Fans call it “taking a knee.” The football game is won and done, but there’s some time to kill before the issue can be closed. So the ball is snapped to the quarterback with a simple task: put a knee to the ground.
Jon Kitna, a veteran of 15 pro football seasons who’s beginning the first year of the rest of his life as the head coach at Lincoln High School, is familiar with all that can go wrong when a game is seemingly won and done.
“Let’s go over our victory formation, men,” Kitna says to his team. It’s a Saturday afternoon, a few minutes before two school buses will take the Abes to Sumner for their game against Bonney Lake High School.
Taking a knee, like every other play in football, is not as simple as it looks. Offensive linemen must be precisely spaced. A tailback, whose sole responsibility will be to pounce on a botched snap, is placed behind the quarterback. What can go wrong?
“Don’t be surprised if the other guys cheap-shot you, or talk some smack,” Kitna warns. “They’re tired. They’re frustrated. They’re angry. They’ve just lost the game, and they’re upset.
“If that happens, you turn the other way. Got it? You turn the other way. You just smile to yourself ’cause your team has won.”
Watch for the cue from the sideline, Kitna goes on. The coaches will implement it by holding their second and third fingers aloft, football sign-language for the letter “V,” which stands for victory.
In front of the school, the Lincoln victory formation is practiced a final time. Quarterback J’Maka Love catches the shotgun snap and puts his knee to the ground.
Last January, when Kitna was hired at Lincoln to teach math and coach the football team, he noted how there’s “greatness in the hallways” of the 99-year-old school. Tapping that greatness will require Kitna’s athletes to honor every small detail, whether it’s turning in homework assignments on schedule or taking a knee at the end of a game.
Greatness in the Lincoln High School hallways can be attained without its football team winning every weekend, of course. Lining up in a victory formation nine or 10 times a season won’t hurt the cause.
Before the enchanted evening is over, under a full moon, Lincoln will line up in a victory formation that precedes a poignant reunion of former Abes teammates in the locker room.
How the reunion becomes a happy occasion, well, that is the stuff of a story.
SUNDAY, AUG. 26
Six days before the 2012 season kicks off, Kitna is putting together the Abes’ traveling squad and first-week game plan with five assistant coaches. They gather in the upstairs office of Kitna’s Lakewood residence, an elegant but comfortable house filled with the joyous noise of children at play.
The office door remains open. It’s as if Kitna doesn’t hear the kids. Then again, maybe he does, and likes the sound.
A miniature Seahawks jersey, with Kitna’s name stitched on the back, hangs in a frame, and there are some other sports mementos, but the office – and, for that matter, the house – is not a shrine to its owner’s athletic accomplishments.
The Lincoln alum knows where he came from (the East Side of Tacoma) and what he did after he left (the undrafted free-agent quarterback from Central Washington University played 15 seasons in the NFL, passing for 169 touchdowns and almost 30,000 yards). He doesn’t need memorabilia to remind him of a career that concluded last winter.
Besides, while Kitna’s years with the Seattle Seahawks, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys were satisfying and lucrative, they won’t mean squat against Bonney Lake.
And yet one aspect of that NFL experience serves as a framework for Kitna’s Lincoln program.
“What will separate us,” he tells the assistants, “is our efficiency in practice.”
Efficiency means every sequence of a two-hour practice is scripted to the minute. Practice time is precious. Practice time will not be compromised by small talk. It’s a Jon Kitna mandate that even extends to this coaches meeting in his office, where the mood of urgency is akin to a Joint Chiefs of Staff conference at the White House.
The assembling of Lincoln’s traveling roster begins by establishing a tentative depth chart at every position. Kitna marks down the names on an erasable poster board; consensus is achieved by identifying 19 offensive players and 21 defensive players.
“We want to take 60 guys,” Kitna says. “So we need another 20 who deserve to go. Ideas?”
Ideas, at first, come fast and furious. Assistant head coach Evan Brady, defensive coordinator Casey Kjos, offensive coordinator Damola Adeniji, defensive backs coach Eric Boles and offensive line coach Matt Kitna – Jon’s brother – volunteer names for consideration.
The vetting process is earnest. Candidates are judged on their practice attitude, their potential to contribute in a pinch and their appetite for contact – a key component for those on special teams.
“I don’t want 11 starters on the kickoff team,” Boles says, “because somebody’s gonna get hurt. But then, I got bad memories of the kickoff team. That’s where I got hurt.”
The search moves on: Who plays? Who travels? Who stays?
“Martinez deserves to make the trip” somebody says.
“Which one is Martinez?”
“He’s got the double knee brace.”
“No, that’s Marquez,” Jon Kitna corrects. “Martinez stands up to about here” – the 6-foot-2 Kitna gestures toward his rib-cage – “and gives everything he’s got, every day he’s out there.
