Commentary

Kitna seeks help from above

Players point to the almighty when they score, credit him for wins and pray to him after games. But is the man upstairs really watching Football? Win or lose, Lions QB Jon Kitna Doesn't doubt it for a second.

Originally Published: September 26, 2007
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

This is what passes for a wild postgame party at Jon Kitna's house.

As midnight nears, Detroit's quarterback sits at his kitchen table picking at a container of leftover pasta salad. The kids are asleep. Worn out after an emotional overtime game at Ford Field, they stayed awake just long enough to wash off the crosses painted on their cheeks. Everyone else is still up, wired and giddy from Kitna's self-proclaimed "miracle" comeback against Minnesota.

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After missing half of Detroit's Sept. 16 game with a mild concussion, Kitna returned in the fourth quarter to gut out a 20-17 win. Then he fell to his knees on top of the Lions' midfield logo and linked hands with teammates and foes in a postgame prayer circle. Now, inside the Kitnas' massive cut-stone home in suburban Detroit, wife Jennifer eats homemade ice cream while Jon's mom, Fay, celebrates with a bowl of cornflakes.

Meanwhile, the QB monitors his two-way pager as it vibrates with incoming messages like "Miracles do exist" and "You and the Lions are so very blessed." Kitna and a visitor then begin a loud, verse-quoting joust about the Bible's stance on men with long hair. It's easy to predict Kitna's position: Whenever he bows his head to pray, he also rubs concentric circles into the buzz cut atop his head with his left hand, almost subconsciously.

In the middle of this debate, Kitna's brother-in-law brings in a gift for the QB, who will turn 35 a few days later. Inside the cardboard box is a ceramic figurine of Jesus in flowing white robes handing off a football to a child. There is a brief, uncomfortable moment of silence. But the statue is so cheesy, even the Kitna clan can't help but laugh when Dad sets it down to reveal the inscription: JESUS IS MY COACH.

In light of Kitna's success, there are some locals wondering just what the Almighty is up to in Motown. And at least some of them sound like they're speaking in tongues. Says Lions backup QB Dan Orlovsky: "Indy can have Peyton. New England can have Tom. We wouldn't trade Jon for anyone."

That was still true following Detroit's 56-21 loss in Philadelphia a week after the "miracle" comeback. Kitna completed 29 of 46 passes for 446 yards with two touchdowns and one pick against the Eagles, mirroring the kinds of numbers he's been putting up since last season, when he led the league with 372 completions while throwing for 4,208 yards, the second-highest total in Lions history.

That happens in coordinator Mike Martz's offense. But Kitna didn't make news until this spring, when he predicted at least 10 victories for Detroit, a team that has suffered through double-digit losses in each of the past six seasons. He made headlines again after that OT win against Minnesota, when he credited the hand of God for healing his concussion and helping him slingshot the Vikings.

Like many athletes who are outspoken about something as personal as faith, Kitna -- with his ubiquitous cross hats and constant biblical references -- is often dismissed as a loon. But his impact in Detroit is undeniable. He is part of a team prayer group on Friday afternoons and hosts a Bible study for teammates and their wives at his home on Monday nights.

Since he signed a four-year, $11.5 million deal in March 2006, about 20 Lions have given their lives to Christ. Teammates, converted or not, credit Kitna -- and, in part, this religious awakening -- with helping change the previously poisonous attitude in the Lions' locker room. Says Orlovsky, "He is the pulse and the heart and the soul of this team."

By combining two of the most fervent elements of society -- faith and football -- a previously anonymous journeyman quarterback has catapulted himself into the zeitgeist.

"People feel football is too trivial for God to care about, especially with so many bad things happening in the world," says Tim Pitcher, a spokesman for Athletes in Action, which uses sports to push Christianity. "For a lot of people, the worlds shouldn't mix."

Yet they do, sometimes with uncomfortable results. After the Colts won the Super Bowl last February, Tony Dungy asked his team to kneel and recite the Lord's Prayer.

While everyone complied, several players looked at each other in disbelief at the request, which forced them to interrupt their celebrations and interviews. To reporters in the room, the moment appeared awkward and forced.

Such discord isn't limited to NFL locker rooms. Last June, New Mexico State settled out of court with four Muslim football players who had accused coach Hal Mumme of religious discrimination. Among other things, the athletes said Mumme made the team recite the Lord's Prayer after each practice and before every game. When they objected, he labeled them "troublemakers." "Being a coach doesn't give someone the right to make a football team into a religious brotherhood," says Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Jon Kitna
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioJon Kitna is doing everything he can to bring positive karma to the Detroit locker room.
Still, no one in the NFL is rushing to file religious-discrimination lawsuits. Every Detroit practice now ends with about 30 percent of the team gathering for a prayer, followed by the players shouting, "One, two, three ... JESUS!" Meanwhile, the majority of the squad heads in the opposite direction. "You can't bring religion up in most workplaces; you can't do a team prayer in the office," says Lions center Dominic Raiola, who doesn't join the prayer circle. "So this is something unique that we have to deal with. I don't think faith has a lot to do with football. Everyone in this locker room is a teammate, not a believer or a nonbeliever."

