Iowa Football

Many are gaga over George Kittle, the People's Tight End

Former Hawkeye's family has been in the public eye as well

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (left) and tight end George Kittle celebrate after their team won the NF
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (left) and tight end George Kittle celebrate after their team won the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 19 in Santa Clara, Calif. (Ben Margot/Associated Press)

Finally, The Rock had come back to Miami ... to meet George Kittle.

It was last Monday. Super Bowl Week had just begun. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson of pro wrestling and motion picture fame sought out one of his favorite NFL players, the San Francisco 49ers tight end who played for Iowa just three years ago.

“George called me and said ‘Dad, I met The Rock!’ recounted Bruce Kittle, the father of the man “The People’s Champion” Johnson termed “The People’s Tight End” months ago on Twitter. “It was like talking to 8-year-old George again when he was starry-eyed meeting Dallas Clark and Robert Gallery.”

These days, a lot of people are as gaga over Kittle as he is over Johnson. He really has become the People’s Tight End in three NFL seasons, with this one ending at Sunday’s Super Bowl as a first-team All-Pro honoree.

Over 14 regular-season appearances this season, Kittle amassed 85 receptions, 1,053 yards, and a host of hosannas for his blocking, catching, defense-punishing yards after contact. Plus, the public is fond of the passion with which he plays the game and lives his life.

What a ride for Kittle’s family, which has spent the last week at a Miami Beach hotel looking out at a turquoise ocean and being part of a scene it simply couldn’t have imagined coming.

“You didn’t even know if he was going to the Combine (in 2017),” Bruce said. “Then he goes in the fifth round, so you’re excited, but there are no guarantees he’s going to make it.

“Then he goes and not only makes the team, but ends up as the starter and has a pretty solid year. His second year, he kind of really blew up.”

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It’s now common to hear Kittle called as good as any tight end in the sport, a game-changer for the 49ers’ potent offense. Rare is the NFL commentator or national sports talk host who hasn’t raved about the guy.

“It goes back to if George gets drafted by a different team in a different system, who knows what kind of success he has,” said his father. “The (49ers Coach Kyle) Shanahan system for George, it’s just like he was created to be its tight end.

“The 49ers have a great culture and a great locker room, and that’s not true everywhere.”

It isn’t as if Bruce Kittle hasn’t seen and done in and out of football before this week. He was a captain on Iowa’s 1981 Rose Bowl team, then was a graduate assistant and voluntary assistant coach for Hayden Fry before becoming an attorney, an associate professor, a pastor, a mediator, and an assistant coach for college roommate Bob Stoops at Oklahoma.

Bruce was a lawyer in Cedar Rapids while George finished his college career, but said he’d been a “reluctant attorney.”

“We were living in Iowa City and George would come back for maybe a week a year from either California or Nashville, so we weren’t really seeing him.”

George has lived in Nashville during his NFL offseasons because that’s where he does his offseason training. Someone told Bruce that former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer had become the head football coach at private high school Lipscomb Academy in Nashville and said Dilfer needed an offensive line coach.

Bruce took that job. Now he, wife Jan and daughter Emma live in Nashville. Emma played volleyball at Iowa and Oklahoma. She is a yoga instructor, and a sports performance assistant at Lipscomb.

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They’ve found being related to George makes you in high demand. NBC Sports, for instance, did a show covering 26 minutes that consisted solely of the four Kittles telling their family’s story. Public recognition has followed.

 

“We went down to New Orleans (when the Niners played there this season) and we were just walking Bourbon Street getting something to eat,” Bruce said. “There were so many 49ers fan there, and people found out who we were. My wife and I kind of worked back to our hotel because it just got too weird.

“Then, being recognized in stadiums, too. We’ve been carried along into it and we’re just trying to manage it. No complaints.”

Something that often doesn’t get detailed is the grueling work and the physical toll required of NFL players. George revealed last week that he has played the last two seasons with a torn labrum. He missed two games this season with knee and ankle injuries.

“I dislocated my shoulder last year,” Kittle said recently, “and my labrum is completely torn.”

He said he won’t get surgery on it because “I can’t miss those workout days, man.”

“Unless you’ve played and done those things,” his father said, “You don’t appreciate how physical the game is and, honestly, how painful it is.”

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Everything has trade-offs. George has become a mass media star with potential for even greater fame. His fun-loving, 100-watt light bulb personality has combined with his ferociously effective play to win over a lot of football fans who aren’t otherwise attached to the Niners. He has over a half-million Instagram followers.

“The 49ers embrace unique personalities,” Bruce said. “As long as you’re pulling the rope in the right direction and aren’t detrimental to the team, your personality is your personality.

“George has the freedom to have fun and be who he is.”

What might him having play a prominent role Sunday in a 49ers win over Kansas City mean? Move over, Rock.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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