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Super Bowl: Inside George Kittle's transformation from solid Iowa player to 49ers superstar

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

LeVar Woods arrived at the San Francisco 49ers' final regular-season game and was astonished.

He was there as a guest of tight end George Kittle, a man he coached in college at Iowa. He knew Kittle was an NFL star. But what he saw in the crowd ahead of a highly anticipated matchup against the Seattle Seahawks left him amazed. 

“Kittle jerseys everywhere,” Woods says.

Then again with emphasis. “Everywhere.”

And here’s the kicker: The game was in Seattle.

With an almost cult-like following because of his everyman appeal, Kittle has made a meteoric rise from a decent player at Iowa to international football mega-star.

When Sunday’s Super Bowl between the 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs airs on Fox, Kittle — wearing his white No. 85 jersey — will no doubt be discussed by Joe Buck and Troy Aikman as one of the premier players in the world’s most-watched sporting event.

An outgoing, happy and unique personality combined with NFL record-setting numbers and a throwback reputation as a fierce blocker have made Kittle easy to root for. Pro Football Focus, a nationally recognized analytics company used by the teams themselves, recently graded Kittle with the best season ever by an NFL tight end.

It’s been the kind of rise that even has people in Iowa asking: Where did this come from?

Kittle was a recruiting afterthought out of high school, then an afterthought again in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Yet, if you uncover and piece together the clues, they were always there, from the day Kittle was born: He possessed everything he needed to become an NFL star.

It just took time to put everything together.

This is the story of how George Kittle became GEORGE KITTLE.

George Kittle, shown celebrating the 49ers' NFC Championship Game win, is not only a star in San Francisco but the entire NFL after being a fifth-round draft pick from Iowa in 2017.

An early love for the game

If you’re from Iowa, you are likely at least somewhat familiar with Kittle’s blood lines. 

His father, Bruce, was a starting left tackle and co-captain of the Hawkeyes’ 1982 Rose Bowl team. But there’s little argument that the most athletic genes in the family come from his mother’s side.

Jan Krieger was a star athlete at Winfield Mount-Union, a small high school in southeast Iowa. Her best sport was basketball, and she went on to score more than 1,800 points for Drake at the Division I level. The farm-raised Krieger family is well-known for athletics in southeast Iowa. Ten (yes, 10!) Krieger daughters, no sons, were born to Bub and Lugene Krieger. 

One of Jan’s nephews is Jess Settles, one of the most notable Iowa Hawkeye basketball players of the past three decades. Another is Henry Krieger-Coble, who played tight end at Iowa with George and enjoyed a cup of coffee in the NFL. Another is Brad Carlson, one of the most prolific home-run hitters in Hawkeye baseball history.

Bruce Kittle, who has been a Division I football assistant coach, remembers his only son (fittingly born on a football Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin, with a hospital-window view of Camp Randall Stadium) showing flashes of dominance as a fifth-grader in his first year of tackle football.

But as the years passed, George became gangly and awkwardly tried to adjust to that skinny frame. And playing as a 6-foot-2, 190-pound wide receiver in a run-heavy system at Norman (Okla.) High School, Kittle only got a few passing targets a game.

Bruce, then an assistant coach under Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, sent his son’s film to FCS programs around the country such as Northern Iowa. But the only offers George got were from Weber State and some service academies; and Mom was adamant about not wanting her son to be deployed, so those were ruled out.

“I was surprised he didn’t get much traction,” Bruce recalls, “but he didn’t have much on tape to show anybody.”

George Kittle's mother is one of 10 daughters in an athletic family. They had no brothers. Here, they are shown celebrating their mom Lugene's 97th birthday.

Front row, from left: Susan, Kathryn, Jenna and Jan (George's mom); Middle row: Lugene (aka "Lucky"), Bertie; Back row: Amy, Lori, Mary, Ann, Barbara.

An out-of-nowhere opportunity

Sometime in high school, Kittle got a tattoo on the back of his arm with one word, seven letters: “BELIEVE.”

His mom says it was a reminder to her son about “believing in himself and his potential.”

But as college interest barely trickled in for Kittle, believing wasn’t easy.

With their Iowa ties, the Kittles thought it might be helpful to drive to an Iowa football camp between George’s junior and senior years. But even that proved to be, to quote Dad, disappointing.

