Why George Kittle brings joy to the NFL world

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From ESPN to FOX to NBC, there’s not a television crew airing NFL games that hasn’t fallen in love with George Kittle.

Each week, the 49ers All-Pro tight end is targeted with cameras that catch him cheering, laughing and smiling from ear-to-ear. It’s rare and even stunning to see a professional football player so relaxed, so at ease and so happy in the midst of an often brutal game, but it doesn’t surprise anyone who knows Kittle. Especially George’s wife, Claire.

“He’s really just a happy-go-lucky guy,” Claire said. “He’s a little kid in a big man’s body playing football, which is something he’s dreamt of doing ever since he was little.”

An energetic, excited Kittle isn’t the only version of George that Claire spends her time with. During the week, the couple uses downtime at home to decompress with their Bernedoodle, Deenie, to talk football — “I feel like I ask generally good questions,” Claire says — and to plan their next outing to a hockey or basketball game.

But on Sundays, Claire is prepared for the intensity meter to spike. Even after George leaves for the stadium.

“When game day rolls around, his dad (Bruce) is singing, trying to get everybody wound up,” Claire said. “We’ve got to get out the door. From the moment he wakes up in the morning, he’s so excited to go and experience this football game.”

Bruce Kittle is the coach who inspired George to play with personality, a point he’s hammered home to George’s peers on various youth sports teams and the football players he eventually coached as an assistant at Oklahoma. A four-year letterman as an offensive tackle under legendary coach Hayden Frye at Iowa, Bruce married Jan Krieger, a member of the Iowa High School Sports Hall of Fame in basketball and softball.

The couple coached every team and every sport George and his sister Emma, a former collegiate volleyball player, played until high school, but as a former offensive lineman, there’s nothing Bruce enjoyed more than teaching George and his friends to run block.

George may have harbored NFL dreams from the time he first wore pads, but even when his son was at Iowa, Bruce thought more about the man in front of George than the road ahead of his son.

“I never really thought about the NFL because I told him the only thing you really need to be able to do is to pancake the guy in front of you, run decent routes to catch the ball and know the offense,” Bruce said.

When TV cameras captured George laughing maniacally as he overpowered Atlanta Falcons safety Ricardo Allen with a run block to lead 49ers tailback Raheem Mostert into the end zone on Dec. 15, Bruce wasn’t the only person who appreciated the fun his son was having while he dominated.

The emotion Kittle displayed was all too familiar for Greg Nation, who coached Kittle during his junior and senior seasons at Norman High in Norman, Oklahoma. Nation said the sheer joy Kittle showcased with his block didn’t evoke memories of the lanky wideout on the prep fields, but was instead reminiscent of a game-clinching dunk during his senior season on the basketball court.

“He comes down the middle, they throw it to him and he slammed it,” Nation said. “And all the way down the court, you know that big, loud roar he makes, he’s going down the court and he’s shaking his head, he’s got the biggest smile.”

Nation paints Kittle as a multi-sport standout in high school, but acknowledges he was undersized and lightly recruited as a football player. Thanks to game tape (sent by Bruce) Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe reviewed, head coach Kirk Ferentz gave Kittle the final scholarship in his class on the morning National Letters of Intent were due.

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings) 

When Kittle’s signed letter arrived via fax in the athletic department offices of Iowa City, Hawkeyes assistant coaches were stunned.

“I was like, ‘Who the heck is George Kittle?’” current Iowa special teams coach LeVar Woods said. “No one even knew where he was coming from. We knew the last name. We said, ‘Is that Bruce’s son? Is he coming to Iowa?’”

In the three years between his arrival at Iowa and the day Kittle made his first start in 2015, he met Claire, a Hawkeyes basketball player, who became his closest confidant and an important sounding board when his development hit rough patches. As George struggled to gain weight and found himself buried on the depth chart heading into his redshirt junior season, Claire admits he discussed the possibility of giving up football.

“It was a real conversation,” Claire said.

Woods, who coached tight ends when Kittle played for the Hawkeyes, wasn’t surprised.

“I remember seeing a kid that was down and a kid that was frustrated,” Woods said. “But I don’t know that I ever knew it got to the point where he thought maybe he didn’t want to play anymore.”

Claire, Bruce and George attribute his initial trials at Iowa to size and maturity issues, but after a weeklong period in which he questioned his future, George left his struggles in the dust.


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“He was a knucklehead,” Woods said. “But going into his redshirt junior year, he finally decided to buckle down and he came into spring practice looking to dominate guys and no one had really seen that from him leading up to that.”

Three years after San Francisco made Kittle a fifth-round draft pick, he owns the NFL single-season tight end record for receiving yards, was named the highest-graded player by Pro Football Focus in 2019 and is a two-time team captain of the 49ers.

The secret? Kittle returned to his roots and began having fun again.

“Obviously stakes and pressure have increased from high school to college to the NFL, but at the end of it, it’s still a kid’s game and that’s how I attack it every single day,” Kittle said. “I just have fun doing it.”

Kittle’s rise from an afterthought at Iowa to one of the NFL’s most entertaining stars was lightning quick, but those closest to Kittle insist his new status near the top of the league’s hierarchy hasn’t changed him.

For most, the Kittle they see on television each week is the Kittle they’ve always known.

“The kid moves in from Iowa, didn’t know anybody and within two weeks of being at (high) school, he knew everybody on campus and everybody loved him to death,” said Nation.

Following the 49ers’ 26-21 victory in Seattle that clinched the NFC West and No. 1 seed, Kittle ran off the field with the wide grin that fans have come to adore. On his way to the locker room, Kittle spotted Woods, his position coach at Iowa, and Woods’ 13-year-old, son, Mason.

Kittle paused for a photo with Mason, who was involved in his celebration four years earlier when Iowa won a dramatic 40-35 game over Minnesota to improve to 10-0 in 2015.

“George found my son Mason on the field after the game and picked him up from behind and threw him up in the air and onto his shoulders,” Woods said. “That’s one of my favorite pictures of all time. It sits in our family room.”

The impression Kittle has made on Mason Woods is the impression he strives to leave on every young fan.

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