IOWA CITY, Iowa — For five long hours Friday night, Iowa tight end George Kittle and his family watched NFL team after team draft players as they waited.
The same process took place for two hours on Saturday. Patience and excitement mixed with frustration. Then, a phone call. And their worlds changed forever.
As George answered his phone, everyone in the room hushed and looked at him. About 10 seconds into his call, George held the phone away from his mouth and said, “It’s the 49ers.” Another 75 seconds ticked off before he hung up. Then Kittle shouted …”I’m going to the Niners, baby!”
The living room at his parents’ home erupted. George Kittle, fifth-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers, 146th overall.
A lifetime worth of dreams coupled with thousands of hours of work culminated in the special moment. For two days, the mental toll on the Kittle family was akin to child labor. The phone call provided indescribable joy, and the stress evaporated.
“I’m so happy,” said Jan Krieger Kittle, George’s mother. “It was really hard in the end.”
Friday night lights
As the rain poured outside the Kittle home in north Iowa City, family and close friends streamed into the living room before Friday’s second round. Kittle’s impressive showing at March’s NFL Scouting Combine coupled with his production at Iowa had some draft evaluators placing him as a possible third-round pick.
Energy filled the Kittle family’s spacious living room. George’s father, Bruce Kittle, grilled steaks and vegetables. Mementos from Kittle’s career were visible everywhere. His longtime girlfriend — former Iowa women’s basketball player Claire Till — put together a scrapbook from his five seasons at Iowa. There was a framed portrait with his 2017 Outback Bowl jersey he recently received from Iowa. Hanging next to the fireplace was a framed poster titled “Perfection,” which is a collection of Cedar Rapids Gazette sports pages from the 2015 football season. Kittle’s old Iowa helmet and his bowl rings were displayed throughout the room.
Kittle relaxed in a chair directly in front of the television. He focused on his phone as the second-round picks rattled off on the NFL Network. He alternated between playing games on his phone and glancing at Twitter to find out the picks. His mother, Jan, recited some of George’s activities the last few days, including a trip to renowned book store Prairie Lights in downtown Iowa City.
“He loves to read,” she said.
Kittle’s family was nervous. His mother struggled to stay in one place. She watched a pick, which happened to be a tight end, and uttered, “You’re killing me.” Then quickly she retorted, “I’m fine.”
Any team with which Kittle had spoken was circled mentally by those watching. Arizona, Detroit and San Francisco all drew the attention of the dozen or so friends and family gathered to watch the draft. Then collective exhales filled the room when a selection was made.
When the New England Patriots made their first selection of the evening, former Iowa defensive end Andre Tippett announced the pick. Tippett, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was a consensus All-American in 1981. He’s a familiar face for Bruce Kittle, who played offensive line at Iowa from 1977 to 1981.
Bruce Kittle started at tackle on the Hawkeyes’ 1981 Big Ten champion squad before a knee injury in a 9-7 upset win at Michigan sidelined him for the rest of the season. The Washington Redskins signed him as an undrafted free agent, and in 1982 he vied for a spot on what could arguably be labeled the greatest offensive line in NFL history. He lasted until the second round of cuts.
“I should have been a tight end but I ran too slow,” Kittle said. “I kind of saw that writing on the wall; I wouldn’t have been a long-termer anyway.”
Bruce Kittle’s life led him to coaching Division I football, the ministry and law school. He’s currently an attorney in Cedar Rapids. Jan Krieger Kittle was an All-American in basketball and played softball at Drake. She’s one of 10 children in one of the state’s most athletically gifted families. Her nephews include Jess Settles (who ranks No. 9 in Iowa basketball scoring), Brad Carlson (Iowa’s career home run leader), and Henry Krieger Coble, who played alongside George Kittle for four years and competed for the Denver Broncos last season. Kittle’s older sister, Emma, played volleyball at Iowa and Oklahoma.
As the long night neared its conclusion, the mood drew more quiet. Some frustration echoed after Tennessee selected Florida International tight end Jonnu Smith late in the third round. But By night’s end, the vibe was positive about Saturday’s prospects.
Kittle’s path to the draft
George Kittle’s senior season at Iowa was incomplete. Early on, he became quarterback C.J. Beathard’s top target after an injury to wide receiver Matt VandeBerg. Then at Purdue, Kittle suffered a mid-foot sprain that cost him two games and limited him for the rest of the season. He finished with 22 catches for 314 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Kittle received an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and trained at EXOS in Frisco, Texas. By the time Kittle reached the combine, he was healed and quickly elevated his profile. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds to rank third among tight ends and tied for 13th-best all-time at the position. Kittle won $10,000 from Adidas for running the fastest time while wearing Adidas cleats. Kittle placed third in the broad jump at 11 feet and was sixth in the vertical jump at 35 inches.
