Thursday, January 29, 2004

Faith better than being cool, Bengals' Kitna tells students



By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MASON - There's big-league, national-TV, screaming-fans sort of NFL excitement, and then there is the joy of spreading the Gospel to young people. Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna knows which one touches his heart more deeply.

"Doing this is so exciting to me," the eight-year NFL veteran told about 500 students Wednesday as they packed into the pews of St. Susanna Church here.

Before his speech to first- through eighth-graders, Kitna explained how "this has always been a big part of my heart, especially talking to children about God."

The NFL's Comeback Player of the Year wowed the boys and girls of St. Susanna. The talk was part sermon and part personal confession from one of pro sports' most publicly Christian athletes.

Kitna, who spoke to students as part of Catholic Schools Week, was fined $5,000 by NFL officials for wearing a cap featuring a cross during his Dec. 14 post-game press conference. Kitna told the students that he has regularly worn such hats since he gave his life to God while in college in 1993 - so he was shocked when told that he would be fined. He said that he had appealed the fine and has since received a refund.

Kitna told the students that letting God into their lives might not be considered "cool" by some, but there are more important aspects to life than worrying about what one's peers think.

"If you are looking to be cool, choosing Jesus will not be cool - but you will be respected. I'm not the coolest person in the locker room, but my teammates respect me because they know where I stand with Christ," said Kitna.

He added that he was honored to be invited to the school to express his thoughts on religion. "Sometimes our world is so backwards. I'm just a football player - not a doctor or a teacher. But because I'm a football player, somehow I'm qualified to come and speak."

He urged the children to dream big, but to "be ready for where God takes you."

St. Susanna eighth-grader Mary Frericks said afterward, "It's cool that he is so open about that stuff."

Classmate Steve McVeigh described Kitna's speech as inspiring.

"It makes me want to push forward with my dreams," he said.

St. Susanna parent Kathy Gantzer, whose two boys play youth football and are big fans of Kitna and the Bengals, described the quarterback - who points skyward to God after each touchdown pass - as "walking the walk" of a devout life.

"He has a real grace about him. In today's world, we don't have a whole lot of athletic figures that do that - but he has had such a positive impact on my boys."

E-mail mclark@enquirer.com.




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