Big Freddie, Little Freddie, and demanding respect the Kitchens way: Built in Bama
By Doug Lesmerises | Posted February 11, 2019 at 05:05 AM | Updated February 11, 2019 at 06:09 AM 11-14 minutes
Big Freddie, Little Freddie
ATTALLA, Alabama -- They came for Big Freddie’s son.
Traipsing down rock steps into Jim Glover Stadium on another Alabama Friday night, they carried brown paper bags taped to sticks, “Sack Kitchens” written on them.
The bus of visiting students had arrived early, because on the right night in the ‘90s, when the Etowah High School Blue Devils were beating almost all comers, thousands of seats were gone a half-hour before kickoff.
Big Freddie’s son warmed up with the biggest arm anyone in Etowah County had ever seen. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, the boy had maybe 6 inches and 60 pounds on his father, but every word of Big Freddie lived inside his namesake.
You kept your word and gave your all. On Wednesdays, you ate beans for dinner, but when the paycheck hit on Friday, you shared whatever you could. Whether it was the trailer on Marshall Street or the little house on Michael Ann Avenue, in the Kitchens household, you gave respect and demanded it in return.
Because that cost nothing.
That’s why, 25 years later in Freddie Kitchens' hometown, old friends and faithful followers of the new Browns coach watched his introduction in Cleveland. They saw a name, and a way, they recognized.
This is the story they love to tell.
Yeah, he threw touchdowns. He won games.
But just like his dad, Little Freddie Kitchens went out to earn respect. And if he had to, with a fastball to the ribs or a fist to the face, he’d take it.
Seated on a rock wall just over a waist-high chain-link fence from the field, the visiting students then, like Browns fans now, got a look at Kitchens and formed an impression, but they didn’t know what they were seeing.
As the students whooped and hollered during warmups, Kitchens’ receiver turned to finish his sideline route and saw the football, plausibly wild but slick with intent, sailing over his head, right at the sack holders. It caught one of them straight in the chest, and the students scattered like a covey of quail.
That story, in various iterations, winds through Etowah County like a country shortcut. Everyone knows it, and it gets you there quick.
Because that throw -- that’s Freddie.
Courtesy of Freddie Kitchens
Browns coach Freddie Kitchens, left, in his younger days with his father, Big Freddie Kitchens.
High school honors in a steel town and college struggles in a Crimson town shaped 44-year-old Freddie Kitchens, who fits in Cleveland’s Brown and Orange because he’s all Alabama red clay and blue collar. But no matter where he was raised, Kitchens first and last is his father’s son.
For Cleveland to know their Freddie, they must understand Big Freddie.
“You never questioned where you stood with my dad,” Kitchens told cleveland.com from his office in Berea. “If he didn’t like you, you knew he didn’t like you. If he liked you, you knew he would go to hell and back with you.”
Brought up rough in rural northeast Alabama, Big Freddie chose to live by simple rules. Or maybe life chose those for him.
Work hard. Lend a hand. Shoot ‘em straight.
“It didn’t matter if the Pope was here or the devil was here, it didn’t change him one way or the other,” Chuck Medders said recently, arms crossed inside the East Gadsden Sporting Goods store Medders’ family has run for 51 years.
Big Freddie had a big mouth, seizing storytelling duties in every gathering, his syllables crashing together like they’d been tackled inside his Alabama mumble. If Big Freddie Kitchens uttered a sentence that didn’t include a word that started with an F, it was only because he’d invented a new cuss himself.
He had a bigger heart. Kitchens would gather all the neighborhood kids and throw them in the flatbed and drive them to practice when Little Freddie was young. Little Freddie’s new cleats at Medders’ were sometimes acquired on good-faith credit until the money came around. But if someone else was wanting, Big Freddie would slip him a few bucks.
“No kid went without,” Jimmy Sitz said, reminiscing with friends Medders and Neal Keener on a rainy winter afternoon, “as long as Freddie was around.”
Some mornings, with his dad driving him to school in that same beat-up truck, Little Freddie would wish he could get out and walk before they reached Walnut Park Elementary.
He admits those truths reluctantly now, because Little Freddie is only proud of his dad. As a man with so much who realizes his own father got by with so little, Kitchens wears his gratitude for his upbringing like he wears his Dawg Pound sweatshirt, with honor and humility.
“He was all about sacrificing,” Kitchens said. “His only job in life turned into making sure we were provided for. Now, it wasn’t always the best. But his job in life was providing for us. It sounds like a damn American fairy tale, but that’s what it was. And he did that, he finished his job.”
Freddie; his father; mother, Brenda; and brother, Jason, who was two grades behind him, moved from trailer to trailer every few years when he was young.
Freddie didn’t live in a house until his dad landed a job at the Goodyear Plant in Gadsden and they moved into a little box of a two-bedroom when Kitchens was in sixth grade. His parents were divorced by high school, and while his mom cheered at games, it was his dad who’d show up at practice with a mug of sweet tea as big as a football.
