, somewhat diluting the story of his own contributions. In the end, the effort won't work. He's in uniform again at 41, and in the middle of a story that never quits.