This is as close to criticism as you'll hear in Detroit, and not just because Kitna, a team captain, has mastered Martz's spread offense and is completing 67.8 percent of his passes.

Dissent of any kind is tantamount to blasphemy in the NFL, where nothing is more sacred than being considered a team player -- especially when a team is winning. The huge importance placed on unity in football creates a general intolerance of any kind of locker-room pluralism -- something Christian athletes often mistake as tacit approval of their preaching.

In the God Squad sect, players often use moral conviction as an excuse for closed-mindedness.

But that's not Kitna's style. His responses to questions about his faith and leadership are mostly tinged with humility, perspective and openness. Asked to consider whether a Muslim, Jewish or agnostic teammate might feel excluded by group exaltations, Kitna pauses, rubbing his head.

"I know there are people in the locker room who don't like where I stand, don't like me as a leader or wish I'd shut up," he says. "My first responsibility to this team is to be a quarterback. But my priority in life is to be a man of God. I don't use my faith maliciously, to damn or to judge -- people who do are not Christians. And when I've had Mormon teammates, I've tried to understand where they come from. Because we have different beliefs doesn't mean we can't coexist."

Kitna is a fanatic for Christ, there's no question. He often prays on his way to the line of scrimmage, to calm himself. But it's clear to teammates that he sees God as more than a lucky rabbit's foot, which is why, while the vast majority of Lions prefer to keep their beliefs private, Kitna's public pronouncements don't grate on them. Posers and prima donnas splinter far more locker rooms than religion. And Kitna walks his talk without sanctimony. He doesn't drink or cuss.

The worst anyone can recall him saying on the field is "fudge." He says he has tithed at least 10 percent of his salary his entire adult life. That includes the time he spent as a teacher after a record-setting career at Central Washington. The donations got bigger when the Seahawks signed him as a free agent in 1996, and they continued to grow after stops in Cincinnati (where he was the league's 2003 Comeback Player of the Year) and, now, Detroit. "It's about production on the field and consistency off it," Kitna says. "What guys really have a problem with is inconsistency -- people who say one thing and do another. Hypocrites. Chameleons. My teammates learn pretty quick that this is who I am, every day and in every situation."

And the tests come constantly. Walking into the Lions' locker room a few days before the Vikings game, Kitna was greeted by silence. The Lions have three iPod docks that plug into their speaker system. But when someone began blasting Christian music, a tense standoff ensued. It was noted, loudly, that a majority of people in the room didn't want to listen to God rock. And so the speakers remained mute until Kitna arrived. "Everyone's music should be heard," he said, "or no one's." The Christian rock was resurrected, followed by a heavy dose of hip-hop.

"Learning about each other, understanding each other, compromising for each other -- that's what it's like in a good locker room," says Lions wideout Roy Williams.

"That's some real s... that went down with the music and Jon's response. And that's the stuff we never had around here in years past. Is that religion? I don't know. Jon talks to everybody, I know that. And the last quarterback we had didn't do that."

Last November, during a long flight home after another defeat, Williams asked Kitna if his cussing during games was getting out of hand. Kitna said he wasn't one to judge, then explained in a whisper how he hadn't always been so pious. In 1993, Kitna was drinking himself to oblivion four nights a week, shoplifting, brawling, cussing constantly and sleeping with, he says, "all different kinds of women" behind Jennifer's back.

Eventually she caught him in bed with another woman, which is when he decided to go back to church. He believes God removed those vices from his life with a snap of His mighty fingers. Ten months later, Jon and Jennifer were married. "I didn't feel pressure or like he was judging me," Williams says of his talk with Kitna. "Jon just said, 'If you ever want to go deeper, I'm always here.' I'm young; I have questions about religion and faith. He's a good guy to ask."

What's important, Raiola says, is that both sides of the locker room, vocal believers and everyone else, feel comfortable with their boundaries. Right now they do, as much because of how Kitna plays as what he preaches.

Late last season, a group of disgruntled players on the Detroit sideline mocked teammates who were still trying. Kitna responded in the season finale against Dallas by throwing 4 TD passes to thwart the Cowboys' hopes for the NFC East title. Many Lions say that's when it clicked for them.

The same things Kitna believed in -- hard work, responsibility, temperance and selflessness -- were exactly what the team lacked. Over the summer, coach Rod Marinelli weeded out the malcontents. "It was sickening on our sideline last year," Kitna says. "Whatever creates it, the tighter you are as a team, the better chance you have to win. That's why I predicted 10 wins. You could feel it."

After lunch following a mid-September practice, Kitna walked down a hall toward the locker room. He passed Lion prez Matt Millen, standing in front of a banner with the Lions' motto: POUND THE ROCK.

"Why are you so happy?" Millen asked.

"I'm always happy," Kitna answered. "Only time I'll be happier is when I get to heaven."

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