It was anything but a normal holiday in the Kirton house this year.
Doug and Heather Kirton were swarmed by the love of their four daughters, but even that couldn’t protect them from the huge void that swept into their lives last May. Life hasn’t been the same for the Kirton family since the son they all called Brother was suddenly taken from them.
Johnie Kirton was 26 years old when his body was found in a Santa Clara, Calif., hotel room seven months ago, sending a shockwave through the local sports community that remembers him from his days as a bruising, record-setting tailback at Jackson High School and a popular teammate on the University of Washington football team. His cause of death was not known at the time, and The Herald is still awaiting a copy of the autopsy report.
It still hasn’t gotten any easier for the family Kirton left behind.
“It’s been horrible,” Heather Kirton said via telephone Thursday morning. “… The hardest thing is people can’t imagine it. You imagine losing a parent or consider the probability of losing a spouse, but you never, ever, think about losing a child. You can’t plan for it. You can’t expect it. Ever.”
The death of Johnie Kirton, one of the most prolific high school football players in state history, marked the obvious low point of a remarkably adverse calendar year for some of Snohomish County’s finest stars of recent memory.
Several other athletes from this area have been in the headlines because of injury and off-the-field incidents, and while none of it compares to what the Kirton family is going through, it certainly makes one ask what 2012 had against Snohomish County sports stars.
Cascade High School graduate Grady Sizemore saw his professional baseball career take another hit when a back problem that flared up in spring training eventually required surgery, ending his 2012 season before it began. The Cleveland Indians outfielder, now an unsigned free agent, has not played a full season since 2008, his last year as an All-Star.
Jon Brockman, a former Snohomish High School and UW basketball star, suffered a more gruesome injury in September, four months after being traded from the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks to the Houston Rockets. During a workout at the Rockets’ facility, Brockman injured his eye when a weight band that was attached to his foot sprung loose and struck him in the face.
The injury, which hospitalized Brockman for three days but did not require surgery, kept him out of Rockets’ training camp. Brockman, who is believed to be the county’s first prolonged NBA player since Jack Nichols 60 years earlier, eventually got cut and is now playing in France, marking the first time since his rookie year in 2009-10 that Brockman is not on an NBA roster.
It has also been a tough year for Snohomish County’s latest up-and-coming basketball star. Brett Kingma, who led Jackson High to the 4A state championship game as a junior, left the University of Oregon and ended up joining the Washington State basketball team before an October arrest in Pullman put his WSU career on hold.
Kingma was charged with possession of marijuana and minor in possession, then got suspended from the team for an indefinite period of time. Cougars coach Ken Bone hinted that Kingma might get kicked off the team but re-instated him a couple of weeks ago.
The year wasn’t just rough on athletes with Snohomish County ties; it was also hard on the area’s professional teams. The Everett Silvertips finished off a 2011-12 season with just 22 wins — the second-lowest total in the Western Hockey League — and were swept out of the playoffs in March. They enter this weekend in last place in the U.S. Division midway through the 2012-13 season. During the calendar year, the Silvertips won 29 games and lost 50.
That’s nothing compared to what happened to the Washington Stealth of the National Lacrosse League. Everett’s NLL franchise had a horrific start to the 2012 calendar year with news that head coach Chris Hall had been diagnosed with throat cancer. The Stealth, who were coming off back-to-back appearances in the NLL championship game, got off to a 1-5 start in Hall’s absence and finished the season with a league-worst 4-12 mark.
As they say in the sports world, there is always next year. And so the turn of a calendar page could come as a welcome act for local athletes from past and present.
None of that, however, will help the Kirton family. The loved ones Johnie Kirton left behind, including a 3-year-old daughter named Jayde, are still reeling from the kind of loss that makes sports seem trivial.
“It makes no sense,” mother Heather Kirton said.
Johnie Kirton may have played his final football game in 2012 — he was with the San Jose SaberCats of the Arena Football League at the time of his death, two weeks after being traded from Arizona — but he won’t be forgotten. Heather Kirton realized just how much of an impact he made off the field while organizing pictures for a June memorial service at Christian Faith Center in Everett.
“There were thousands of pictures of our son at children’s hospitals with ill children, or at a Scottsdale park with kids hanging off of him, or during his trip to South Africa. Every picture, he had children hanging off of him,” his mother said.
“He wanted to be a firefighter when he was a kid, but as he got older, he realized his real love was children. He was a giant, but kids would just flock to him.
“He had a gift. We believe that in the 26 years he had, he did more good than most people do in a lifetime.”