Kyle Wittman didn’t know it before he walked through the door to his coach’s office, but he was about to hear some things that would change the way he approached football.
The offensive lineman had played the game since he was in third grade. In fact, he loved it. So when Lawrence High coach Dirk Wedd sat down with Wittman at the end of the 2011 season, the junior varsity center took the coach’s message to heart.
“I got a swift kick in the rear end in my exit meeting my sophomore year,” said Wittman, now a senior.
Wedd told the young lineman if he took the game and the weight room more seriously, he could become an All-Sunflower League player. Those were some bold words, considering Wittman’s self-described status as a “get-in-there-because-we’re-pulling-out-most-of-our-starters” player as a sophomore.
“He gave me a little earful,” the lineman said, adding he played “a little too timid” at the time.
The tone of the conversation may have come across differently than the message, which was the coaching staff thought Wittman could turn into a starter if he put in the work.
“We challenged him to be a team leader,” Wedd said, “and he’s been unbelievable.”
The growth began in the weight room before his junior season, and before long he earned the starting center position. The Lions went 8-3 in 2012 and Wittman earned second-team all-league status. Those accomplishments didn’t satisfy the center, though. Fellow senior Kieran Severa said Wittman’s physical abilities and intangibles strengthened this past offseason.
“There’s always leaders in the skill positions,” said Severa, a receiver, “but there’s not always a single, definite leader on the line.”
Wittman is that guy for the Lions (3-5). He’ll show up on the sidelines of a freshman game just to talk to the players and provide guidance. He wants every lineman in an LHS uniform striving for perfection, because he thinks the game flows through the effectiveness of the O-line.
“I’ve always wanted to be the one getting on people, asking them questions, making sure they’re doing the right thing,” Wittman said.
Last week, in Lawrence’s blowout home victory against K.C. Wyandotte, one of Wittman’s understudies, junior left guard Cole Greenwood, was flagged for a personal foul and ejected from the game. In came senior Joe Mikesic to replace him. When the Lions broke the huddle with Mikesic, Wittman gave the backup a word or two of instruction before each snap to make sure he felt confident.
The center could do that, Wedd said, because he knows the responsibility of the guards and tackles on every single play.
“When you’ve got someone like that in the middle of your offensive line,” the coach said, “that’s pretty special.”
Teammates say Wittman has a mind for the game. That doesn’t surprise his friend Mikesic, who took an engineering course with Wittman last year. Without the heady center, Mikesic said, the engineering team wouldn’t have won its competition at Kansas University.
“He’s a great football player, great leader, but he’s also actually really smart,” Mikesic said. “He really knows how to get things to work.”
Engineering competitions, Wittman explained, involve devising a plan for a functional device of some kind, building it, testing it and re-building it. It’s not that different from searching for the perfect blocking technique or offensive play on the gridiron. Wittman loves tinkering and after taking the LHS engineering course last year, he now acts as a class aide for instructor Charlie Lauts — “the coach Wedd of my schooling,” he called her.
When teammates find out about his work away from the field, they might accuse the center of nerding out.
“I can take it,” he said, grinning, “because I’ll be making the big bucks someday.”
Wittman wants to find an in-state college with a four-year engineering program and a football team he can join. He has some ideas, but no definite answer at this point.
No matter. All he has been thinking about this week is facing rival Free State (7-1) in the City Showdown — kickoff at 7 tonight at FSHS.
“Playing in it means a lot,” Wittman said. “Winning it is a whole different level.”