Photos courtesy of Bruce Kittle
Each week, on the bus ride to 49ers games, George Kittle opens a letter from his dad.
The letters are typically three pages long, filled with photos, statistics, and messages of inspiration. The first page recaps the previous game. The second page forecasts the upcoming game, with 10 facts about the 49ers’ matchup history with the opposing team, accompanied by comprehensive breakdowns of the offense and defense. The third page reminds the 49ers star who he is, and always will be: a kid from Iowa, playing a kid’s game. There’s usually a quote from Rocky or Gandalf, two of their favorite movie characters, and a photo of a celebrity flipping off the camera pasted elsewhere.
Bruce Kittle has penned these letters for the past five years, ever since his only son’s sophomore season at Iowa. The letters have not stopped because George does not want them to. The idea of hearing his dad’s voice through writing comforts George, who has been one of the NFL’s premier tight ends in his second professional season.
“My wife always complains I spend more time writing George’s letters than I do with her,” Bruce jokes.
Football has always bonded George and Bruce, who played offensive line for Iowa and was named a co-captain during the team’s 1982 season that ended in a Rose Bowl appearance. Fittingly, George was born on a football Saturday, two blocks from the University of Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium.
“I was hoping it would be a young fella, and it certainly was,” Bruce said. “It ended up being a strapping young George.”
George grew up attending Wisconsin games with Bruce, his mom Jan, and his older sister, Emma. George idolized Badgers running back Ron Dayne, who won the 1999 Heisman Trophy. Around that same time, Bruce began teaching his six-year-old son various blocking exercises, including mirror and punch drills, in their backyard. Emma, three years older than George, covered him as he ran routes.
“I have probably thrown over 50 million deep balls to George on the sideline,” Bruce said.
Bruce turned down a job at a reputable law firm so he could play with his two kids all the time. He coached them in just about every sport. He did not know much about soccer, so he read a couple books and watched instructional videos, indicative of his meticulous nature.
In the fifth grade, then living in rural Iowa, George played in his first football league, with Bruce as the head coach. Prior to their opening practice, he issued a message to his players: ‘You are all going to aspire to be offensive linemen, but not all of you will be good enough.’
“You literally had 80-pound kids trying out for offensive line because they thought it was the best position on the field,” George said, “and crying when they went home and couldn’t be offensive linemen. I was the only one who understood he was lying.”
Bruce laughs after reciting the same speech. He recalls that his defenses on George’s seventh and eighth grade teams did not allow a point in two years. There isn’t much about George’s football career he doesn’t remember.
Bruce coached George into his ninth grade season before taking a job as an on-campus football recruiting coordinator for former Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, a longtime friend. The Kittle family moved for a third time, to Norman, Oklahoma, just as George entered high school.
Bruce tried reining in his coaching side to allow George’s high school career to play out. They talked ball at the house, but he left most of the coaching to the staff in place. He made as many games as he could, though it was not easy with Oklahoma’s travel schedule.
Separating “dad” from “coach” is a difficult line to walk for many former college and professional athletes. Bruce knew the distinction.
“He didn’t always treat me like he was the coach,” George said. “He did a really good job of being a dad first.”
“I was just trying to offer enough without being overbearing or a helicopter,” Bruce said. “To his credit, I always felt like he would talk to me about the stuff I was bringing up.”
George grew to be a tall, lanky wide receiver whose body did not fill out until his junior year of high school. His team’s ground-and-pound style did not feature George, limiting his recruiting possibilities. The only serious Division I interest he drew was from Air Force and Iowa. He chose Iowa, Bruce’s alma mater, with NFL hopes in mind.
George redshirted his first year, then spent the following two years waiting his turn to start. Bruce, coaching tight ends and offensive tackles with Oklahoma at that time, needed his George fix. So, Bruce contacted the video staff at Iowa and asked if its members could send him copies of Iowa’s scrimmages. They obliged.
At Iowa, Bruce says, you don’t play if you can’t run block. That’s why he continued to hammer home teaching points on footwork and hand placement. Whenever they were together, they watched film of George practicing “inside drill” on their iPads.
“I wasn’t very good at (blocking) until I got to Iowa, and then I got to actually work on it because I was a wide receiver in high school,” George said. “Definitely having that baseline (of Bruce’s coaching) helped a lot.”
