Before he left the Dallas Cowboys to come home again, Jon Kitna had one request of the two principals who run Lincoln High School:
Give me your worst students.
The other teachers told him to stop. This was last February and it was going to be hard enough to teach three algebra classes in the middle of a semester. He was two months gone from an NFL career that went for 16 years, after all. Yes, this was his old high school, the one where he was a star quarterback in the early 1990s, but didn’t the new football coach understand what he was getting into?
Didn’t he see the numbers? Didn’t he know that four of every five of the students were on free or reduced lunches? That finding a meal was more important than understanding negative integers? Inspiring the best students was going to be difficult enough. Save himself, they advised. Start slow. Make it easy.
Kitna shook his head. Easy wasn’t the point. At 6-foot-4 with a buzz cut and a body built for football, he fills the classroom doorways. He would not be intimidated. And how could they understand this was the only job he ever wanted – that his time in the NFL was a daily preparation for this moment? No, coming home was supposed to be as hard.
And so again he told the principals to have the other math teachers select the students they didn’t want – the ones who didn’t listen, who didn’t try, who didn’t care. He would take them all. The principals nodded. Lists were made, class rolls prepared. The new football coach was handed three dream teams of troublemakers. They wished him luck.
Only something happened in those three algebra classes, something no one could have imagined. The students who didn’t listen suddenly did. Those who never did work turned in assignments. And when the results of the math assessments came in, Kitna’s students were second best in the school. It wasn’t because their teacher was an NFL quarterback. Many of them didn’t have televisions at home. They had little idea who Jon Kitna was. No, this was something else. Something bigger. Something one of those two principals, Pat Erwin, considers in his office one recent day and finally calls: “The Kitna effect.”