Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Casey Kjos always had grandiose aspirations. Even when he was an eighth-grader in Yelm, Wash., a town of about 4,000 that is 35 miles south of Tacoma, he dreamed of playing college football and maybe even making it to the pros.
There are kids like Kjos (whose last name is pronounced Choh-ss) in towns such as Yelm all over the country. They dream big. But frequently nothing ever happens.
Kjos, though, found the path to pursue those dreams and had a wonderful guide to help him get there.
So, with every pass he caught during Oregon State's spring practices, Kjos – a junior who has two career receptions – was getting closer to realizing his dreams. Indeed, Beavers coach Mike Riley was sufficiently impressed and singled him out. "We're hoping he can do for us what Shane Morales did for us last year," Riley said.
Morales had 17 catches in his first two seasons at Oregon State, then had a breakout season in 2008 as a senior, with 54 catches and eight touchdowns. He recently signed a free-agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals.
Kjos hopes for a similar chance someday. Finally recovered from back injuries, Kjos is primed to play a major role this season for Oregon State, which is in need of capable receivers now that Morales and Sammie Stroughter are gone.
"Spring ball went really well. If I can be a Shane-type of guy, that would be great," Kjos said this week. "He came in his senior year, played well and became a go-to guy for us. I'll work my hardest to be that kind of guy and see what happens."
That's a common story in college football: A player bides his times, waits for his chance, then becomes a productive starter.
But Kjos' story is rather uncommon. This isn't just another story about moving up the depth chart and finally getting a chance at playing time. Rather, this is a story about the power of faith, the importance of family and all that can be accomplished and endured with love and guidance.
My cousin, the NFL quarterback
Jon Kitna, 36, is a veteran NFL quarterback. This season – his 13th in the NFL – he's expected to back up Dallas Cowboys starter Tony Romo. Kitna also is a devout Christian. His family devotion extends beyond his wife, Jennifer, and their four children – three boys and a girl. He's just as devoted to extended family such as Kjos, his cousin. Kitna's mother and Kjos' father were siblings.
"We have a really big family and a lot of cousins," said Kjos, who turns 21 on July 11. "Our whole family was really, really close and did everything together. Jon was always a part of our lives. Obviously, he was so much older than I was that he didn't hang out much with us, but I always saw him a lot. He became a rock in our family. He was one of the first hard-core Christians in our family.
"Jon is a great man, and he and his wife, Jen, are amazing people. I can't say enough about how great they are. They treat me just like they treat their kids. I looked up to them as mother and father figures."
In the summer of 2002, the year Kjos started high school, Kitna was speaking at a Christian retreat in Oregon that Kjos attended. It was there that Kitna, who already had taken in another of his cousins, asked Kjos if he would like to move in with the Kitna family in the Cincinnati area.
"Casey comes from a small town, and not a lot good things were happening there," Kitna said by phone Monday. "Casey is a special kid. He was always a straight-A student and stayed away from trouble. But not a lot of good things were happening where he was from. I tried to convince his mom and dad to let him stay with us through high school."
That wasn't easy. Though Casey's father, Kim, the co-owner of a plumbing company, thought it was a good idea, his mother, Robin, hesitated to let someone else – even a family member with impeccable character – raise her youngest son.
But Kitna was earning a lucrative salary and offered a broader environment, a better education and the opportunities that come with living with an NFL quarterback. Eventually, Robin relented and Kjos headed to Ohio, where he attended Lakota East High School in a northern Cincinnati suburb. The Kitnas became his legal guardians.
In some ways, their story is not uncommon. Dozens of college football players were raised by their grandmothers. Just a few years ago, former Clemson cornerback Ray Ray McElrathbey was the primary caregiver for his 11-year-old brother. Still, it might be surprising to some that an NFL quarterback with four children would take in his cousins.
The Kjos family wasn't living in poverty. But by taking in Casey and another cousin, Chris, Kitna was making good on a promise he and his wife had made.
"My wife and I both have degrees in education. We're both going to be teachers when football is over," Kitna said. "We prayed and told the Lord that if I'm ever blessed to have an opportunity to play in the NFL and we have resources beyond what we need, one of the things we wanted to do was help people.
"We didn't know what that looked like. We just wanted to give people an opportunity to achieve their dreams. We wanted our home to be a place where people can have a second chance or a better chance."
After the move, Kitna asked Kjos about his goals; Kjos said he wanted to get a football scholarship and hoped to become a pro athlete, and he vowed to do whatever Kitna deemed necessary to attain those goals.
Kitna knows a lot about sacrifice and determination. He played college football at Central Washington, in Ellensburg, Wash. Central Washington now is in NCAA Division II, but when Kitna played there, he led the Wildcats to the NAIA national title in 1995. Two years later, he was named MVP of NFL Europe and led the Barcelona Dragons to the World Bowl championship. That led to a free-agent contract with the Seattle Seahawks in '97, and Kitna has been in the NFL ever since.
Learning life's lessons
Kjos certainly had some advantages; after all, how many high school kids are trained by pro athletes? Throughout his high school years, he and Jon often would rise by 5 a.m. and go to the high school stadium to practice routes. That way, they could be home in time for breakfast with the rest of the family.
"I would train a lot with Jon," Kjos said. "Of course, it was different with him in the morning than it was in practice because he threw four times as hard. You'd barely get your head around before the ball hits you in the face.
"He taught me how to play the game and learn and watch film and what they're looking for at the next level. He groomed me to play in college."
The lessons went far beyond football. School work was not allowed to suffer, and Kitna stressed the importance of living a Christian lifestyle.
