More than meets the eye

"How long is this going to take?" Jon Kitna wants to know, and you stumble and search for an answer because he's bearing down on you with those baby-blue eyes and giving you one of those can-we-hurry-this-up type of stares.

He's not pulling a diva thing at a recent photo shoot, it's just that crowds make him nervous, he says. And as soon as the words leave his lips you want to laugh because you've seen him perform every Sunday from Labor Day to New Year's Day the past two years in front of an audience of 65,000 or so rabid football fans and millions of others watching on television.

But this is different.

While on the streets of downtown Seattle, Kitna makes a heartfelt confession as a steady stream of mid-morning shoppers stroll by.

"I've never been comfortable in front of people," he says. "I can't stand sitting in traffic, and just being in crowded places bothers me. It's weird. In planned situations, I'm OK. But I've always had this kind of a phobia like everybody is looking at me.

"I've been like this long before I became a professional football player. . . . I love doing speaking appearances, and I've always played sports. It's interesting, but that's just me.

"More than anything, I don't want people to have the wrong impression of me. Ever. While I don't care a lot about what people think, I just don't want them to have the wrong impression."

So this is what we know about Jon Kitna. He grew up in the rough parts of Tacoma and attended Lincoln High School. He went to college at Central Washington, a Division II school in Ellensburg, where he played football and met and fell in love with his wife, Jennifer. They had this dream of being high-school teachers that's been put on hold while Kitna pursues his football dreams.

He traveled to Barcelona and led a team called the Dragons to something called a World Bowl title, the championship game of what is now known as NFL Europe. Kitna was the game's MVP. He returned to

the United States and sat on the Seahawk bench behind Warren Moon and John Friesz before getting his first big break in 1997.

He started one game that year, a 22-21 win over the Oakland Raiders. The next season, he started five games and suddenly was "The Man," with his picture on the cover of magazines and fans asking him to sign autographs as he walked downtown sidewalks.

That's the condensed version of the Jon Kitna story. That's what he wants people to know. But there's more. Different parts of his personality reveal themselves while he window shops on Pine Street.

If he were Gary Payton or Alex Rodriguez, Seattle's preeminent sports stars, this type of activity might not be possible. But Kitna doesn't have a face that attracts attention. Every so often, though, someone stops and gives him a quizzical look.

They may ask: "Do I know you?" To which, Kitna might reply: "No, I don't think so."

"I usually don't have a problem with being recognized out in public," says Kitna, wearing loose-fitting blue jeans and a T-shirt. "Mostly it's the hair. People may know the hair, but that's it."

To those who approach him, Kitna is cordial. He signs every autograph and exchanges small talk. He'll even participate in a friendly game of catch with construction workers, tossing passes over cars in mid-morning traffic.

The common man

Those who know him describe him as a fun-loving person. But there's more.

"I betcha didn't know that Kit was really black," says Seahawk free safety Jay Bellamy, an African-American, a few weeks ago at training camp. He was joking, but only half joking.

"He's cool," Bellamy says. "That's just Jon. In any situation, he can handle himself. . . . He gets along with everybody."

And therein lies the true testament of Jon Kitna.

He used to be the boy next door and might someday teach math to your children. He could be the guy driving down the street. He's that kid you knew in elementary school who sometimes got into trouble and always wanted to play sports.

Kitna could be any one of us. That's his powerful message. He is the common man. He is a "feel-good" story. He is anybody you've ever known, a trait that binds him more to us than those he plays with and competes against.

He blends into the background of most situations, able to converse with most people on most topics. A devout Christian, Kitna mixes well with the religious sect, but a diverse upbringing gives him an understanding of other races and cultures.

"I learned the value of my education at Lincoln when I went to Central," Kitna says. "I was around people who went to school and everybody in their class looked like them. So they've never been around different people of different races.

"And I was like, `Wow, I've been blessed that I went to a high school that was 50 percent minority.' We had everything. There were blacks, Hispanics, Pacific islanders, there were Vietnamese, Chinese. And Native Americans. We had a melting pot. So you either were going to stick in your little clique or mix in with everybody."