He'd lean on his car, smoke cigarettes and yell at the kids to run faster.
Friends at home joke that for nine straight falls -- Freddie’s four years of high school football and five at Alabama -- Big Freddie came up with a lame shoulder that knocked him out of work. You worked hard, but if your boy was playing, maybe you worked hard around his practice schedule.
Cheat or lie, and he’d never let you in his home again. But when he wore a Budweiser T-shirt to the church softball league and they told him to take it off -- because you can’t wear a Budweiser T-shirt in a church softball league -- he argued until he lost.
And then he left.
When Kitchens’ doctor told him he needed to quit smoking, his friends asked, “Well, Freddie, whatchu gonna do?”
“I'm gonna find me another damn doctor..”
When the chemo started, he’d light up as soon as he stepped out of the hospital.
To attain one of the 32 most coveted coaching jobs in football, Little Freddie found a way to get by. He might not change out of the proverbial Budweiser shirt … but he’d throw a jacket and tie over it when the situation required.
Kitchens has interviewed twice for jobs -- with the Browns to be head coach and with the Dallas Cowboys in 2006 for his first NFL job under Bill Parcells, when he was recommended by Nick Saban. He wore a tie both times. It's not the outside look, but the inside attitude.
Friends embrace the story how Kitchens, then coaching at Mississippi State, told the Cowboys he’d pass on the chance of a lifetime unless he got the assistant coach salary he thought he deserved.
That's Budweiser-shirt bargaining. He'd leave.
He got the money.
Little Freddie learned how to stay true to himself while navigating football’s corporate world. Big Freddie could be his own worst enemy, but that was fine. He was his son’s best friend.
“I would not change a thing, and I know he would not change a thing,” Kitchens said. "Because before anything else, he was going to be true to himself and to his values, and I’m going to be the same way.
“So if it’s to my detriment that someone else can’t handle the truth, I may suffer the consequences of it, but I’m going to be able to go to sleep at night and I’m going to be able to go home and see my family and know I shot them straight, and I spoke the truth, and if somebody else can’t handle that, that’s their problem, not mine.”
As Kitchens made his way through the NFL, spending more than a decade across the country from Big Freddie in Arizona, his father worked year-long on the logistics of the annual Freddie Kitchens Football Camp. The free, one-day affair each June drew hundreds of kids from Gadsden and Attalla.
He’d go into a place like East Gadsden Sporting Goods and ask for footballs for the camp.
They’d say, “How many?”
That’s what you reap when you live by your rules. Work. Help. Shoot ‘em straight. And the favor's returned.
That's what you do when a father and son so alike are so far apart. You pick one day, you work on it all year, and together you lend a hand.
That's what a son realizes after a lifetime of lessons: What works in Etowah County works just about the same out in the world.
That’s why on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, Freddie didn’t take the first flight out when he got the call that his father’s lung cancer battle had taken a turn for the worst. The son knew what was coming. He also knew what his dad would say if he showed up in the hospital room in the middle of the season, with a Week 3 game with the San Francisco 49ers looming Sunday.
“What the f--- are you doing here? You’ve got a job to do.”
So Kitchens didn’t take the last flight Thursday or the first flight Friday. He coached the quarterbacks through Friday practice, the Cardinals 2-0 in a season in which they’d finish 13-3. Then Kitchens and his wife, Ginger, hopped a flight from Phoenix to Atlanta, then connected on to Birmingham.
Before he could get in the rental car for the 60-mile drive back home, Freddie had a text message.
His father was dead at age 65.
Courtesy of Freddie Kitchens
Browns coach Freddie Kitchens (right) with his father, Big Freddie, at the summer football camp they organized in 2015.
Big Freddie’s friends say he’d be in the sporting goods shop three or four days a week now, talking up Freddie, maybe planning a move to Cleveland. He’d be beaming, but they’re not sure if he ever would have told his son how proud he was.
He didn’t have to.
Freddie Kitchens, Big and Little, have never cared what anyone thought.
In passing, they could be too loud, too rough, too righteous, too much. But get around them, the way the Browns did for eight games when Kitchens was named offensive coordinator, and you'd understand them. Understand them, and you'd respect them. Respect them, and you could love them.
Big Freddie Kitchens raised a son just like him, but who exceeded him. He poured everything into his boy and sent him into the world.
At the end, with his final words, he thought of his oldest son.
“To know that,” Freddie Kitchens said, “and to know he was there for me all those times and I wasn’t there at the end, that was the worst part about it.”
But they both knew the answer.
Working hard. Shooting 'em straight. Taking care of his family. Doing just as Big Freddie taught him.
Courtesy of Freddie Kitchens
Freddie Kitchens at around age 3, seated on his father's lap.
My apologies........haven't learnt how to insert pictures yet, and if Brooksie wants to go ahead and do it for me that would be great. Quite a story and it will be told in chapters. And, if Brooksie wants to insert the next chapter or chapters that's fine with me. This man was made for the Dawg Pound and Cleveland fans. jmho