"We hardly had any contact with anybody,” Bruce says. “We got through the second day at noon and George said, ‘Dad, let’s go. I have not talked to a single Iowa coach.’

“We packed up and figured that (Iowa) was not going to really happen.”

But apparently some Iowa coaches were watching. Because more than half a year later, shortly before national signing day in February 2012, longtime Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz called out of the blue. Ferentz was Bruce’s offensive line coach at Iowa in 1981 and, with an assist from offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe (whose daughter played sports with Kittle's older sister, Emma, who went on to play Division I volleyball) knew of the Krieger blood lines.

Ferentz told the family that if two other prospects didn’t commit, Iowa would have a scholarship available for George.

Signing day arrived with nervousness for the Kittle family. It would be Iowa or the fallback plan, Weber State.

“I remember (George) going to school and thinking, ‘Please, please,’” his mother said. “He wore a Hawkeye shirt under his regular shirt, just in case.”

By mid-morning, the call came in from Ferentz.

George Kittle had just gotten only Division I scholarship offer, and it was from a Big Ten Conference program renowned for player development.

“They were just rolling the dice on him,” Bruce says, “and hoping he might pan out.”

George Kittle is shown at Super Bowl Media Day in Miami.

A slow climb at Iowa

It’s Super Bowl week, so Chris Doyle knows that he’ll be interviewed about one of the most remarkable transformations in Iowa football history. The 22nd-year strength and conditioning coach at Iowa flips through his old notes on Kittle.

From June 8, 2012, the day Kittle reported to Iowa: “Measured 6-foot-2, 201 pounds.”

From a practice in 2013: “Can really run. Is increasing his maturity. Going to have a greater role.”

That growing, unrealized potential summed up Kittle’s football tale to date.

When Greg Davis, Iowa's former offensive coordinator who retired after Kittle's senior season, thinks of Kittle, he remembers a fun-loving, football-obsessed individual who tried to bring life and humor to practices.

But one memory in particular stands out. It was during a 9-on-7 drill, in which everyone knows it’s a running play — and becomes a human melee of blocking and hitting.

“He was getting tossed around like a rag doll,” Davis recalls. “But … he never backed off. I remember watching the tape (with Ferentz), and Kirk said, ‘I’ll tell you one thing, he’s not afraid. And if he’s not afraid, he’s got a chance.’”

But there were a few things standing in Kittle’s way.

First, Iowa had a talented tight-ends room that included future Houston Texans starter C.J. Fiedoriwicz, highly productive Jake Duzey, Ray Hamilton and Krieger Coble.

Second, he had more growing to do, both personally and physically. An August 2019 ESPN profile (fittingly titled, "Does George Kittle ever have a bad day?") recounts how Kittle was reamed out by coaches and decided to ditch partying and focus more on football entering his junior season.

So, while Kittle's final two years at Iowa may have lacked his usual fun, they were productive.

It helped that he grew two inches while at Iowa, Doyle reports, and had incrementally grown in weight by year. From 201 to 217 in Year 1; to 227 in Year 2; to 237 after Year 3; and then, eventually his Iowa playing weight of 6-4, 249.

“It just took time,” Doyle says. “That stuff doesn’t happen overnight.”

Kittle’s parents point to another factor that helped things click for him at Iowa: the move of Woods from linebackers coach to tight ends coach following a 2014 season that was not only disappointing for the Hawkeyes but for Kittle (he had one catch in 13 games).

To that point, Kittle was having trouble following through on "BELIEVE."

A career defensive player and coach, Woods acknowledges coaching tight ends was initially foreign to him. But Kittle was able to lean into his father to refine his now-renowned blocking techniques; Iowa’s video department would send scrimmage video to Bruce, who would go over the film with his son on the phone.

"Somewhere between that third and fourth year at Iowa, he really bought into that notion of his trademark of being a great blocker," Bruce says. "I think that showed his senior year at Iowa, and I think he’s continued to take that into the NFL.”

Woods, meanwhile, offered the type of nurturing personality that Kittle needed to believe in himself again. He saw "a freak athletically" in Kittle and encouraged him to watch tape of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. 

So, before the rest of the world saw it, Woods saw a budding "Mini Gronk."

"It was more just being positive and letting George know that you’re making progress,” Woods recalls. “You have all the physical tools, all the ability to be a really good football player. But it’s time to put it to use and put it to work. … I don’t know if George saw himself like that at the time.”

