On the verge of ruining his NFL shot, George Kittle put his foot in the ground and changed course, and now has 49ers on the brink of their first title in a quarter-century
By Michael Silver | Published Jan. 31, 2020
On the second day of 2015, George Kittle stood stoically on a crowded sideline at EverBank Field in Jacksonville and saw his football future flash before his eyes. The fun-loving redshirt sophomore was watching Iowa absorb a beatdown from Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl, and late in the game, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz inserted Jon Wisnieski, a freshman buried below Kittle on the depth chart, into the game at tight end.
It was a message to a talented but inconsistent player who was more focused on enjoying the college lifestyle than on maximizing his football ability, and it hit Kittle like a bulldozer plowing over a cornfield.
"Right then, I was like, 'Alright, I'm gonna be completely pushed out of this whole depth chart unless I actually figure something out, and then I'll never achieve my dream,'" Kittle recalled last Friday in an interview at the 49ers' training facility in Santa Clara, California, where the first-team All-Pro was preparing for next Sunday's Super Bowl LIV matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. "I didn't really play a lot in college my first three years; that was 100 percent my fault. I wasn't really 100 percent all-in on football. Because I'd lived in Iowa City for six years (growing up), I had a whole bunch of friends there, so when I came back for college, it was a big party. I had a good time. And I knew something was gonna have to change."
That stark realization triggered a transformation that gave Kittle a shot at an NFL career -- and, ultimately, a chance to become one of the biggest impact players in the sport. The record-setting tight end is coming off an incredible NFC Championship Game performance against the Green Bay Packers, in which he greatly influenced the lopsided outcome despite catching only a single pass.
Now, as he settles into stardom at age 26, Kittle is a larger-than-life presence in the 49ers' locker room -- and the message he delivers to teammates, coaches and opponents daily is an ebullient and emphatic one.
"You're telling me one of the better players in the NFL, at any position, likes run-blocking?" 49ers run game coordinator Mike McDaniel asked rhetorically. "That is a win for every coach. And it's not only what he's doing while blocking; it's the energy he brings on a constant basis. When your best player is always excited and goes to extra meetings and does sled work before every practice, it's not hard ultimately to win more than you lose. He sets the standard, and other players follow suit."
Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods, Kittle's position coach during his final two seasons with the Hawkeyes, echoed the sentiment, saying, "How many guys in the NFL do you know who are always smiling when they play? That's what separates him. George loves football. George loves life. And he's gonna do everything full speed."
During his first three years at Iowa, Kittle was a full-speed partier -- something that contributed to his lack of playing time, along with his undersized frame. Kittle, who entered college at 6-foot-1 and 201 pounds (he's now listed at 6-4, 250), drank Gatorade protein shakes by day and plenty of booze by night.
"George was a wiry, explosive, fast kid and -- to be truthful -- a little bit of a pain in the ass," Woods recalled. "What most people would say is, he didn't take things seriously. He was more worried about the things that go with college … what we call a 'Joe College.'
"As (linebackers) coach (from 2012 to 2014), I saw George from the other side his first few years. Frankly, we used to get mad at our guys if they got beat by Kittle. We'd say, 'You got beat by that guy?' But as he started to mature and get more serious about the game, he became a really good football player."
After returning from that bowl game in Jacksonville, Kittle found a role model in assistant strength coach Pat Angerer, a former Hawkeyes linebacker who'd recently finished a four-year NFL career with the Indianapolis Colts.
"He had a very similar story: Didn't play for three years, and then he figured it out and got drafted in the second round," Kittle said. "And I just asked him, 'Hey, what was it that was keeping you from the field, and what did you change?' He said, 'I partied a lot, I drank a lot and I liked to fight people when I was drunk. That's what kept me from playing.' And so I looked myself in the mirror and I said, 'Those are the three things that are gonna stop me from playing and achieving my dreams.'
"I don't really fight people, but I definitely did the partying and stuff like that, and I was like, alright, well, I'm gonna just try that and see if it works. And that's what I did. I just kind of woke up and got out of bed one morning and said, 'I'm not doing this anymore, I want to play football.' "
One of Kittle's close friends, former Iowa fullback Steve Manders, gave a similar account of the epiphany: "We were all partying too much, and one morning he was like, 'Man, I gotta step my s--- up.' Pat Angerer ripped into his ass at a workout: 'You've got all this talent. You've gotta get your s--- together!' And he did.
"He was an animal in spring ball, and that's kind of what got him his (starting) spot. He was out there pancaking guys. He was relentless. It didn't matter who it was. Ferentz one day was like, 'Yeah, pull back a little bit -- at least against the starters.' It rubbed some guys the wrong way; they were like, 'Are you for real?' He didn't give a f---."
Kittle became a mainstay in Iowa's run-heavy attack, but it wasn't like he foreshadowed his future as an elite receiver. He caught just 20 passes in his junior season and 22 as a senior, and he attracted only tepid interest in the months leading up to the 2017 draft.
