It is too early to function. The sun isn’t even up, not even close. Garrett Celek, the San Francisco 49ers’ veteran tight end, barely wills himself into his car, his body aching from yet another loss two days earlier. Santa Clara lies completely still on this mid-November morning as Celek’s white Lexus SUV begins to roll forward.
But then up ahead … movement. Tons of movement.
The SUV’s headlights reveal a large man flailing next to the apartment complex’s exit gate. His hips rock back and forth in an apparent attempt at rhythm. His arms swing wildly from side to side. All the while, his gaze remains fixed on Celek’s face.
George Kittle is doing the Fortnite floss dance.
Beaming like he just won the Super Bowl, Kittle hops into the passenger seat and serenades his groggy teammate with some song or another. It doesn’t matter which one. What matters is that Kittle will spend yet another day shining his inextinguishable light upon a 49ers season largely mired in darkness.
“When I was first getting to know him I probably thought it was fake at first how happy he was all the time,” Celek said. “But then I realized, ‘No, this is how this guy is 24/7.’”
Few NFL players have shot out of obscurity the way Kittle has over the past year. A fifth-round pick out of the University of Iowa, Kittle was the ninth tight end selected in the 2017 Draft. In his sophomore season, he ranks third among tight ends in catches (62) and receiving yards (893), trailing only the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and the Eagles’ Zach Ertz.
Facing the Denver Broncos’ 23rd-ranked pass defense on Sunday, Kittle has a chance to become the first 49ers tight end to reach 1,000 receiving yards in a season. The 25-year-old’s Pro Bowl-caliber season remains one of the few bright spots for a 49ers squad tied with the Raiders for the league’s worst record (2-10).
Kittle’s sprint toward superstardom counts as a surefire boon for this San Francisco franchise, but that’s not really what teammates and coaches value most about the guy. To understand why Kittle was voted a team captain after his rookie season, you have to go back to the maniac crushing Fortnite dance routines before the crack of dawn.
Meet ‘Stone Cold Kittle’
Everybody around the 49ers organization understands Kittle’s ultimate professional ambition. He talks about it incessantly; studies film whenever he can; obsesses over every not-so-subtle nuance of the sport.
Kittle wants to be a WWE wrestler.
“It’s pretty much the coolest thing in the world,” he said.
Like just about everything else in his life, Kittle does nothing to hide this obsession. A Stone Cold Steve Austin action figure lords over his locker. The 49ers’ PA announcer belts out “Stone Cold Kittle” after third-down conversions and touchdowns from the team’s exuberant tight end. His end zone celebration is a nod to Austin’s habit of smashing two beers over his head, and his wristy third-down flourish comes from Pentagón Jr., an independent wrestler who wears skull face paint underneath his elaborately fiendish mask.
This past April, Kittle attended one week of WrestleMania in New Orleans, where he spent eight hours a day watching independent wrestling shows before he practically had to be dragged away.
Last year Kittle lived out one of his fantasies when he climbed into the ring of a pro wrestling event in Iowa and executed a Stone Cold Stunner, a finishing maneuver made famous by his all-time favorite wrestler, Steve Austin. There were barely over 100 people in the gym, but it felt more like 100,000.
“When I hit it and I came up and the whole crowd erupted, I felt like I scored a touchdown,” Kittle said. “It was one of the best feelings ever.”
Not all of the man’s obsessions are so badass. Any mention of food prompts a spirited eulogy on the wonders of Panda Express. Kittle adopts the demeanor of a caffeinated chemist explaining the periodic table when asked about the proper order at this fast-casual Chinese eatery.
“You sample the honey walnut shrimp because when it’s good it’s fantastic but when it’s not good it’s okay,” Kittle explains at warp speed. “So if that’s good then you get three entrees and you get that on the side with the chow mein and fried rice split 50/50. And the two other entrees are orange chicken and SweetFire, or honey sesame if they have it because it’s seasonal.”
Lest you think he spends his free time alone, tucking into a heaping pile of sesame chicken with nothing but chopsticks to accompany him, understand that Kittle does not do well by himself. He loves going to early-week matinees at theaters in Santa Clara — they didn’t have the whole recliner seating thing back at Iowa — and he always makes sure to bring a crew.