An accelerated opportunity for Kittle arose after Duzey — the team’s returning No. 1 tight end entering his senior year — suffered a serious knee injury before the 2015 season. Kittle was suddenly thrust into the backup tight-end role. His big opportunity at Iowa had arrived.

George Kittle is shown on Iowa's senior day in 2016 against Nebraska with his mom, Jan Krieger, and father, former Iowa lineman Bruce Kittle. George had two TD catches in that 40-10 Hawkeye win.

The fun resurfaces in San Francisco 

Kittle led Iowa with six touchdown receptions during a 12-2 season as a junior. With his rare athletic gifts, it seemed like a breakout senior season was coming. 

“As we got ready for his senior year,” Davis recalls, “we had planned on getting him the ball much more. It just didn’t work out that way."

Kittle’s final season at Iowa was derailed by planter fasciitis in the arch of his right foot, an injury that proved difficult to treat. Kittle’s four-year Iowa playing career ended with a solid but unspectacular 48 receptions for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns.

“I would be stretching the truth,” Davis admits, “if I told you I thought he would set a record for tight-end play in the NFL.”

By 2018, Kittle would set a single-season NFL record for tight ends with 1,377 receiving yards. This past season, he topped 1,000 yards again and was voted first-team all-pro despite missing two games with an injury.

It’s been a remarkable rise but, again, the ability was there. 

Kittle’s development at Iowa was impressive and consistent. He went from skinny, shot-in-the-dark wide receiver to a bruising tight end. And he stole the show among tight ends at the NFL Scouting Combine. His 38½-inch vertical jump and 4.52-second 40-yard dash opened eyes, but not enough of them, apparently. Eight tight ends were drafted before the 49ers took him in the fifth round: O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, David Njoku, Gerald Everett, Adam Shaheen, Jonnu Smith, Michael Roberts and Jake Butt.

Only Kittle has become a household name among NFL fans. 

Although he’s making an NFL pittance (at $645,000 for the 2019 season) compared with rookie teammate Nick Bosa (whose signing bonus alone was $22.4 million), Kittle and Chiefs counterpart Travis Kelce are expected to reset the NFL’s tight-end market this offseason, perhaps to the tune of $12 million to $15 million a year.

Looking back, Doyle sees a lot of comparisons between Kittle and Marshal Yanda, the longtime guard for the Baltimore Ravens and a perennial all-pro. Ten years before Kittle was drafted, Yanda was a third-round pick after a nondescript Iowa career.

“Under-recruited, works really hard over a long period of time, understands that there’s a delayed gratification,” Doyle says. “… People look at (Kittle) and say, ‘Gee, he’s an overnight success.’ No, this started in 2012. He’s just continually been getting better for a long period of time.”

The Kittles are forever thankful for the opportunity and development that Iowa’s program provided.

But to launch Kittle from senior-year Iowa to NFL star took a few final ingredients.

The right offensive-minded coach in Kyle Shanahan to unlock Kittle’s unrealized potential that Woods and others saw in pockets at Iowa.

And the right organization for Kittle’s free-wheeling personality.

“He’s in a system that’s ideally built for him,” Bruce Kittle says. “If he was at New England, I don’t know if he’s having the same success just because of the system. And it’s also the environment, the culture of the 49ers — they’re very much about free personalities.

“Live your life, but show up on the field and do your job. That freedom has been really good for George.”

One of the first things George Kittle learned from his father in fifth grade was to have fun in football.

Kittle’s free spirit has been infectious for the 49ers' franchise.

That same joy carries to the field, where he plays eight to 10 pounds lighter than he did at Iowa and still has no problem driving an opposing linebacker into the ground or gleefully celebrating touchdowns with an homage to WWE hero "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. 

When Jan Krieger sees her son now, she can’t help to flash back to his fifth- and sixth-grade days of tackle football, when he was coached by his father.

"He just had so much fun. He loved it. … He just couldn’t wait to play again," she says. "And that’s how he’s playing now. I think that’s why he’s been so successful. He’s just enjoying every moment."

Back then, Bruce Kittle’s only three messages to his son were to: 1) Work hard every day. 2) Try to get better. 3) Have fun.

George never drifted far from all three. Especially No. 3.

And eventually — with an assist from 11th-hour recruiting fortune, grueling Iowa development, a nurturing position coach and a perfect NFL home — that’s how George Kittle became GEORGE KITTLE.

Columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.