A day in the life of George Kittle’s football camp at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium

The Athletic

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Like everything in his life, George Kittle’s trip back to Iowa City was nothing short of a whirlwind.

He and his wife, Claire, attended a wedding Saturday night. On Friday, the San Francisco 49ers tight end visited patients at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital and returned to the football facility where he met with coach Kirk Ferentz. On Saturday afternoon, Kittle headlined a youth football camp at Kinnick Stadium for about 500 children, and Sunday, he sat for five hours at his favored Neon Dragon Tattoo shop in northeast Cedar Rapids, adding two more tattoos to his forearms. By Sunday night, he was on an airplane bound for San Francisco and organized team activities.

Sounds exhausting? Welcome to the George Kittle experience where he combines thoughtful introspection with a rock star vibe. At his football camp, Kittle sprinted from the Iowa tunnel through a sea of campers with hands extended. Kittle slapped as many palms as he could before reaching midfield. Throughout the day’s activities, Kittle knocked away multiple passes while playing defense and held his own in tug-of-war battles. Kittle humored the youngsters who wanted him to “do the gritty” and engaged in some tame trash talk.

Then there were the tender moments he shared with a 12-year cancer survivor who wore his jersey. With both arms extended, Kittle spent nearly two minutes participating in “The Wave,” toward the children’s hospital. In Kinnick Stadium’s southeast corner, a small tent covered his 100-year-old grandmother, Lugene “Lucky” Krieger, as well as his mother, Jan, and other family members. Kittle’s father, Bruce, led the offensive line drills, and George was more than happy to lend a hand when required.

“Every time I come back, it just reminds you how awesome Iowa City is,” Kittle said. “The people here at the children’s hospital, the football, the whole community, it’s so much fun.”

The Rock christened Kittle “The People’s Tight End,” and he’s a bona fide superstar with the 49ers. In six seasons, Kittle has earned four Pro Bowl nods and a first-team All-Pro selection. He has 395 catches for 5,254 yards and 31 touchdowns. But Kittle is more than just an on-field sensation. He began his own holiday — National Tight Ends Day — which approaches its fifth birthday. He then started “Tight End University” in Nashville, Tenn., where he resides each offseason. This year, as many as 75 tight ends are slated to appear next month plus quarterbacks Josh Allen, Nick Mullens, Trey Lance and C.J. Beathard, Kittle’s former Iowa teammate.

Then there’s the Kittle persona, which at times was repressed at Iowa but now flows unobstructed as one of the NFL’s most recognizable faces. In addition to his football-related energy, Kittle always had a passion for WWE. A handful of hours after his final game at Iowa — a loss in the Outback Bowl — Kittle and former teammate Steve Manders viewed a WWE event in Tampa, Fla. Manders now is a pro wrestler nicknamed “1 Called Manders.” And last month, Kittle took part in WrestleMania.

“I’ve been such a fan of WWE,” Kittle said. “Ever since I was a rookie, they’ve been taking fantastic care of me. Just being able to hang out with wrestlers and then being able to actually hop in the ring and lay down a lariat clothesline and celebrate in the ring with Pat McAfee was all around one of the cooler things that I’ve ever done.”

George Kittle took part in some tug-of-war battles during his youth football camp. (Scott Dochterman / The Athletic)

Kittle’s first cousin, Iowa basketball great Jess Settles, dubbed him “The Life of the Party,” when the tight end was in college. Now, Kittle IS the party. While his personality always was apparent, his quest for stardom was far from assured. This week, Kittle discussed his trials and mindset and how he persevered at Iowa to become an NFL superstar.

Growing up

Kittle was a two-star recruit by both 247Sports and Rivals and the consensus No. 199 wide receiver nationally in 2012. He played his final season of high school ball in Norman, Okla., where his father was an assistant coach alongside former Iowa teammate Bob Stoops. Kittle had an Air Force offer entering his senior year and picked up a scholarship offer from Weber State after the season.

Kittle’s father started at tackle in 1981 when Kirk Ferentz became Iowa’s offensive line coach. There were overtures made about extending a walk-on opportunity to Kittle but nothing firm. On the morning of signing day, Ferentz called Kittle to offer him a scholarship. He accepted on the spot to play tight end.

It was an adjustment for a 180-pound receiver/free safety. So was his welcome to Iowa moment.

“I was all in from Day 1,” Kittle recalled. “I’ll never forget that a coach on my very first skills and drills was like, ‘Hey, if you don’t learn how to run block, you can never play here, and you’ll never be able to run block unless you put some weight on.’ I was like, ‘Well, I want to play, so let’s get it done.’”

Kittle quickly moved up to around 210 pounds as a redshirt freshman. He caught five passes for 108 yards, including a 24-yarder at Ohio State. His weight plateaued at around 225, and in 2014, he mostly played special teams. He also was caught up in Iowa City’s party scene and his football career had stagnated.

Following a 45-28 loss in the TaxSlayer Bowl, Kittle spoke with former Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer, who faced many of the same issues midway through his college career. Angerer told Kittle he cut down on the partying and refocused on football. It helped him become a second-team All-American in 2009.

“I was like fourth or fifth string at that point,” Kittle said, “I was just kind of sitting there. I was like, ‘Well, this hasn’t really been fun or the way that I wanted to do anything. I’ve gotta make a change.’”