"He taught me to live my life as a Godly man," Kjos said. "That's the biggest thing – to live my life as a man of God first and everything else comes after that."
Kjos became strong in his faith. Six months after he'd moved in with the Kitnas, he got a phone call telling him his dad, who was 46, had died of a heart attack.
Losing a father would be difficult enough for any 15-year-old. But being away from the family and having seen him so infrequently in the months before his death was even harder.
"That made the transition tough," Kitna said. "His faith and belief in Jesus got him through. I never saw him waiver. I never saw his grades go up and down. He never closed himself off. He made it through that and was almost a leader in his family even though he was the youngest son."
Kjos' game grew, too. He was a three-year letterman at Lakota East and earned all-county honors. He caught nine touchdown passes as a junior. As a senior, he caught 19 passes with four for touchdowns, and had 58 tackles and five interceptions as a free safety.
Kitna had groomed his cousin to be a college football player, and it was apparent Kjos would get that opportunity. Kjos wanted to return to the West Coast and had received some interest from a couple of Pac-10 teams.
The summer before Kjos' senior year in high school, he and Kitna were discussing potential colleges. Kitna suggested Oregon State because he'd gotten glowing reports about Riley. After sending Kjos' highlight tapes to Oregon State, Kitna contacted Riley and set it up for Kjos to attend Oregon State's annual camp. Riley offered a scholarship after the first day of the camp.
Kjos' college career hasn't been easy. He played on special teams as a freshman in 2006, then suffered a back injury that forced him to sit out the '07 season. Last season, as a third-year sophomore, he barely got on the field as Morales, Stroughter and James Rodgers caught more than 50 passes each.
Now, Kjos is upbeat. His back feels good. He's confident. He got married recently. He sees good things ahead.
"I feel like I made a lot of leaps this spring and was able to do a lot of things I wanted to do without getting hurt," Kjos said. "I just try to be a guy who works hard. Some of the guys on our team have natural, God-given ability. I have to be a guy that works harder than the next guy and use that as my strength.
"I think following guys like Shane is great for me. Playing behind him last season and watching the things he did is a great inspiration for me."
Perhaps Kjos is a great inspiration, too. At the least, he's a wonderful example of what can happen through faith, determination and with the support of a loving family.
And, of course, the story isn't over. Maybe Casey Kjos will reach those goals he had as a teenager in Yelm and be a productive college player and even get a chance at the pros. Maybe after leaving his home, losing his father and enduring a back injury, it will all work out.
"It will. It always has for Casey," Kitna said. "He has two more years and I'm just so proud of him. My wife says he's so much like me even though he's not my son.
"I know this: He will compete at whatever the level of competition. It will be fun to watch. He's fun to watch."
Each week, we'll match two teams to determine which has the edge in various categories. Got a matchup you want to see? Send it to email@example.com and we'll work on it.
1. Head to head
West Virginia leads the all-time series 28-22-1. Virginia Tech won the most recent meeting, 34-17, in 2005.
Edge: West Virginia
2. First-round NFL draft choices
Virginia Tech: 8 (most recently Duane Brown by Houston in 2008).
West Virginia: 8 (most recently Adam "Pacman" Jones by Tennessee in 2005).
Edge: West Virginia. Yes, it appears to be a tie, but Virginia Tech's Mike Johnson was selected in the first round of the 1984 supplemental draft.
3. Quarterbacks in the Super Bowl
Virginia Tech: Don Strock.
West Virginia: Jeff Hostetler.
Edge: West Virginia. Hostetler passed for 222 yards and a touchdown in leading the New York Giants to a 20-19 win over Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV. Strock was on three Super Bowl teams, but only threw three passes; all three came in a 27-17 loss to Washington in Super Bowl XVII.
4. Former stars afoul of the law
Virginia Tech: Michael Vick. He was convicted on felony dogfighting charges and sentenced to three years in prison.
West Virginia: Pacman Jones. Among other things, he was charged with felony coercion in 2007 from an incident in Las Vegas in which a security guard at a strip club was shot and paralyzed from the waist down.
Edge: Virginia Tech. Vick's crime was heinous, but a man no longer can walk because of the incident involving Jones.
Virginia Tech: Los Angeles Angels pitcher Joe Saunders.
West Virginia: Billy Mays, infomercial pitchman for products. You know, he starts the commercials with "Billy Mays here for (insert product name).
Edge: Virginia Tech. Nothing against making infomercials, but a major-league pitcher tops that.
Virginia Tech: A student dresses up in a turkey costume.
West Virginia: A student attired in buckskin and coonskin cap to represent the Mountaineers.
Edge: West Virginia.
7. Trademark song
Virginia Tech: "Enter Sandman." The Hokies take the field to Metallica's heavy metal hit.
West Virginia: After wins, West Virginia players and fans sing John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads."
Edge: West Virginia. C'mon, the song is about West Virginia.
Virginia Tech: The Lunch Pail is brought to each game to symbolize the blue-collar work ethic of the Hokies' defense.
West Virginia: Burning couches to celebrate wins.
Edge: Virginia Tech. No steps have been taken to outlaw the lunch pail.
9. Pro Football Hall of Fame members
Virginia Tech: Bruce Smith.
West Virginia: Sam Huff, Joe Stydahar.
Edge: West Virginia, 2-1.
10. Iconic coaches
West Virginia: Don Nehlen (1980-2000).
Virginia Tech: Frank Beamer (1987-present).
Edge: Virginia Tech. While Nehlen was 149-93-4 as the Mountaineers' coach, Beamer is 177-89-2 in Blacksburg and his Hokies are favored in the ACC this season.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.