One of the most legendary players in the history of Snohomish County high school football was doing what he did best on Saturday night. Johnie Kirton was bowling over opponents and scoring touchdowns — three of them, in fact, for the San Jose SaberCats of the Arena Football League. His final carry resulted in the game-winning touchdown in overtime.
A little more than 48 hours later, he was gone.
The former Jackson High School star and University of Washington player was found dead in a Santa Clara, Calif., hotel room late Monday night. He was 26 years old.
As of Tuesday, the cause of death had not yet been determined and an autopsy was pending. A spokesperson for the Santa Clara Police Department told The Mercury News of San Jose that there was no reason to believe a crime had committed.
Larger than life at 6-foot-3 and a weight that would fluctuate between 250 (as a high school tailback) and close to 300 pounds (after being moved to defensive lineman during his senior year at UW and for most of a four-year professional career in arena leagues), Kirton forever will be remembered in these parts as the lumbering, bowl-you-over high school tailback who was named Gatorade State Player of the Year in 2003. He fell one yard shy of the state single-season rushing record after running for 114 yards in the Timberwolves’ Nov. 2003 loss to Lake Washington in a 4A state-tournament game.
What Jackson football coach Joel Vincent remembers most about that game is how Kirton reacted afterward.
“He finished one yard short of the state rushing record, but to Johnie, that wasn’t important,” Vincent said Tuesday, recalling the final game of the 2003 season that saw Kirton rush for 2,665 yards and score 34 touchdowns.
“We lost the game, 12-7 to Lake Washington, and that hurt him. Not once did he ever make it about him. He was more sad and disappointed that he and his teammates weren’t moving on in the playoffs. It was never about him.”
Vincent said that the entire Jackson community was grieving Tuesday after hearing word of Kirton’s passing. He said he was “incredibly shocked and immensely sad” after hearing the news.
“It came as a huge shock,” a shaken Vincent said via telephone early Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a sad day here at the school. All the staff (members) that were here when he was here are in the same boat. We look at each other and don’t know what to say. It’s really sad.”
Vincent had countless memories of Kirton on the gridiron, leading with a 2001 performance in a 31-20 win over third-ranked Kamiak that propelled the Jackson program to new heights. But Kirton’s former coach and longtime friend said the longer-lasting image might come from the Jackson High cafeteria.
“In the course of one lunch period, you’d see him sitting with a group of friends — usually the athletes — and then five minutes later you would find him having a one-on-one, solitary conversation with one of the special education kids,” Vincent said, adding that Kirton had a passion for community service and helping those in need. “He just kind of floated through every group. Every group liked him.”
Kirton went on to make an impression on his teammates at UW, even though he didn’t have nearly the legendary football career with the Huskies as he did in high school. He added 32 pounds to his frame during his redshirt freshman year, was moved to tight end, then caught 28 career passes before finishing his college career as a defensive lineman.
“He gave it all for UW — win or lose,” said Juan Garcia, a former teammate who now works for an engineering firm in Bellevue. “I just knew, when he was out there, he gave it his all. He was such an emotional guy, his heart was broken if we lost.
“He was everything a Husky stands for, everything a Husky should be. I wish the fans could have really gotten to know him. I’m glad they got to see him play, but I wish they could’ve gotten to know him as a person. The world, honestly, is not a better place today without him.”
Garcia heard the horrific news from teammate Jordan White-Frisbee at around 10 a.m. Tuesday, and his phone was ringing for most of the rest of the day.
Garcia had just spoken to Kirton earlier this month, when his former teammate was playing for the Arizona Rattlers and living in Phoenix. Garcia is planning to move to the Phoenix area and was planning on barbecuing with Kirton when he got there.
“He was probably one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met,” Garcia said. “He was a big kid, so he was intimidating when you saw him, but he was loving and cuddly, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.”
Kirton’s flexibility as a standout on both offense and defense led to a four-year professional career in arena leagues that feature two-way players. He won a championship with the Spokane Shock of the af2 in 2009, then went to the Arena League and made stops in Arizona (in 2010) and Chicago (in 2011). He set the Chicago Rush’s single-season rushing record last year.
Kirton, a fullback, returned to the Arizona Rattlers to start the 2011 season. He was traded to San Jose two-and-a-half weeks ago and scored five touchdowns in just two games with the SaberCats, including a three-score performance in Saturday night’s 84-77 win over the Rush.
On his final carry, he reached the ball out for a 4-yard touchdown in OT, scoring the game-winner for the SaberCats. Kirton was found dead two days later, after a female friend had a teammate check his hotel room when she hadn’t heard back from him.
Vincent said that Kirton, who is not married, was most proud of his two-year journey as the father of a young girl.
“He’s so immensely proud to be a dad,” Vincent said Tuesday. “That little girl was the center of his universe. That, in large part, made it so … I don’t even know the word. It’s just tragic. Twenty-six years old, a great kid, everything going his way, proud to be a dad — now what?”
All that’s left now are the memories.
“Man, 26 years old — done,” Garcia said. “It’s upsetting, that’s all I can say.”
Vincent said the word “legend” was fitting, considering what Kirton did on the field for the Timberwolves. Off the field, he was much more than that.
“He was genuine,” Vincent said, “a kind-hearted, warm human being. You couldn’t squeeze him into any one category.”