NFL Playoffs: George Kittle is football's best tight end and biggest character, and neither surprise his high school buddies from Norman
George Kittle moved to Norman the spring of his sophomore year of high school.
Didn’t take him long to start living like a local — or showing his quirks.
Kittle became fast friends with Steven Mudd, a backup quarterback on Norman High’s football team who introduced Kittle to Classic 50’s Drive-In. The Lindsey Street joint is an institution in Norman, and it wasn’t long before Kittle and Mudd started making regular stops for slushes.
They didn’t just drink them.
They ranked them.
“That was one of my first memories of George,” said Harrison Madden, who was also on the football team, “which kind of sets the tone for his personality and nature still to this day.”
In his third season in the NFL, Kittle has become one of the best tight ends in football, maybe even the best depending on how you feel about Travis Kelce. On the day Kittle and San Francisco play their playoff opener, slowing him will be Minnesota’s top priority.
He is big. He is agile. He is dynamic.
- Related to this story
- Video: Kittle remains standout just like Norman High days
Very, very unique.
“Off the field, he’s one of the biggest goofballs that I know,” said Dylan Stout, who played football with Kittle at Norman High and remains one of his best friends.
The football world has become well aware of Kittle’s goofiness. Any time he wears a microphone during a game, the footage is gold. During one of those games this season, he approached one of the NFL Films cameras that was trailing him. He got so close his facemask was touching the camera.
“Hey,” he asked, “am I too close?”
On the sideline, he reminded quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo it was National Tight End Day, saying, “We gotta give the people what they want, Jim. They’re not here to see you. They’re here to see us, man.”
And when 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa made a big play, Kittle let out a prolonged “Bowwww-sahhhhh!”
Then “I’m so happy he’s on my team!”
Then “Sign him to a 20-year deal.”
Perhaps Kittle’s most well-known moment came during the preseason on Monday Night Football. He sat out against the Broncos, but cameras found him sitting in a suite. When a TV in the suite showed him, Kittle responded by sinking down in his chair so only the top of his head was visible.
But don’t let his humor fool you – Kittle is a serious talent.
He was that way even when he was at Norman High. Kittle landed there in 2010 when his dad, Bruce, became the on-campus recruiting coordinator for OU football and longtime friend Bob Stoops.
Even though George was new at Norman, he quickly became a leader.
“He was a hundred percent committed from the day he walked in,” said Greg Nation, who coached Norman High from 2008-16. “Just encouraging words. Never one day of discipline.
“He was the light of the locker room.”
Yes, Nation remembers Kittle having fun, but he was serious about football, too. He never slacked or complained. He always worked and focused.
And when it was game time, Kittle was no longer cracking one-liners.
“It was this cold focus where he really doesn’t even want to talk,” Madden said. “He has the Joker tattooed on his arm, and he really thinks that being in a different mindset helps him reach his goal or potential on the football field.”
The guys at Norman High saw that potential repeatedly.
Once against Moore, Kittle was the intended target on a short fade route in the end zone, but the pass was way off the mark. A defender had a much better shot at the ball.
“And George jumps up, reaches over the guy and pulls it out of his hands,” Madden said. “George gets both his feet down, and it’s just like … ‘Wow, what am I seeing?’”
Stout remembers Kittle always wearing white gloves. The two buddies always got their wrists taped, too, so Kittle had solid white from below his wrists to the tips of his fingers.
One night, Norman called a go route for him down the sideline. On the sideline, Stout watched as a pair of white gloves shot high above a crowd of players and snatched the ball out of the air.
“You could just always see his gloves up above everybody else,” Stout said. “I mean, the dude was already 6-foot-5, but then you add a 30- or 35-inch vertical to that and there’s not very many people that can go up and get a ball over him.”
That hasn’t changed.
Even though Kittle is playing in a league with some of the best athletes on the planet, he is still a rare talent. He can block like a lineman. He can run like a receiver. He can elude like a tailback.
The 49ers have even used him on the jet sweep.
A year ago, Kittle had 88 catches for 1,377 yards, breaking the NFL’s single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end.
This season, he missed two games with an injury but still had 85 catches for 1,053 yards. He also reached the 2,000-yard mark in his 33rd regular-season game, getting to that career mark faster than Rob Gronkowski or Jason Whitten or Tony Gonzalez or even Travis Kelce.
No wonder Kittle was named first-team All-Pro last week.
Thing is, those who knew Kittle at Norman High say he’s still the same guy they remember.
“I’ve seen him several times since he’s become this giant star,” said Zach Long, who was Norman’s quarterback during Kittle’s senior year, “and he hasn’t changed at all.
“It’s really refreshing.”
This past offseason, Kittle invited several of his high school buddies to a big event he hosts in Nashville, where he makes his offseason home. He calls it Kittle Fest.
“Me and a couple buddies drove out there, and we were just talking … ‘He has not changed a bit,’” Long said. “It’s like talking to him in high school.”
George Kittle wears a different uniform and plays at another level now, but he remains still recognizable to the people who knew him as a Norman Tiger.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
Saturday's divisional-round playoff games
3:35 p.m.: Vikings at 49ers (NBC)
7:15 p.m.: Titans at Ravens (CBS)
NFL PLAYOFFS, OKLAHOMA CONNECTIONS
As the NFL Playoffs move to the divisional-round games, here's a look at the players with connections to the state of Oklahoma on the rosters of playoff teams. This includes those on active rosters and reserve/injured lists:
BALTIMORE: Mark Andrews, TE, OU; Marquise Brown, WR, OU; Orlando Brown, T, OU; Justice Hill, RB, OSU/Tulsa Booker T. Washington High; *Tony Jefferson, S, OU; Ben Powers, G, OU
GREEN BAY: *Curtis Bolton, LB, OU; Jace Sternberger, TE, Kingfisher High; *Lane Taylor, G, OSU
HOUSTON: Kenny Stills, WR, OU
KANSAS CITY: Blake Bell, TE, OU; Tyreek Hill, WR, OSU; *Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, OSU; Darwin Thompson, RB, Jenks High; Damien Williams, RB, OU; James Winchester, LS, OU/Washington High
MINNESOTA: Dan Bailey, K, OSU/Southwest Covenant School; Kentrell Brothers, LB, Guthrie High; Dru Samia, G, OU
SAN FRANCISCO: George Kittle, TE, Norman High
SEATTLE: *Chris Carson, RB, OSU; Tre Flowers, CB, OSU; Tyler Lockett, WR, Tulsa Booker T. Washington High; David Moore, WR, East Central University
TENNESSEE: *Cameron Batson, WR, Millwood High