One exception was 49ers tight ends coach Jon Embree, who began lobbying for Kittle inside the building. When Rich Scangarello, then the 49ers' quarterbacks coach, booked a trip to Iowa City late in the draft process to work out Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard, San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan told him, "Make sure you get Kittle, too."
Recalled Scangarello: "It was the day before they were going on spring break, and Kittle and C.J. were best friends who lived together. Kittle had gone big the night before, and he was trying to get out of town on spring break. And I told C.J., 'He has to be there,' which I don't think made George super happy.
"Well, it was a legendary workout. I probably made him run 80 routes; I mean, I just grinded him. And he was sweating, looking hungover, and he was just completely gassed. And yet, he was just out there going crazy, diving for balls and getting after it. He's just a special guy."
The 49ers moved Kittle up their draft board, but not high enough for Embree's liking. "By the third round, I was begging for them to take him," he recalled on Monday from Miami. The Niners finally nabbed Kittle in the fifth round, a pick likely to go down as one of the great third-day selections in franchise history.
"Well," McDaniel said, "we clearly didn't have a real sense of how good he could be -- otherwise we'd have been a lot smarter and taken him in the first round."
Kittle had his share of struggles as a rookie, catching 43 passes for 515 yards and two touchdowns but squandering some other opportunities.
"Let me tell you a story about Kittle: He had a lot of drops his rookie year," Scangarello said. "It was awful. You watch the Redskin game (a 26-24 Washington victory in mid-October of 2017), he dropped two wide-open balls that were huge plays and might have cost us the game. He hurt his ankle and just lost confidence.
"So, let me put it this way: In the building, there was worry that he could be the guy."
Looking back, Scangarello literally laughed at the presumption. At the time, however, Kittle's choppy play was a legitimate concern.
One day late in the season, Scangarello and Shanahan started discussing Kittle in the quarterback meeting room, where backups Beathard (who the Niners had drafted in the third round) and Nick Mullens were watching film. Scangarello's recollection: "Kyle said, 'You've gotta get this stuff handled … you've gotta get him to catch the ball naturally, run through the ball or whatever.' George was moving to Nashville over the offseason, where C.J. lived, and Nick was going to come and work out with them, too. We gave (the quarterbacks) all these drills to do with him, and they went out and did them. To his credit, it's made him what he is."
Said Kittle: "I learned how to train differently; I started doing speed and agility workouts I'd never done before. And on top of that, I had C.J., a quarterback who's in my offense, kind of teach me. … He sits in the meeting room with Kyle Shanahan every single day, so he was able to tell me, 'Hey, look, on these routes, you should be looking like this instead of this, because this is what Coach Shanahan wants.' And it clicked."
Once Kittle returned for OTAs that spring, Niners general manager John Lynch noticed another difference.
"George was hit or miss his rookie year," Lynch said. "After that, I think he made a decision: 'I can be pretty good at this.' But he watched some guys that were successful around here and had been pros for a while, and he saw their work ethic and routine, and all of a sudden he became that guy. You could clearly see that he was becoming more focused and more committed."
What no one could have foreseen: By the end of his second campaign, Kittle would own the NFL's single-season record for receiving yardage by a tight end: 1,377 (on 88 catches). And 870 of those were yards after the catch, the NFL's highest total since at least 2010, when the stat first started being tracked. Though the Niners struggled through a 4-12 campaign, with starter Jimmy Garoppolo suffering a season-ending knee injury that September and Beathard and Mullens stepping in for the remaining 13 games, they had found a bona fide offensive star.
Kittle credits Embree with igniting his passion for churning out big gains after the catch.
"Every time I ran out of bounds, every time I got tackled, I'd get in trouble," Kittle said. "He'd say, 'Why are you letting guys tackle you? You're 6-4, 245 pounds -- a DB shouldn't tackle you.' Then I was like, 'Oh, OK, I'll try that … oh s---, it works!' I just try to run over people."
After marrying his college girlfriend, former Hawkeyes basketball player Claire Till, last spring, Kittle showed up for his third season looking like a man amongst boys. Despite missing two games with ankle and knee injuries, Kittle -- who on Monday revealed he has played with a torn labrum in his right shoulder the past two seasons -- caught 85 passes for 1,053 yards, earning first-team All-Pro honors and Pro Football Focus' highest overall grade.
In early December, Kittle made one of the biggest plays of the 2019 season by catching a short pass on fourth down, employing a vicious stiff-arm and rumbling 39 yards -- before ultimately being dragged down by three defenders, one of whom (safety Marcus Williams) incurred a facemask penalty to give San Francisco another 15 yards -- to set up a game-winning field goal in the Niners' 48-46 victory at New Orleans.