Teams took notice. Both the Arizona and Detroit coaching staffs met with him in Indianapolis and scheduled visits. San Francisco got involved after the combine when its coaching staff came to Iowa City to work out Beathard.
“C.J. asked me to run routes for him and I guess I impressed them enough for them to take an extra look at my film,” Kittle said. “Then they called me the next day and said, ‘We want to fly you out on Tuesday.’ I was like, ‘All right.’ That was on Thursday when I ran routes and Friday they called me and said, ‘Let’s fly you out.’
“So I was in a suit, all dressed up. [From] 7 to 2:30 just met coaches, strength coaches, just everybody in the whole facility. I got to sit down with Mr. [John] Lynch and coach [Kyle] Shanahan. It was awesome.”
Kittle watched film with San Francisco tight ends coach Jon Embree, who coached former Iowa tight end Brandon Myers in Tampa Bay.
“One of their coaches said this is the easiest interview for you ever because we’re just inviting you out here to make sure you’re not a crazy person,” Kittle said. “I thought that was pretty funny. I enjoyed every interaction I had with the 49ers.”
The 49ers left him with one message that stayed with Kittle throughout the process: “If you’re available, we’re going to draft you.”
Preparing for the final day
Saturday morning was more casual for the Kittle family. George spent the morning playing video games and he spoke with Iowa tight ends coach LeVar Woods. A former Iowa player, Woods was undrafted but played seven years in the NFL. Woods dispensed some advice to Kittle.
“He’s like, ‘Hey, I forgot to tell you waiting sucks,’ ” Woods told Kittle. “It’s awful. It’s the biggest wear and tear you’ll ever experience that’s not on the football field. It’s awful because you’re sitting there and you’re comparing yourself to other guys. Maybe teams that talked to you said they liked you aren’t picking you up.”
As the draft’s fourth round debuted, Jan Krieger Kittle said she slept fine but was nervous. She wore a T-shirt that featured her father’s photo. Viven “Bub” Krieger had planned to play football at Iowa in 1937 but grew homesick and instead competed for NAIA Iowa Wesleyan until 1941 near his Mount Union home. He was asked to sign a free-agent contract with the Chicago Cardinals but declined, choosing to run the family farm. He did that until his death in 2011.
Among the people who swung by Kittle’s house included former Iowa teammates Brant Gressel and Steve Manders, George’s older sister, Emma, and her husband Josh Schonhorst, as well as Claire’s family. Cheers erupted when the Minnesota Vikings selected Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson with the fourth round’s second pick.
After the 49ers traded up for the 121st overall pick (fourth round), the room hushed. In a pregnant pause that felt like an hour, the announcer strung out “Joooooooooe Williams, running back, Utah.” For a split second, it sounded like “George.”
The group laughed as an orangutan pushed a monitor denoting the Indianapolis Colts’ selection. They cheered when Kittle’s roommate at EXOS — North Carolina wide receiver Ryan Switzer — was selected by Dallas. But impatience began to swell with every pick.
Near the end of the fourth round, Kittle spoke with his agent, Jack Bechta, who told him the Seattle Seahawks were trying to trade up to select him. The problem for the Seahawks was they didn’t have a fifth-round pick.
Moments later, Kittle received another call.
Kittle quietly drifted away from the living room and held the phone to his ear. The tone was polite and formal.
“(My heart) was beating fast,” he said. “My hands were shaking a bit. That number had called me before and my hands were shaking. Just everything comes into light.”
The television blared in the background, but Kittle’s conversation was audible and positive. As he hung up, he shouted “I’m going to the Niners, baby!” Cheers and tears filled the room. He hugged Claire and kissed his parents.
Reflection was in order and emotions were all over the place.
“As a mom, as a parent, you want nothing more than your child to fulfill their dreams and be happy,” Jan Krieger Kittle said. “When he was little he’d say, he’s always, ‘Mom, someday’ … You know he really could. And here we are, and I’m so thankful, I’m so happy.
“I was like, ‘Thank you.’ I just started crying. I still get emotional, I’m just like thank you. I believed in him. You know, you think in the back of your mind, he’s good enough to go. If he’d be healthy … I’m so happy someone believed in him.”
Bruce Kittle recalled going through the draft process in 1982. In his eyes, the situations didn’t compare.
“I think it’s harder thinking about your kid than thinking about yourself,” Bruce Kittle said. “You’re sitting around and he’s slowly slipping through the third and fourth and all that.”
George disappeared for a conference call with Bay Area media. He emerged with a hat he received on his visit to the 49ers. Then his father offered up a toast to celebrate the moment, the past perseverance and a bright future.
The angst of a long Friday and grueling early Saturday dissipated. George will fly to San Francisco on Thursday, and it appeared the celebration would begin early and continue for a good while.
“It’s still day, right?” Kittle said. “So celebration through the day and we’ll see what happens. I’m so happy. It’s so weird seeing my name on the TV there. I’m just so happy.”