We needed a good-news sports story. On Friday, News Tribune columnist John McGrath gave us a doozie.
Too often we’ve been disappointed by sports heroes who turned out to have feet of clay. Think of Lance Armstrong’s doping accusations, Tiger Woods’ cheating scandal, and any number of athletes’ use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Former NFL quarterback Jon Kitna is a refreshing contrast. When his 15-season pro football career ended, he chose to give back to the community where he grew up – at a fraction of his NFL salary – and share his gridiron expertise with his alma mater, Tacoma's Lincoln High School.
Kitna, who was hired in January to coach football and teach math at Lincoln, is imparting other lessons as well, complementing what Principal Pat Erwin is trying to do in the classroom with Lincoln Center. They are character-building life lessons that would serve any young person well, but particularly young men attending school in one of the city’s less affluent neighborhoods, where the lure of gangs is strong, expectations are low and dropout rates are high.
Kitna isn’t just coaching his charges, he’s mentoring them in the skills they need to succeed, including hard work, patience, grace under fire and overcoming adversity. His goal is to build “R.E.A.L. Men” who (R)eject passivity, (E)mpathize with others, (A)ccept responsibility and (L)ead courageously.
If he’s able to reach the student athletes he coaches, it will be a victory. Winning on game day is icing on the cake.
But don’t be mistaken: Kitna aims to win. He wants to restore the Abes’ gridiron glory, and he knows the best way to do that is to convince his charges that they’re capable of rising to heights they might not have thought were within reach.
It’s easy to criticize school sports programs as being frivolous side shows to education’s primary mission. But for many kids, athletics is what keeps them in school. And because schools have minimum grade requirements for extracurricular activities, students who otherwise might drop out or just be warm bodies in classrooms know they have to apply themselves if they want to continue to play. Who knows? They might even go on to college.
Keeping kids in school – and building character along the way – are victories any sports hero should be proud to aspire to. The Lincoln community is fortunate that one of its own has come home to lead the way.