"What's great about that was before that drive, Coach Embree grabbed me and said, 'Hey, this is your chance to have a great moment. Go out and do it,' " Kittle recalled. "Coach Shanahan called a (fourth-down) play, and it was the 'choice' route, which is, 'George, if you don't get open, we're kinda screwed here.' Before the play, Jimmy (Garoppolo) was like, 'Hey, it's coming to you, you'd better win.' The rest took care of itself.
"What's funny, too, is in practice that week, I ran that play twice, and both times I broke in, and both times the ball got batted down, so they weren't very confident calling the play. But (Shanahan) said screw it and gave me a shot, so I broke out instead, and it worked. When I turned upfield and started running at a guy, there's a difference between when they break down and try to tackle you rather than coming at you to knife you. If they break down, you know that they're gonna try to tackle you high, or they're gonna have to lunge and you can avoid him. I saw the guy break down, and I was like, 'Alright, well, he's gonna try to tackle me high, and good luck to him.' "
"A lot of guys would be frustrated if we only threw it eight times," Lynch said, referring to the NFC Championship Game. "Kittle is screaming to the sideline, 'Run it! Run it! They can't stop us.' In many ways, even though he's a young guy, he's a leader of this team, because he makes everybody better."
If you're looking for a quantifiable illustration of Kittle's impact as a blocker, consider these numbers from Next Gen Stats: With Kittle in the lineup in 2019, including the postseason, the 49ers are averaging 5.1 yards per carry; without him, that figure falls to 3.4. The disparity gets even more drastic when measuring runs outside the tackles: 5.6 yards per carry with Kittle in the lineup, as opposed to 3.3 when he's not on the field.
Kittle's self-stated (but hardly understated) mission: To steal the soul of his opponent.
"My favorite quote is, 'Moving a man from Point A to Point B against his will is the best feeling you'll ever feel,' " Kittle said. "On top of that is when you flat-back a guy and you feel his breath exhale, you kinda feel his soul leaving his body. It's just a really good feeling. It's one of those things: I would 100 percent pancake a guy and steal his soul over scoring a touchdown."
Another highlight for Kittle in 2019 came in a game against the Los Angeles Rams, after a particularly charged-up encounter. "I was walking back to the huddle and a couple of guys were on me, they were like, 'Hey, relax there, Joker.' That was cool."
It's not surprising that Kittle would embrace being characterized as a comic-book villain, given his affinity for professional wrestling. He caught the bug in college courtesy of Manders, a longtime fan and future performer who has since adopted the persona of The Cornbelt Cowboy.
Shortly after being drafted by the 49ers, Kittle made a surprise appearance during one of Manders' matches at a professional wrestling event in Walcott, Iowa. Kittle's performance featured an adept execution of the Stone Cold Stunner, a move made famous by WWE staple Steve Austin.
"That was a good day," Manders said. "It was my seventh-ever match -- I'm still absolute rags -- and then my best friend who graduated with me … came out and did a Stone Cold Stunner. Dude, I was freaking out. I don't ever remember being that stressed at football."
Said Kittle: "That whole move, it looks good because of the guy who's selling it, too, and the guy that sold it crushed it. He came down, went straight like a plank board and fell. The best part was there were only like 75 people in the auditorium, and I felt like I just scored a touchdown at Levi's Stadium. That's when I really fell in love with wrestling -- that moment. It clicked for me right away. I was like, 'Wow.' It's exhilarating."
According to Manders, there's talk of Kittle participating in the leadup to WWE's Wrestlemania in early April, possibly as a ring announcer. "Maybe he'll Stun somebody," Manders said, laughing.
"If they let me," Kittle said, referring to the 49ers. "See, I didn't ask about that before (the 2017 appearance), and they weren't that happy. It was, 'Heyyyyyy, don't get hurt.' And I go, 'Oh, come on, relax.' "
Given that Kittle is in line for a lucrative new contract, his agent, Jack Bechta, will likely give the tight end the same advice. Kittle's four-year, $2.7 million rookie deal expires at the end of the 2020 season, but it stands to reason that discussions on a multiyear extension reflecting his value will take place in the months following the Super Bowl.
"I think the best way to state it, we're eager to make Kittle a Niner for a long, long time," Lynch said. "We'll get there when we get there."
In the meantime, they'll cherish his audacity and athleticism as they try to capture their sixth Super Bowl title, and their first in a quarter-century. For as much as Kittle's teammates love him on the field, they're equally enamored with his locker-room presence and the energy and enthusiasm he brings to the workplace on a near-constant basis.
In Lynch's eyes, "he's a good kind of crazy. There's juice every day, man."
"He's got a screw loose, but it's in a special way," Scangarello said. "He's bigger than life. There are just a few guys in the league that are transcendent players that have this crazy it factor, and he's one of them. And if he catches it, he wants to ruin you."
Five years ago, when he was on the verge of ruining his shot at a pro football career, Kittle caught himself just in time. Now, thanks to that change of course, he'll be out there on Super Sunday, trying to steal souls and lift a Lombardi Trophy.