In what was universally regarded as “winning the press conference” in Cleveland on Monday, new Cleveland Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens included an anecdote that runs deeper than many happy Browns fans realized.
“I was working at Magnolia Nissan (in Tuscaloosa) and making more money than I’d ever made,” Kitchens recalled. “I was washing FedEx trucks on the weekends. And Alabama would play. This was a couple of years after I finished. (Alabama) would be playing. There were no televisions in the wash bay, so I’d listen to it on the radio, and I’d really like — it would almost bring me to tears listening to it. So I don’t know that I ever wanted to coach, but I knew I couldn’t live without the game of football.”
That story of Kitchens’ near-tears has layers that only an Alabama follower would understand. First, it shows what a deeply loyal person Kitchens is. That’s a quality that the Browns’ locker room — especially rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield — has recognized and is one of the reasons why he was selected as the new head coach in Cleveland.
This is the context, though. Like all Alabama quarterbacks, Kitchens was subject to intense scrutiny. When he played well, people cheered. But when he didn’t, he could take some heated criticism — for his portly frame, for the occasional interception, for a disastrous 1997 season that was in no way the sole fault of any single player. He followed the familiar path — touted as a freshman in 1993, redshirted in 1994 when Alabama had Jay Barker and Brian Burgdorf under center, then becoming the people’s choice as Burgdorf struggled. He was the starter in 1996 — a good year, but a 10-3 record wasn’t up to expectations. Kitchens wasn’t a Peyton Manning or a Danny Wuerffel and Alabama fans let him know it. He was, even if few people expressed it this way, an anachronism, the “old school” quarterback in a new-school SEC.
In 1997, as Mike DuBose struggled and threw everything he could at the wall to see what would stick, Kitchens was benched, his streak of 25 straight starts broken when Lance Tucker started against Mississippi State. Kitchens didn’t start in the season finale against Auburn.
Instead, he came off the bench, rallied the Crimson Tide and was in position to be the hero of one of the greatest upsets in Alabama-Auburn history until…
This isn’t the time to debate the fateful play call that resulted in an Alabama fumble and an Auburn win in Kitchens’ last game. That play has been discussed and lamented a million times over. Whatever the opinion, though, it wasn’t Kitchens’ fault. His Alabama career was over. It would have been easy enough for him to walk away. Memories are long in this state, but folks forget the bad times if players gave their all for their school. Kitchens gave it his all and then some, battered by opposing defenders until he could barely stand in some games. He never quit. If he got angry, he would eventually get over it. He’d be washing a truck, hear Alabama football on the radio and cheer for the Crimson Tide or come close to weeping because his part in the drama, it seemed, had ended.
Now, he is an NFL head coach. He received a congratulatory phone call from Nick Saban (he worked for Saban as a graduate assistant at LSU) and said all the right things in Cleveland. The Browns’ nation appreciated his Etowah County accent, his talents at play-calling (he certainly learned the importance of that the hard way).
The Browns have known hard times, plenty of them.
Now they have a coach to match — and, possibly, to change the narrative.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.