December 16, 1997 in Sports

Shhh, Jon, Quiet; Don’t Tip Our Hand

Steve Kelley Seattle Times
 

You were so excited in the huddle, you practically yelled the signals. Your linemen shushed you, saying you’re talking so loudly the Oakland defense will know the snap count.

You were wired. Your nerves were as palpable as the first quarter’s cold rain.

You’re Jon Kitna, the kid from the NAIA. The Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback from Central Washington University. You were supposed to be a math teacher by now. You were supposed to be teaching square roots in high school, not throwing square outs in the NFL.

Now you were starting your first NFL game. Against the Oakland Raiders. In the rain-swept zoo of the Oakland Coliseum. Against the quarterback, Jeff George, the Seahawks courted passionately last autumn.

“You could tell he was nervous, but he was trying hard not to show it,” Seattle wide receiver Mike Pritchard said. “In the first quarter, he definitely showed it. His eyes were really big.”

You started the game hollering about the Raiders linemen: “Watch their hands! Keep their hands down!”

“Is there anything else you’d like?” your left guard, Pete Kendall, teased you. “Would you like them to bring you a drink or something?”

You woke up at 5 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. This was your day. After Central and the Seahawks’ practice squad and the Barcelona Dragons and another season on the sideline, this was the chance you were promised.

You would answer some questions today. Were you the next Brett Favre or the next Billy Joe Tolliver? The next Kordell Stewart or the next Gino Toretta?

“I didn’t know what to expect,” coach Dennis Erickson said.

You were psyched. And then you were humbled.

You overthrew tight end Carlester Crumpler. Another overthrow, this time toward James McKnight, was intercepted by James Trapp. Another weak pass was intercepted by Terry McDaniel.

On one play, you were chased by Chester McGlockton and Rob Fredrickson. As Fredrickson hauled you down by the shoulder pads, you hurled a desperation pop fly to the sideline that was the definition of a rookie mistake.

“I felt good all day,” you said after the 22-21 comeback victory. “I felt too good at the beginning of the game. I was just rushing throws, because I didn’t expect to see the game as good as I did. When I did see it, I was trying to get the ball in there real quick.”

By halftime, your team trailed 21-3. You had been served a bitter helping of reality.

“Pulling him (at halftime) wouldn’t have been good for anybody,” Erickson said. “I didn’t consider pulling him. Well, I can’t honestly say that it didn’t enter my mind, but I wasn’t going to do it.”

The NFL devours its young quarterbacks. The position might be the most difficult in sports to learn. The apprenticeship is long, brutal and unforgiving. John Elway was benched in his rookie season. Troy Aikman was brutally pummeled.

But instead of being beaten down by your first NFL half, you settled down. You grew into the game. In the second half, you distributed the ball like a point guard.

A crossing pattern to McKnight. A hook to Pritchard. A 9-yard fade route to Joey Galloway that parachuted past Albert Lewis’ arms for your first NFL touchdown pass.

“You didn’t see the big eyes in the second half,” Pritchard said.

You completed 16 of 33 passes for 147 yards in the second half, numbers a math major can appreciate. Patiently, you took the offense 70 yards in 13 plays, leading to a field goal by Todd Peterson. Then you moved it 48 yards in nine plays. Chris Warren’s 9-yard run cut the Oakland lead to 21-19.

“We found out what he’s about in the second half,” Erickson said. “Warren Moon made a real interesting statement to me. He said, ‘Playing a game is one thing, but coming back from adversity really makes you grow in this league.’ And that’s what he did.”

And then came the last drive. The defining moment of your first NFL game.

The 10-yard pass to tight end Deems May. The blitz-beating 8-yard pass to fullback Mack Strong. A 9-yard slant pass to Galloway threaded through the hands of Oakland’s Perry Carter on third-and-2.

Short conservative passes, very West Coast offense.

“Is that what it was?” you said. “I leave it up to the coaches to give it a name.”

Another crossing pattern, Galloway left-to-right, for 8 yards on third-and-4. Six consecutive completions during a 52-yard, 14-play drive that took 7:09 and led to Peterson’s winning 49-yard field goal just before the 2-minute warning.

“He’s special,” player-personnel director Randy Mueller said. “All kinds of stuff was going wrong, and he hung in there. He handled it.”

At 4:40 in the afternoon, surrounded by reporters in the middle of the locker room, you still wore your uniform pants and an Air Jesus T-shirt under your jersey. You knew a little more about yourself. You knew, beyond a doubt, you belonged.

“Growing up, I was a baseball player for life,” you said. “That was my love. But I started quarterback as a redshirt freshman at Central, and that’s when I fell in love with the game. It was always a hobby until then.

“I know I can play this game, but seriously, I never thought about making a living out of it. When you go to Central Washington, you’re not thinking about making a living out of playing football.”

But you’re 25 years old now. You’re Jon Kitna. And you have the look of a quarterback whose career will be long and lush.


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