By Jerry Costello for The Christophers
Maybe you’ve heard of Jon Kitna; maybe you haven’t. He was a football player, a quarterback, in the NFL. He played for Seattle, Cincinnati, Detroit and Dallas, and if he was never a marquee quarterback, he was much more than a journeyman. He worked in the league for 15 years, from 1997 to 2011, threw for nearly 30,000 yards, and once was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year. In all, a nice career.
But, it’s what Kitna is doing now that’s earning him as many plaudits as he ever got on the football field. He’s teaching algebra to students at Lincoln High School in a high-poverty area of his hometown of Tacoma, Wash. And it’s not just any students he has in his classes. He asked for the toughest kids, the potential dropouts and he got them. Now he’s in the process of turning their lives around, and he loves it.
“This is what I’m supposed to do,” Kitna said. “This is my calling.”
Kitna’s calling came at a steep financial cost. In his final year with the Dallas Cowboys he earned about $3.2 million; in 2012 he received $26,000 from Lincoln High—$20,000 for his part-time teaching, and $6,000 for coaching the football team. That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s above dipping into his own financial reserves (he paid for the school’s new weight room) or calling on old friends from his NFL days. He’s received equipment donations for Lincoln from Carson Palmer, quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals; from Tony Romo, whom he backed up as quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys and Calvin Johnson, who snagged more than a few Kitna passes when both played for the Detroit Lions.
Still he’s dead serious about his teaching. He has an enthusiastic fan in Lincoln High Principal Pat Erwin.
“Jon reads people really well,” Erwin told writer Gail Wood. “He’s genuine. He walks his talk. He also challenges kids. Being a former NFL quarterback helps get their attention.”
Lincoln High School hasn’t changed all that much from the time that Kitna went there in the late 1980s, except that the poverty level in the area might be greater today. He teaches young people because he genuinely cares about them, and he’s made a standing offer to meet students before class begins—if they so desire.
Many of them do, and Kitna has been true to his word. As a result, some of those who had been ignoring their homework now turn in assignments, and kids who once had failing grades are finding themselves with As and Bs on their tests.
Perhaps most important is the message of hope Kitna leaves with students.
“I have a chance to really shape their worldview,” he says. “That’s exciting. It’s also a huge responsibility I don’t take lightly.”
Writer Wood observed that Kitna, gratefully, “is more interested in changing lives than chasing a buck.” How does the athlete-turned-teacher feel about that?
“My life should be about the impact and influence I have on others,” he admitted. “To see lives changed–that’s something!”
For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, TEACHING TEENS TO MAKE GOOD CHOICES, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.