But their bond goes beyond football.
Ever since George was six years old, the Kittle family has vacationed in Colorado, Bruce’s favorite state, every June or July. When Emma started playing travel basketball, the 10-day trip was shared between just George and Bruce. They hiked trails and climbed mountains. They camped out and went white water rafting.
What they embraced most was climbing various “14ers,” mountains that exceed 14,000 feet, once or twice per trip. Their goal was to eventually climb all 58 14ers. George has completed at 13 or 14, he says, and Bruce has checked off 18.
“That got to be our thing,” George said.
The climbing captured the breadth of their friendship, whether it was embracing the physical struggle, enjoying the journey, or taking satisfaction in completing a challenge. The view at the top made it all worth it.
“I am kind of a simple guy,” Bruce said. “It’s the lesson of, if you put one foot in front of the other and keep persevering, eventually you make it to the top of that mountain. I think that’s a lot of the way with life as well.”
One summer day, after they climbed a 14er, Bruce and George got matching tattoos of Longs Peak — an idea that sounded better after a couple of tequila shots. The tattoo, about four inches long, is inscribed on George’s left bicep and Bruce’s right wrist.
All four members of the Kittle family have matching tattoos of a bear claw with a bear drawn inside of it. It represents their small tribe, says Bruce. He tends to use visual depiction to represent something abstract.
“The bear totem itself is a symbol of strength,” Bruce said. “I appreciate the hibernation part, that there are times in your life where you need to rest, pull back and recover, taking care of your mind, body, spirit.”
Bruce and George have not embarked on a climb throughout the past two years. Once George finished his Iowa career, and the 49ers selected him in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, he got too heavy — and valuable — to risk climbing. But he still goes on the annual Colorado trip to spend time with his family.
Until the offseason trip, George has plenty to focus on. Through 12 games, he has 62 catches for 893 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He is on pace to amass 1,191 yards, which would crush Vernon Davis’ franchise record of 965 yards in a single season for a tight end.
Bruce, like much of the NFL world, has enjoyed watching George blossom during his second NFL season. But George is not, and never will be, exempt from dad’s coaching points.
Bruce tries making as many 49ers games as he can. His practice as a criminal defense lawyer typically takes up one weekend day per week, making travel difficult. Whenever he sees George play in person, Bruce jots down notes on his phone when he sees a coaching point. He tunes in on television whenever he can’t make the game. After watching it live, he goes back and dissects the replay before sending George observations and critiques.
“Guys don’t like getting coached by their parents, but I respect it because he has done it and has been a coach,” George said. “I always get a nice paragraph or two paragraphs of things he thinks I could do better, whether it’s hand technique, a first step, maybe in pass protection, get a better punch. I always take it.”
View this post on Instagram
Bruce may never tune out his coaching side, but he has fully activated the proud dad side, watching George live out his dream.
“The strongest emotion that I feel for it is just happiness for him,” Bruce said. “I believe this with all of my heart, that even when George was 210 (pounds) and sitting on the bench, five deep at the tight end spot at Iowa, I don’t think he ever doubted that he would play in the NFL.”
What makes Bruce most proud is hearing about George’s professionalism and character. He’s universally liked around the 49ers locker room. Head coach Kyle Shanahan dubbed George as one of the hardest working players during training camp. In late October, George was named as one of the team’s five captains. He’s the youngest of the group.
None of this seemed realistic when George battled injuries his senior year at Iowa. But he tested well at the 2017 NFL Combine, running a 4.52 40-yard dash time, and his pro prospects improved. His encouraging rookie season preceded his current breakout campaign, likely to end in a Pro Bowl appearance.
“It has been a really strange ride,” Bruce said. “We are grateful he is with the 49ers and appreciative he is staying healthy and kind of enjoying the ride. It’s a fragile existence.”
George has shared this season with his family, especially Bruce. The two text every day and call each other twice per week, yet George’s favorite form of communication is Bruce’s letters. George keeps all of them. Bruce scans and saves them in a computer file.
The letters will not stop, regardless of George’s success. They signify the teachings Bruce has tried to instill in his children — the importance of perseverance, humor, and family.
“I probably get more out of (writing the letters) than he does,” Bruce says.
“It’s probably the coolest thing he does for me,” George says.