“He’ll buy like 10 tickets to a movie before asking anybody, and it will be a movie that I hate,” said 49ers backup quarterback C.J. Beathard. “And people end up going.”
Starting quarterback Nick Mullens didn’t want to see Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and he really didn’t want to see the horror flick A Quiet Place. Yet somehow he wound up seeing both.
“He’s a hard guy to say ‘no’ to,” Mullens said.
Suddenly it’s not all that hard to perceive why players voted Kittle an offensive captain alongside 34-year-old tackle Joe Staley in October.
“I can never catch him where he’s like, ‘Man I don’t want to be bothered today,’” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said. “He’s always got a smile; he’s always kooky. You’re just like, ‘Bro, one of these days I’m gonna catch you when you don’t want to talk.’ But I haven’t found that day yet.”
Growing at Iowa
Watching George Kittle burst downfield, it’s easy to forget he’s a tight end. The way he jab steps linebackers out of their cleats, the way he wiggles past safeties and wheels toward the end zone — no wonder he ranks ahead of pass-catching tailbacks like Todd Gurley and James Conner in yards after catch.
It turns out Kittle is a wide receiver disguised in a newly acquired tight end’s body. He spent high school running go-routes as a fleet-footed wideout before heading to Iowa at about 6-foot-2, 180 pounds.
“He was skin and bones,” said Cole Croston, a teammate at Iowa who now plays tackle for the New England Patriots. “But he was doing things as a freshman that most people don’t do.”
Even as a baby-faced newcomer too twiggy to even think about suiting up for a game, Kittle wasn’t shy about flaunting his skill set.
In the gym, Kittle’s athleticism manifested in several agility records. On the practice field, he and Beathard, another scrawny Iowa freshman, regularly lit up the Hawkeyes’ formidable defense as members of the scout team.
Still, it took three years for Kittle to get in an actual game. Coaches pegged him as a tight end, but the kid simply wasn’t big enough. And even after he grew two inches and added 50 pounds to his frame — thanks in part to a late growth spurt, eight Gatorade protein shakes a day and plenty of Budweiser — Kittle kept staying out late off the field and missing assignments on it.
“They couldn’t count on me,” Kittle said. “I just didn’t understand the mental side of football and how important it is.”
At some point in his redshirt junior season, something clicked. Kittle started treating college like a job rather than a party. He drew plays over and over on a whiteboard. He started to relish blocking drills. He prioritized sleep.
Instead of partying he poured his fun-loving energy into games, like the time he almost broke the ribs of tight end coach LeVar Woods while picking him up and celebrating a teammate’s touchdown against Northwestern.
“They sort of broke the mold when they made George,” Woods said.
Flipping a switch
About 15 minutes before kickoff every Sunday, George Kittle heads to the bathroom to puke his guts out. That’s not something most athletes would be willing to admit, but Kittle hesitates only slightly before slapping the table and repeating himself. Who cares what people think about it?
“It just kind of happens,” he said. “It’s really weird.”
Then, before he makes his way back onto the field, Kittle straps on his helmet, jogs into the tunnel and head-butts a wall. At that point San Francisco’s ever-gregarious tight end flips into angry mode.
“That’s my switch,” Kittle said.
When he’s not snaring catches in traffic and bouncing off would-be tacklers, he’s using all that newfound bulk to bully defensive linemen in the trenches, often yelling indiscriminately but never trash talking.
It’s a beautiful way to make a living, whether your team is 2-10 or 10-2.
“I literally wake up and I’m like, ‘Okay well, I’m playing in the NFL and I’m living in California,’” Kittle said, “So there could be a lot worse than what I’m doing.”
On Tuesday morning, Garrett Celek steers his SUV toward the gate again. As usual, there’s Kittle, waiting and dancing. He hops aboard and launches into a falsetto Canadian accent while reliving his latest conquest playing Halo 3.
Celek shakes his head and laughs, then ponders what dance moves might lie ahead next fall, when a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo promises to lend more stability to the 49ers’ offense. Kittle has proven he can produce with a rotating cast of serviceable quarterbacks, but imagine what could happen when two stars combine.
“Once he gets that relationship down,” Celek said, “he’s going to explode.”