Kittle had two ankle surgeries early in 2015, including one right after the bowl game, but he returned in time for spring football. Other tight ends weren’t as fortunate, and Kittle climbed up the depth chart. His cousin, fellow tight end Henry Krieger-Coble, was out that spring after labrum surgery. On the final practice, starting tight end Jake Duzey tore the patella tendon in his knee.

But it was more than his teammates’ injuries that elevated Kittle. His rededication led to good growth and better fundamentals. LeVar Woods moved to tight ends coach that year and gave Kittle a clean sheet. Kittle made strides that spring, and Woods was in his corner.

“When you start making those successes, like things can snowball poorly, but they can also snowball in the right direction,” Kittle said. “That’s just kind of what happened for me. I just started making more plays, getting confidence in myself. Once the confidence came back, it made it a lot easier and definitely cleared the vision for me.”

Alongside Krieger-Coble, Kittle played a ton of snaps in Iowa’s two-tight end formation and led the Hawkeyes with six touchdown catches in 2015. Iowa finished the season 12-2. Kittle caught 42 passes for 604 yards and 10 touchdowns combined in the 2015-16 seasons.

In his final year at Iowa, Kittle weighed 250 pounds and suffered a foot sprain that cost him games and limited him during the second half of the season. With San Francisco, he weighs 242 and calls it his best weight.

George Kittle, right, spent time chatting with former Iowa receiver Marvin McNutt. (Scott Dochterman / The Athletic)

Personal journey

At Iowa’s football complex back in the mid-2010s, the atmosphere was tense, especially in the weight room. Kittle’s personality often ran contrary to Iowa’s strict workout guidelines. So when the 49ers drafted him in the fifth round in 2017, it allowed Kittle’s charisma to flow unchecked. He could be himself without limitation.

“I love Iowa. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them,” Kittle said. “But the free-spirit, free-flowing energy stuff’s not too high on many people’s radar up there or high on their list of things that are important. So while I learned a lot from there, I also learned things that I didn’t like.

“When I got to San Francisco, the kind of freedom that they gave you, I was really lucky. I had the best tight end coach in the NFL (Jon Embree), who coached Tony Gonzalez, Brandon Myers, multiple Pro Bowl tight ends, and I got him, which was incredibly helpful. And then I had Garrett Celek, who was a tight end from Michigan State. I mean, he’s almost as important to me as LeVar Woods is.”

On his journey through Iowa’s football facility last week, Kittle noticed his NFL picture was from his rookie season. He immediately rectified that with a couple of new photos.

“It was a brutal photo,” he said. “I was wearing black cleats and a T-shirt. I had no idea what it meant to look good in the NFL. I’ve figured that out now. It’s great to be back in there.”

Kittle exudes a presence everywhere he goes. But his magnetism has a root in work and consistency. Woods taught him to stack days on his way to improvement. Kittle has taken that blueprint and built an impactful life, not just a great football career.

“One of the greatest things about Iowa is you have to earn everything that you do,” he said. “It’s all through hard work and mindset and just overall being a gritty football player. So all the reps I took of nine-on-seven blocks, one-on-one blocking drills, it just kind of puts into your mindset of how hard you work every single day to be great at these things. Then if you can take that mindset into the NFL — not every single person has that mindset — it allows you to get ahead of the game.”

There’s so much more to Kittle’s story than a one-weekend retrospective, and his anecdotes are as vibrant as his disposition. When he and former Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy hooked up for seven touchdowns last year, it united and confused fans of both fan bases between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. “The internet’s fantastic,” Kittle said.

When McAfee jumped off the top rope at WrestleMania, he landed on his back outside of the ring. “I was like, ‘Wow, that looked painful.’ I was happy It wasn’t me,” Kittle said.

As a senior at Iowa, he and former teammates (and future NFL players) Greg Mabin and Cole Croston were injured and didn’t play against No. 2 Michigan. The Hawkeyes won 14-13 on the game’s final play. “Honestly, it sucked,” Kittle said of watching and not playing. “We’re all sitting on the sideline in one of the biggest games of our career.”

Before the recent draft, Kittle spent time working out with former Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta, who Detroit selected in the second round. “Just watching him work out, the way he moves, he’s got a great forward lean, great burst out of his breaks, great hands, and he’s eager, too,” Kittle said. “Sam’s gonna be just fine. He’s gonna make some big plays this year.”

More than anything, Kittle’s actions show how much he cares for people, especially in Iowa. Few athletes donate as much time to causes outside of football as Kittle. He visited hospital patients as a player and did so on his three-day trip last weekend. “The Wave” began one year after he left campus, but it thrilled him to do it even in mid-May. Of everything, that was his lasting memory.

“It makes me feel like I’m doing something that actually matters,” Kittle said. “Being able to wave to them, just give them 60 seconds, two minutes of just saying hello and we’re thinking of them and we’re cheering for them to go out and win their battle, which is 10 times more important than anything that we’re all doing out there. It just warms my heart that it’s such a big part of Iowa culture, and the people of Iowa and the support that those kids get. It’s pretty amazing.”

(Top photo: Scott Dochterman / The Athletic)

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