“We need some more names,” Kitna says. Fast and furious has slowed to a crawl. Brady spins around in his swiveling chair, takes a deep breath, and stares at the ceiling. If you think high-school traveling squads are put together on a whim, ask Brady about how whimsical it is.
He looks like a contestant on the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” game show. Without a lifeline.
After several minutes of consternation, a traveling squad finally is set for the season opener. It will include Ricky Marquez, a 5-10, 170-pound sophomore, and Julio-Caesar Martinez, the 5-6, 135-pound junior who gives everything he’s got, every day he’s out there.
Once the traveling roster is established, Kitna and his staff devise a game plan for Bonney Lake. The head coach scribbles “keys to winning” on the poster board. On defense, it’s predicated on eliminating the two outside receivers and pressuring the quarterback. On offense, it’s predicated on keeping turnovers to a minimum.
As in, none.
“How is that going to happen?” Kitna asks the coaches, and then he volunteers a thought.
“If it’s third-and-15, we’ll get the ball to the side on a screen pass. We don’t have to throw deep. They have no idea we have so many screens.”
Kitna has an affinity for old-school values. He wants his players to regard teammates as family members, and to regard opponents with respect.
But old-school values don’t have to put a crimp on the new-wave football strategy of accelerated tempo. The Abes will practice fast to play fast.
“If we get these guys in shape, they’re gonna be unstoppable,” he says, and then, savoring the words, he repeats himself: “They’re gonna be unstoppable.”
Having agreed upon the offensive, defensive and special teams’ rotations, the coaches figure out game-day logistics: There will be room for two of them in the upstairs box – who goes there? There will be six headsets – who wears them?
The idea is for one coach to send authentic plays in from the sideline, while another coach stands next to him, pretending to send in plays. The decoy will prevent sign-stealing.
“Does that really happen at this level?” Kitna is asked.
He’s taking no chances.
Their work done for the day, the staff adjourns to a restaurant, where the epic mission of restoring greatness in the Lincoln hallways presumably will be tabled for a few minutes of small talk. A busy week that could define their 2012 season awaits them, and they’re hungry.
WEDNESDAY, AUG. 29
The Abes’ third game-week practice in preparation for Bonney Lake begins the moment the girls’ soccer team leaves the Lincoln Bowl field.
“Offense, let’s go!” Kitna shouts. The players, who have been waiting behind the goal post, approach their positions in a trudge that suggests they are not particularly enthusiastic about the task at hand – or tasks in general.
“C’mon, men, have some of pep in your step!” he says. Conquering laziness on this particular afternoon is a prominent theme.
Drills proceed within a precise timetable. It’s all business; only during the stretching exercises does Kitna share a smile.
“What are you doing over there?” he asks a lineman, sitting on the sideline bench.
“My hamstring hurts, coach.”
“Dude, you’re not fast enough to have a hamstring injury.”
At the conclusion of stretching, the Abes participate in their daily “R.E.A.L. Men” chant. R.E.A.L. is an acronym for Kitna’s vision of molding the typical Lincoln football player into somebody who rejects passivity (R), empathizes with others (E), accepts responsibility (A) and leads courageously (L).
Kitna’s long-term vision for Lincoln is one of clarity, unimpeded by the frequent mistakes he sees his team commit on the practice field.
“You hit him right in the back!” Kitna screams during a punt-return drill. It’s possible the coach’s voice can be heard at the Flying Boots cafe, two blocks away.
“Why would you do that? WHY?”
“You better know it. You better know it,” Kitna implores to another player, who has forgotten where to line up. “We can’t play you unless you know what you’re doing.”
Kitna, who turns 40 on Sept. 21, is a hands-on coach whose hands today will be on the football. He wants to acclimate the defense to the quick-strike passing attack it’ll face Saturday night against the Panthers.
As a backup to Dallas quarterback Tony Romo last season, Kitna attempted only 10 passes over three games. But 15-year NFL veterans don’t lose their skills overnight. Kitna is throwing tight spirals released with ease, and though every ball isn’t caught, every ball – short, medium or deep – is catchable.
Midway through practice, Lincoln principal Pat Erwin makes a brief appearance.
“Jon impressed me the first time we talked about the coaching job here,” says Erwin. “He knew exactly what he wanted to do: build character with his ‘R.E.A.L. Men’ program. He was convinced football could be way of turning young people into better individuals.
“Then he gave a thorough description of his plans for an offensive system, and for a defensive system. He had it all written out. There was no question in my mind that Jon Kitna would be just as successful a high-school coach as he was as a player.”
(“Pat Erwin is the man,” Kitna will tell his assistants later. “He’s agreed to waive the freshman P.E. requirement for football players so they can use the period for weight training. That’s huge.”)
After practice, Kitna gathers in front of the team for a pep talk delivered in the cadence of a Sunday morning sermon.