Guess what Kitna did? He mixed. So much so that folks in Ellensburg accused him being "too black." Maybe it's because his wife is of mixed heritage. Or maybe it's because half of the people in Kitna's wedding party, including his best man, were black.

Whatever the reason, Kitna didn't understand.

"It's something I don't think about," he says. "When I got to Central my first year, people were saying I was trying to act a certain way, and that was just crazy. What was that? I had never even heard that before. And then I heard that and thought, `These people don't understand me.' I've been blessed to have many cultures influence me."

Kitna is just as likely to join former Seahawk kicker Todd Peterson for a weekend of Christian fellowship as he is to attend a late-night, fund-raising rap concert given by running back Ricky Watters. He is quick to exchange barbs with the offensive linemen and enjoys playing a card game of "Spades" with fullback Mack Strong.

To Kitna, it's all the same. He's not naive enough to believe that race doesn't mater, but it just doesn't matter to him.

"It translates because as a quarterback, you have to be able to communicate to everyone," he says. "OK, say I didn't have that. Now on the football field when adversity hits, who do I turn to? Just one group? Now I can go to each one of those guys and those guys I think trust me to get it done."

But that's the mystery surrounding Kitna: Can he get it done?

A blast from the past

After four years with the Seahawks, the answer is uncertain. He is the first quarterback to lead Seattle to the playoffs since 1988, but his long-term future is still unclear.

No one compares him to Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre anymore, not after last year's 1-6 slide at the end of the season, which included a 20-17 playoff loss to the Miami Dolphins. Now Kitna's challenge is to retain his job, and once again a man named Huard confronts him.

As a teenager, Damon Huard overshadowed Kitna and received all the publicity when both were seniors in high school. Damon starred at Puyallup High and went to the University of Washington. Kitna played at Lincoln High and went to Central Washington.

The difference is noticeable.

Huard got an all-expense paid free ride with the Huskies, while Kitna had to work and play football, earning $50 a week while supervising the school's weight room.

This time, the Huard he faces is younger and more athletic. This time, the challenge is Damon's baby brother, Brock, who is pushing Kitna for the starting job.

"Everyone knows what the situation is with Jon. It's his job, but he's got to show me some things," Coach Mike Holmgren says. "He's got to continue to improve and get better. You can't stay stagnant in this league for very long, it just doesn't work that way."

Kitna hears the critics. He knows a slow start may spark a quarterback controversy and possibly end his fairy-tale story before it reaches a happy ending.

"Am I satisfied? Am I content? The answer is no," he says. "But that's a fine line. I'm not where I want to be in anything. Not in football, not as a husband or as a father, as a man of God, as a son, as a brother or as someone who goes out in the community.

"I don't think I'll ever get to that point. But I'm happy where the journey has me right now. I'm enjoying the process. I look and say, five years I've been in this league. I look and say I've come a long way. But I can't say that this is the best I can do. There's more. There's so much more."


Jon Kitna bio

Height: 6 feet 2.

Weight: 217 pounds.

Age: 27 (born Sept. 21, 1972).

Hometown: Tacoma.

Pro highlights: Was signed by the Seahawks in 1996, then waived and signed to the practice squad. . . . Played in Europe in 1997, leading the Barcelona Dragons to the World Bowl title. . . . Played three games for the Seahawks in 1997, throwing for 371 yards and one TD. . . . Started the final five games of the 1998 season for the Seahawks, throwing for 1,177 yards and seven TDs. . . . Started 15 games at QB in 1999 season, passing for 3,346 yards and 23 TDs while leading the Seahawks to the playoffs for the first time since 1988.

College highlights: Played at Central Washington, where he passed for 12,353 yards and 99 TDs in four years and was a first-team All-American as a senior. . . . Graduated with a degree in math education.

High school highlights: Lettered in football, basketball and baseball at Lincoln High in Tacoma.

Personal: Married wife Jennifer on Aug. 13, 1994. They have two children, Jordan, 2, and Jada, 1. . . . Started a Christian-based ministry at Remann Hall in Tacoma in 1998. . . . Lives in Kirkland.