Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Aug. 19, 2019.
It takes George Kittle a full 14 seconds to answer what seems like an easy question.
Two days before the 49ers would end their offseason program this spring, the tight end is lounging in a sleeveless hoodie and athletic shorts, his feet propped on the desk of a PR staffer. One of the breakout stars of the 2018 NFL season has been riffing about his whirlwind rise to fame, his love of professional wrestling, his recent wedding and an upcoming trip to the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Then, a simple question brings him to a screeching halt: Have you ever had a bad day?
Kittle takes his feet off the desk, leans down and thinks about it longer than you’d expect. Finally, he looks up and says, simply: “No.”
Sure, he acknowledges, there’s been the occasional disappointment, a minor injury here or there, but nothing reaching the level of a full-fledged bad day. In the end? “I’m just grateful I get to play football every single day of my life,” Kittle says. “So I’m never really in a bad mood.”
Go ahead and groan. The notion of a Ripken-like streak of non-bad days — that’d be 9,000 and counting for the 26-year-old — seems impossible. But Kittle might be one of the few who can say it and mean it. Those closest to him struggle to answer the same question. His dad, Bruce, can’t remember even one … maybe that time a girl didn’t like him back early in elementary school? Mom Jan says George was disappointed to miss Iowa’s 2016 game against Michigan with an injury … but stops short because the Hawkeyes won, leaving George feeling just fine. Kittle’s wife, Claire, draws a blank. College coaches such as Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Chris Doyle and high school coach Greg Nation? Stumped, stumped and more stumped.
Only close friend and former Iowa teammate Steve Manders manages anything close to a real answer. He points to a rough spring practice between Kittle’s sophomore and junior years, when the Iowa coaching staff laid into Kittle for not being serious enough about football. Manders tried telling him later that anybody can have a bad practice, but Kittle jumped out of his chair and vowed to cut back on the partying and go all-in on football. “The lightbulb kind of hit on, and ever since then it just took off and he never looked back,” Manders says. “He just kind of created his own destiny.”
Now, at the end of his third season in professional football, Kittle has become one of the league’s most unlikely stars. The 2017 fifth-round pick had 48 catches in four years at Iowa — then last year exploded for 88 receptions and 1,377 yards, an NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end in a season. It also included 855 yards after the catch, the most of any player since ESPN started tracking the stat in 2006.
For an encore, Kittle posted 85 catches for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns while consistently acting as a human wrecking ball as a blocker in the run game. In the process, he became the first tight end in franchise history to have multiple 1,000-yard seasons and earned his first nod as a first-team All Pro.
Combine that game-breaking ability with a fun-loving, larger-than-life personality and it’s little wonder Kittle is already drawing comparisons to another exuberant tight end: Rob Gronkowski.
Like Gronk, Kittle enjoyed every second of his breakout season, which included wearing a Deion Sanders Falcons jersey for a postgame interview with Prime Time himself, crushing the local Panda Express every Monday with receiver Trent Taylor and safety Adrian Colbert (he ordered the same thing every time: orange chicken, chow mein, fried rice and crab Rangoon, unless the honey walnut shrimp looked strong that day — “when it’s good, it’s really good”), and the week he finally followed through on a promise to Claire to dress nicer on game days … by switching from wrestling T-shirts to a Hawaiian shirt adorned with toucans.
49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had a locker near Gronkowski in New England and now finds himself in the line of vision of the Stone Cold Steve Austin figure that sits atop Kittle’s locker. He doesn’t shy away from the idea that Kittle has some Gronk-like traits.
“It’s one of those things that’s contagious,” he says. “Both of them are the guy in the room that is picking everyone up, getting everyone laughing and feeling good and everything. I’m glad we’ve got a guy like that.”
EVERY SATURDAY DURING the season, a letter for George Kittle arrives at 49ers headquarters. The next day, Kittle makes reading it his top priority. The letters are from his father, usually three or four pages long with a mix of notes about the upcoming opponent, observations from the previous week’s game, a photo or two and what Bruce calls “significant” (and often vulgar) trash-talk. The letters are themed-things like staying focused on the moment and savoring the opportunity to play football — and usually feature a cameo from comic book heroes like Batman or Spider-Man.
“That dude is Ric Flair on the football field. When the lights come on and he comes out of the locker room, he flips that switch and he’s in that same place until the end of the game. And then he goes back to being George Kittle.”
Greg Nation, Kittle’s high school coach
On the team bus, George works his way through the week’s letter, feeding off every word. Bruce, a big proponent of sports psychology, has taught George the importance of having an alter ego. There’s George, and then there’s Football George, agent of on-field chaos — and the bus ride gets him where he needs to go in more ways than one. “That’s kind of like the first step to my switch,” Kittle says. “I read that and I know, ‘Hey, it’s game day, lock in.'”
George has kept every letter since his father began writing them eight years ago, storing them in his nightstand. His favorite came last season before a Thursday night game against the Raiders. That letter emphasized the importance of ending the Bay Area rivalry on a high note before the Raiders move to Las Vegas. Kittle finished with four catches for 108 yards and a TD, including a one-handed grab, in a blowout win.
Bruce’s letters began as a somber remembrance of former Oklahoma linebacker Austin Box. In 2011, Bruce was Oklahoma’s tight ends and tackles coach when Box died of a painkiller overdose. In the aftermath, Bruce found out that Box’s dad had written his son a letter before every game since Austin was in seventh grade. He decided to do the same for George. George calls Bruce his best friend, and the letters remain integral in keeping them connected when distance gets in the way.
