MUST READ, IN-DEPTH LOOK AT THE 2013 SEASON, PLAYERS & TEAM
Google Darrin Kitchens' name and the picture will be the first thing you see. It's snapped by a cell phone, Kitchens standing alone, helmet raised high in his right hand as a salute to Florida's marching band as it plays the traditional postgame rendition of the school's fight song. The Gators just lost 33-23 in the Sugar Bowl. Teammates are wandering around or already in the locker room, but Kitchens is the one whose picture will circulate the Internet come morning. Little did he know.
Kitchens was a steady contributor on special teams and at linebacker for four years at Florida, but for many, it is this image they will most remember. His time as a Gator had its share of ups and downs, but the ever-optimistic player from Homestead smiled through most of it.
Inside the Gators caught up with Kitchens for the latest edition of our Parting Thoughts series.
ITG: You came in under Urban Meyer in 2010. What was he like as a recruiter and as a coach?
Kitchens: "He was a great recruiter. What he did is he was really good at making you excited about coming to Florida. When you'd talk to him on the phone, he'd always have some kind of positive words or some kind of motivation for you. You'd tell him about your workouts and he'd push you to keep going or to do better. As a coach, he was always kind of a mystery to me. You really didn't know what was going on with him. You'd hear all these stories about how he wasn't doing well or what he was going through but you could never tell when you were around him. He'd just keep a straight face. He didn't open up much."
ITG: That 2010 signing class is notoriously tight. How were you guys received by the rest of the team?
Kitchens: "It was kind of crazy actually. We were so close as a class and there was all this talk about it being the best recruiting class ever and all of that. I literally thought we could win an SEC title and a national title back-to-back-to-back-to-back every year. That sounds crazy, but I believed it. But when we got there, we really weren't treated well or accepted by a lot of the older guys who were running the team at that time. I think that's why a bunch of guys transferred from that class. They didn't like the atmosphere. A lot of times, it felt like it was us against the rest of the team. But eventually we came to the realization, we're here for the same goal. We shouldn't be going against each other. We should be one team. Slowly but surely, we started meshing our way together to playing as one team."
ITG: What was it like to be a Gator in 2010 with all the drama surrounding Meyer?
Kitchens: "We didn't really understand what was going on fully. We had a gist, an idea, but we didn't really understand what was going on. I can remember having a meeting with him, and Coach Meyer telling us he was going to be leaving. Everybody was upset because he came back for our class, to recruit us and now he's going to leave? He told us right before he released it to the press. I remember there was a big uproar. Everyone was mad. One of the players stood up to defend him like, 'The man is really sick. Calm down.' But then he told us, 'Whoa, whoa, I'm not sick.' Everybody got quiet and looked at him like, 'Well then why are you leaving?' We never really got an answer from that."
ITG: Was it weird to see him pop up on ESPN and then at Ohio State?
Kitchens: "It put a bitter taste in our mouths. What he told us before he left was that he was never going to coach again. He said he was never going to coach again. He was supposed to be sick. He wanted to retire because he wanted to be there for his kids and have time for his family. His daughter was in college, his kid was playing baseball and he made it seem like he wanted to be a family man and save time for his family. But then he's on ESPN and then he's coaching Ohio State."
ITG: Given all that, what kind of atmosphere did Will Muschamp walk into when he got the UF job?
Kitchens: "He walked into a hurt team. We were hurting because we felt betrayed by our prior coach. But we were also determined to prove (Meyer) wrong. Like if he was going to coach, he should have stayed with us. We were very hungry at the time."
ITG: What were your initial thoughts of Muschamp?
Kitchens: "[Laughs] … My initial thought was, 'This guy is crazy.' I remember his first practice, he was revving up and yelling and going off on one player. Everybody stopped and looked like, 'This guy is not playing.' He's not coming in like the substitute teacher everybody thought we'd have where we could have recess or free time. He would go from zero to 60 back to zero. It was the craziest thing. It took me a while to get used to that, but then I would realize he would coach you hard because he wanted you to be ready for the pressure. If you had to deal with pressure in practice, then you'd be ready for the pressure in the games. There's 90,000 people in the stands screaming and yelling. If you can't handle it from one coach, how are you going to handle it from them?
"I realized he was actually a good guy. He would go up and yell at you, but he would also explain to you why he was going off on you. Off the field, he wasn't yelling. He would actually talk to you. He would actually be friendly off the field. He was just a strong coach on the field. We were used to either-or, either yelling on and off the field or quiet on and off the field. It was weird to see someone yelling on the field who is a nice guy off the field."
ITG: You're someone who is very outspoken about your faith. Is that something you've been involved with your entire life or just in college?
Kitchens: "I grew up in church, but I never really lived right. I didn't have a good example of a Christian because I would see people go to church, but outside of church, I would see those same people smoking or cursing or doing something they shouldn't be doing. It wasn't until I got to college and found this church called Spirit of Faith. It was the first time I saw people who were the same way in church as they were outside of church. … My guess is they went through a similar thing I went through. They finally found a church where the people were genuine in what they believed in. That's when I really took to heart and started trying to live for God for real."
ITG: Given your personal beliefs and moral standards, is it difficult to be around a football locker room?
Kitchens: "Yes it is tough at times. Being in that locker room with them blasting different music. I'm not uptight, if you want to listen to your music, I'm fine with that. I'm not really going to stop everyone else from having a good time or enjoying what they like because it's different from me. I just put on some headphones and listen to my own music. Sometimes I listen to that music with them to show them you don't have to stop having fun because you're a Christian. I'll jump around and dance with them in the locker room. Even though it's different from what I would prefer, we're still a team and we need the cohesiveness and we need to bond and have a friendship."
ITG: Muschamp has said you scared him to death when you were taken off the field on a stretcher in the 2011 Florida State game. What was going through your mind?
Kitchens: "Watching boxing growing up, I always wondered how does it feel to get knocked out? I see people get knocked out and they keep fighting. I finally got my chance to see how it felt. I never really wanted to see how it felt, but it happened. I don't remember the play, but I was on the ground and I was trying to get up. I saw Jonathan Bostic, he ran over to me. He was telling me to stay down, stay down. I laid down and then I drifted off to sleep. I was out for about 20 minutes, they told me. I was dreaming about the game. I was dreaming about different plays. I remember dreaming about a touchdown pass.
"(Trainer) Anthony Pass got me up and they put me on a stretcher. He asked me if I was OK to give a thumbs up to the crowd to let them know I was fine. That entire time I was up, I remember everything. I remember giving the thumbs up to the crowd. I remember asking for my wife, she was my girlfriend at the time, I remember being scared, but I thought I was dreaming. Something happened to me. I didn't know what happened. I knew I was hurt, but I didn't know what was going on. In my head, I'm thinking I'm close to death. I'm screaming trying to get them to tell my girlfriend I love her as I'm getting carted away. 'Just find her and tell her I love her.' I'm thinking this might be my last words. I got in the back of the ambulance and everybody's looking at me. I'm wondering why everybody is staring at me. Then I look down and I see that I'm strapped in and I looked back up at them and it all hit me. 'This happened for real. I thought I was dreaming the whole time but I really got hurt. I got knocked out.' Then I woke up. I was joking and laughing with the ambulance staff from there." -- Kitchens was eventually diagnosed with a concussion. Nervous he'd be hesitant if he waited until spring practice to return, Kitchens played in the 2012 Gator Bowl.
Come back Tuesday for Part II in which discusses why players have stuck with Muschamp through difficult times, his famous salute to the band, the future at linebacker and much more.