“Don’t mistake passion,” he stresses, “for a lack of love. We care about you. But you’ve got to get rid of laziness. Laziness is inside all of us, and how do you confront it? You kick it to the curb. You don’t feel like doing your homework because you’re lazy? Kick it. You don’t feel like waking up early and going to work because you’re lazy? Kick it, kick it, kick it.
“Men, do you know what the difference is between the people who make it in this world and the people who don’t? The people who make it see an obstacle and look past it. Whatever the obstacle is, they look past it and get to where they want to go.”
Kitna ends his lecture by accentuating the positive.
“I can’t wait to watch us on Saturday,” he says. “I’m so excited, I can’t sleep. They’re a good team with a good quarterback, and he’s gonna come out fast. But you’ll see nothing as fast as what you saw today. Bonney Lake has no idea what is coming.”
Once the players are off the field, Kitna holds a 15-minute debriefing session with the assistant coaches and a trusted observer, former Lincoln basketball coach John McCrossin.
“You’ve got some athletes, I can tell that much,” McCrossin tells his former pupil. “Now they’ve just got to embrace the message they’re getting.”
Kitna shares a thought with the group.
“You know what we need? We need two guys who are so competitive at practice that we can’t allow them near each other. When I was playing here, Jon Kitna and Lawyer Malloy couldn’t practice against each other because it was going to get out of hand.
“We’ve got to find that spark, that fire, that energy.”
As Kitna waits for practices to be self-energized by the sparks, fire and energy of ferocious competitors, former Abes quarterback Quintin Brown, class of 2010, watches this practice with an excitement dampened by regret.
“It’s so organized now, it’s like night and day,” says Brown, who helps record video for the team. “It’s a shame I wasn’t born five years later.”
SATURDAY, SEPT. 1
The Abes’ pregame team meal in the Lincoln cafeteria is a family affair. Jon’s father, Martin, grilled 90 hamburgers at home. Jon’s wife, Jennifer, carved melon for the fruit trays. Jon’s mom, Fay, is supervising a serving line that includes his cousin and some Kitna family friends.
Three and a half hours removed from watching a kickoff he has been anticipating since January, the rookie coach is involved in a different kind of game day – one in which he’ll be absent from action, and yet in the middle of everything.
“It’s almost more stressful than when he played,” says Jennifer Kitna, as the Abes amble through the food line in single file. She smiles and adds: “I thought this was going to be better.”
“See those guys?” says Martin Kitna, nodding toward the coaches at the cafeteria entrance. “They’ve already got their game faces on.”
Jon Kitna might be a novice at this gig, but he understands there’s a time for reflection and a time for levity. The Abes’ pregame meal will include both.
He leads the team in a prayer of thanks for the food and those responsible for preparing it. After the meal, he asks the seniors to step up to the microphone and describe something that has stuck with them since Aug. 15, when the Abes convened for their first practice.
One rule: Each player must offer an original thought. Nobody can be repeated.
It’s supposed to be fun, but the motive behind the extemporaneous “drill” is serious. Addressing an audience – even an audience of teammates who have become an extended family – can be a challenge. Kitna wants the seniors to think on their feet and assert themselves as they speak.
“My favorite thing,” says Isaiah McClarron, “is how fast we picked up the speed of the game.”
“What I like,” says QueVeon Jenkins, “is all the respect we’ve shared with other.”
“I just want everyone to be proud,” says Isaac Fua.
When a comment is inaudible, Kitna sounds less like the football coach than director of the school’s next theatrical production: “Louder! Be confident!”
“Probably the best thing I can think of,” says Lu Alainuuese, “is ... the food.”
Alainuuese’s words draw the intended roar of laughter, with the head coach laughing the hardest. There will be a place and time for a pregame speech, but it is not here, and it is not now.
Between the meal and the final walk-through in front of the school, players put on their game jerseys and pack the rest of their uniform gear in bags they’ll carry on the bus. Kitna stays busy entertaining his two youngest children, Jalen (9) and Jameson (6), in the equipment room.
Banter in the coaches’ office, meanwhile, is quite a bit more lighthearted than it was when they were installing the game plan at Kitna’s house.
The buses show up for the trip to Sumner’s Sunset Chev Stadium. And 30 minutes later, the Abes are gathering in the visitor’s locker room – it’s more like a staging room, there are no lockers – where a Phil Collins song is blaring.
“I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord.
And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord.
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord, oh Lord?”
It’s cramped and stuffy as the players strap on their pads, but the booming drumbeat of the music turns a mood of urgent tension into something close to euphoria.
“I’ve been waiting for
this moment all my life, oh Lord ... ”
“For anybody who wants to say a prayer,” the head coach announces, “we’re going outside.”
Kitna asks the Heavenly Father for a good, clean game that spares either team of injuries. The non-denominational acknowledgment of a divine creator, bereft of references to winning or losing, is similar to the brief prayer at the pregame meal: It’s about giving thanks. It’s about celebrating the spirit of competition.