On the way to the field, Kittle puts his helmet on, delivers a head-butt to a wall — no, really — and the transformation is complete. George is a die-hard Batman fan but considers his game-day self to be more like the Dark Knight’s archenemy. “I don’t try to channel all the Joker, obviously, because he has some issues,” Kittle says, unleashing a diabolical laugh of his own. “Creating a little bit of chaos is just kind of what I try to do. I’m just trying to be the most outgoing, craziest person on the field.”
In an October 2018 loss to Green Bay, Kittle delivered a crushing block on a rushing play, planting a Packers defender on the ground. When he got back to the huddle, he was laughing so maniacally that center Weston Richburg turned to him and asked, “What the f— is wrong with you, dude?”
Kittle says his favorite thing to do in football is move a man from point A to point B against his will. “That dude is Ric Flair on the football field,” says Nation, his high school coach. “When the lights come on and he comes out of the locker room, he flips that switch and he’s in that same place until the end of the game. And then he goes back to being George Kittle.”
KITTLE’S STARDOM HAS always felt like a genetic fait accompli; sports are woven into the Kittle fabric. Bruce played at Iowa and was a co-captain of the 1981 squad that went to the Rose Bowl. Jan was a standout basketball player at Drake who was also on the softball team. Sister Emma played volleyball at Iowa and Oklahoma. Cousins Jess Settles, Henry Krieger-Coble and Brad Carlson are, respectively, one of the top 10 scorers in Hawkeyes basketball history; a standout tight end at Iowa who has spent time in the NFL; and Iowa’s career home run king.
That tight family bond is also at the heart of Kittle’s unrelenting loyalty to the many friends he considers family. Kittle’s first move after he received his signing bonus in 2017 was to pay for the medical expenses of a friend’s mother in Oklahoma. More recently, Kittle sent a signed Pro Bowl jersey to his tight ends coach at Iowa, LeVar Woods, thanking him for his help.
In the offseason, Bruce, Jan and Emma all moved from Iowa to Nashville to be close to George and Claire’s offseason home. The move was hard on Jan because it meant leaving their farm and many family members behind. “He called me and he goes, ‘Mom, you have always told us that wherever we are together as a family, that’s what home is, and we’re all gonna be together, so it’s going to be OK,'” Jan says. “He always sees the positive. Sometimes you want to say, ‘Come on, George,’ but he really does.”
Before their departure, the Krieger family reunion took place with 113 of a possible 128 relatives attending. And after the extended Kittle family arrived in Nashville, George and Claire threw an impromptu housewarming party to celebrate the move. On short notice, 70 people from all over the country showed up, including current and former NFL players, as well as friends from as far back as George’s ninth-grade basketball team in Iowa.
“We’re all just hanging out, like very low-key in our backyard,” Claire says. “And he’s hopping around to everybody, talking to them, laughing. It’s just everybody has a good time when he’s around, honestly.”
FOR A GUY who has never had a bad day, Kittle’s offseason contained a bunch of very good ones. From his first Pro Bowl to the Super Bowl — he was a pitchman for a credit card company — to the U.S. Open to his honeymoon, Kittle lived the fantasy offseason of a 20-something NFL player, with a truly epic week sandwiched in the middle of it all.
It started with WrestleMania — his second straight year attending; Kittle is a huge wrestling fan — and ended with his wedding, which he calls the best day of his life.
Kittle and Claire met in 2012 as freshmen at Iowa. Claire was on the basketball team and one day was getting ready to hop on her moped to head across campus. She had just pulled on her bright pink helmet when Kittle walked up and said, “Nice helmet.” A few months later, Kittle and Claire were inseparable; by last year, they were engaged and Claire was planning a 2020 wedding, before they made a very George Kittle decision: Why wait?
Just two days after George, Bruce and Manders got back from WrestleMania in New York City, the Kittle and Till families pulled together the type of intimate, family-only wedding Claire had often dreamed about. They reserved space at M.C. Ginsberg, a custom jewelry store in Iowa City owned by some of Claire’s family friends. A local florist came through with a small bouquet; Bruce, an ordained minister, would marry the happy couple; and Jan, a photographer, would handle photos and videos. The day before the wedding, however, a little bit of Football George spilled into Everyday George.
Kittle had been wanting to get a tattoo of his alter ego — the Heath Ledger version of the Joker — and he wanted to do it at Neon Dragon Tattoo in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, his preferred purveyor of ink. With scheduling conflicts both ways, the day before the biggest day of his life was the only option.
While Claire’s brother Riley and Bruce were in favor, Claire, Jan and Emma hated the idea. But Kittle was insistent, and he spent seven hours in the chair while the Joker, complete with bold, red lips, took over most of the inside of his left forearm.
The next morning, surrounded by their inner circle — just seven other people attended — Claire married George with his left forearm covered in saran wrap under his long-sleeved white shirt to prevent the tat from bleeding through.
“He’s so goofy,” Claire says. “At first, I thought he was joking — he has a lot of ideas that are out there and he doesn’t actually go through with them. So at first, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the worst idea you’ve ever had. I hate that.’
“But then after he had explained to me all of the meaning behind it and then seeing it in person, it’s actually really cool. So I do really like it now. That’s just George.”