Rookie tight end George Kittle recently walked through the San Francisco 49ers tunnel and envisioned what Levi's® Stadium will be like on gameday.
"It's wild that we're going to get to play right here," he told fellow rookie Trent Taylor.
The adrenaline rush of running onto the field in front of 68,000 screaming fans is something Kittle has imagined before, at least to some degree. As a lifelong fan of WWE, Kittle envisioned his epic wrestling entrance set to a rock song by Rise Against. Taking the field in Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers will give the tight end his Stone Cold-esque experience – fog machines, pyro and all.
(Important aside: Kittle has a friend back in Iowa who wrestles professionally for SCW. The tight end made an appearance at a match in May and delivered "Stone Cold Stunner" to an opponent. Words don't do the moment justice. Thank goodness there's video.)
But it's not just the glitz and glamour of Vince McMahon's world that has drawn Kittle to WWE. Kittle's physical mindset resembles his wrestling heroes as well. The former Iowa Hawkeye was heralded as one of the better blocking tight ends in this year's draft class. It's something he takes great pride in. There are no power bombs or three-counts in football, but Kittle happily settles for the next best thing.
"I love blocking," Kittle said as his eyes got wider. "I'm not gonna lie, if I can bury a guy onto his back, I almost enjoy that as much as scoring a touchdown. Moving a man from Point A to Point B against his will is amazing. Especially when you get a defensive end or a defensive tackle and put them down, because that's just humiliating for them, getting buried by a tight end."
He recalled one punishing block against Wisconsin in 2015. Kittle planted a safety into the grass while Iowa's running back took off for a 60-yard gain. According to the tight end, he was in the background strumming an air guitar, swinging his arm in full circles as if he were a third base coach sending his teammate home.
But Kittle's penchant for flattening defenders isn't to say he can't be a weapon in the passing game. The rookie was a standout at OTAs and mandatory minicamp. During one minicamp practice, he caught a long touchdown pass on play-action. Kittle caught two touchdowns during a red-zone period the following day.
"I might not be the biggest guy out there, but I feel like I can block anybody out there on the field," said the 6-foot-4, 247-pound tight end who ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash at the combine. "I can be in there on 22 and 23 personnel, but you can also send me on a deep ball. My versatility sets me apart from some guys."
Kittle's impressive play caught the attention of head coach Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Pierre Garçon.
"George is coming, really battling," Shanahan said. "He's competed in the run and the pass game. You can tell he is going for it because of the way he competes on the field, which you guys have seen at the times you've been out there. Mainly, what he does off the field too. He's really trying to learn it, and that's given him a chance to show up a little bit."
Added Hoyer: "He has really good football awareness, is what I would call it – a feel for where to break, how to break, read-zones. I've been surprised and, obviously, it's a good thing for us to have a guy who has that football awareness and some feel of the game."
During the draft back in April, Kittle's agent called him near the end of the fourth round to inform his client that the Seattle Seahawks had interest in trading up to pick him.
"Let me know if anyone calls you," the agent said.
According to Kittle, his phone rang no more than 15 seconds later. It wasn't a 206 area code, but rather a 408 number. It was 49ers general manager John Lynch calling to inform the tight end that his future laid in the Bay Area.
Most 49ers fans hadn't heard of Kittle until he was selected by San Francisco in the fifth round (No. 146 overall). Ears perked up, however, when ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. raved about the Iowa product in the days following the draft.
Kittle spent the next two months soaking up as much knowledge as possible from the veteran tight ends on the team. He attacked the playbook and memorized his assignments.
"I wanted to be a sponge," Kittle said.
If uncertainty ever crept in on the practice field, Kittle did his best to hide it. Go full-speed and apologize later if a mistake was made. That's how he approached each practice rep.
"Coaches don't get mad at you if you do something wrong as long as you're going 100 percent and 100 miles per hour," Kittle said. "That's what I tried to focus on, not playing slow or trying to think through things. With that attitude I feel like I had good OTAs and a good minicamp."
Tight end will be one of the more intriguing position battles come training camp. Veterans Garrett Celek, Garrett Celek, Logan Paulsen and Blake Bell are joined by Kittle and undrafted free agent Cole Hikutini. Thus far, Kittle has done everything possible to stand out.
"Everyone is trying to earn a job," he said. "You've got to make an impression that you deserve to be on the roster. You've got to show up and show out."
Kittle will spend the duration of summer break in Iowa City. But if you ask the tight end, he'll tell you that he's eager to step back into the ring right now, so to speak.
"I'm ready for training camp already," Kittle said. "I'm ready to play football. It was so hard to not be in pads (during the offseason program). That killed me. I want to hit somebody. I can't wait."