As for the variables of competition an omnipotent deity presumably leaves up to the athletes, Kitna, back in the locker room, faces his team.
“Listen up. Give me your eyes,” he says. “Football is an emotional, passionate game. You have to play with emotion and passion somewhere inside of you. But emotion doesn’t win football games, and passion doesn’t win football games.
“Just do your job. Do what you’ve prepared to do, and the rest will take care of itself. There will be some adversity, trust me, because it’s football. If something goes wrong, don’t mope about it. It’s done. Move on to the next play.
“So have fun and cut it loose. Let’s show them what a family looks like.”
Pregame warm-up drills find two quarterbacks taking snaps for the Abes. There’s J’Maka Love, a junior recently converted from a wide receiver, and Jordan Kitna, Jon’s son. Only a ninth-grader, Jordan throws a football as if he were born to do it. The plan had been for Jordan to start.
But as a student whose Lakewood residency is outside Lincoln’s boundary, Jordan’s eligibility status was put up for administrative review. The West Central District ruled Jordan can’t play for the varsity this season (his appeal was heard Thursday by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association; a result is expected within five days).
So tonight the offense will be in the hands of Love, a spectacularly elusive 5-11, 182-pound junior who takes the ball and runs with it, who throws it with touch and accuracy, and all in all, comports himself as the Abes’ version of Robert Griffin III.
Lincoln appears to surrender a first-quarter touchdown before defensive back Oliver Orr scoops up a fumble at the goal line and returns it 70 yards. Moments later, Love finds junior receiver Kashawn Johnson in the corner of the end zone, and when Dionte Simon runs for a 3-yard score after another fumble recovery, the Abes are up 14-0 in the first quarter.
But despite dodging pressure augmented by a constant blitz, Bonney Lake senior quarterback Chris Brown is a handful. He hooks up with Zach Zaragoza on a 63-yard touchdown pass, then takes advantage of a botched coverage assignment in the final minute of the first half by throwing a 30-yard touchdown to Kaleb Zahnow.
It’s 14-14 at halftime. Kitna’s prediction about adversity is turning out to be spot-on, and there’s more of it to come.
When the Panthers’ Ethan McElderry runs for a 14-yard touchdown in the third quarter, that early 14-point lead Lincoln had is now a six-point deficit.
On the visitor’s sideline, a Lincoln football legend is offering encouragement.
“I see progress,” Lawyer Milloy says during a timeout. “And progress comes one step at a time.”
Lincoln’s faster steps prove pivotal in the fourth quarter, when Love hooks up with Joshua Eckwood for an 18-yard touchdown pass. Eckwood’s leaping grab is lights-out magnificent, a play rivaled only by Love’s 39-yard touchdown scramble on the Abes’ ensuing possession.
It should be over, except no game is over on a field populated by teenagers. Bonney Lake scores another touchdown on a last-gasp 34-yard touchdown pass, giving the Panthers, down 34-27, reason to believe in a comeback hinging on an onside kick.
Lincoln recovers the kick, and runs a few plays before it’s time to line up in the victory formation. The coaches signal “V” from the sideline. Two fingers, remember?
But there’s confusion – it’s been that kind of night, with pre-snap flags flying everywhere – and Kitna shouts for a timeout.
With the clock showing 40.5 seconds to go, the victory formation finally is executed.
After the perfunctory handshake procession with the Bonney Lake players, the Abes jog toward the visitor’s bleachers for a more rousing round of high fives.
Amid the locker room afterglow, Kitna congratulates his team before pointing out that Lincoln’s most formidable opponent was Lincoln.
“We could’ve won this game, 75-14,” he says. “They never stopped us on offense. Where’s J’Maka Love? Come on over here.
“J’Maka Love saved us tonight.”
There’s another face in the crowd worthy of mention.
“Lincoln High school will be 100 years old next year,” says Kitna, “and no greater athlete ever walked its hallways than the man I’m about to introduce to you. His name is Lawyer Milloy.”
“I’m so proud of you guys,” Milloy tells the team. “I had a chance to go to (the) Huskies’ game tonight, or see you guys. I couldn’t miss this.”
Milloy, who parlayed his stellar career at Lincoln High into a scholarship at the University of Washington, talks about growing up in a gang-infested neighborhood dominated by the Crips and Bloods. He pledged allegiance to neither, and ended up with a bunch of guys remembered as the world-champion New England Patriots.
“The secret to success is practice,” continues Milloy. “The reason I was able to last 15 years in the NFL is because I practiced just as hard as I played.”
There’s greatness lurking in the hallways at Lincoln. Lawyer Milloy knows it. So does Jon Kitna, whose job of nurturing that greatness figures to be easier once he doesn’t have to call time out before the victory formation.