Former teammates, coaches mourn death of Johnie Kirton
Johnie Kirton, a 26-year-old former football player at Jackson High School in Mill Creek and the University of Washington, was found dead Monday night in Santa Clara, Calif.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Johnie Kirton file
Jackson HS (Mill Creek): 2,675 yards rushing as senior in 2003, state player of year.
Washington: Played running back, tight end, defensive line; team captain in 2008.
Arena League: Played for Spokane (af2, 2009), Arizona (2010), Chicago (2011) and San Jose (2012).
As they struggled to come to grips with the news of his sudden death, those who knew Johnie Kirton best remembered the former Washington Husky on Tuesday for his love of football and ability to bring teammates together.
"Johnie was the type of guy who united people in the locker room with his infectious personality and easy smile," former UW teammate Brad Vanneman said of Kirton, who was found dead reportedly in a Santa Clara, Calif., motel room Monday night. "He was a great player on the field with the versatility to play anything from running back to tight end to defensive line. But he was even better off it with the way he treated his teammates and everyone else he came in contact with. He brought a light to his world and made the lives of everyone he touched better."
Kirton, who was 26 years old, had crisscrossed the country pursuing professional football opportunities since leaving UW in 2008. He scored the winning touchdown in a game for the San Jose SaberCats of the Arena Football League on Saturday night.
The San Jose Mercury News reported that the Santa Clara police department received a call to a Santa Clara hotel room shortly after 11 p.m. Monday night after an unidentified dead man had been discovered. According to the Mercury News, police reported there was "no reason to suspect a crime had been committed."
Police did not confirm the identity of the body, and the Santa Clara County Coroner's Office said as of midday Tuesday it had no details. The SaberCats, however, announced the death of Kirton on their website, and the news spread quickly.
"I'm just so sad, heartbroken for his parents," said former UW coach Keith Gilbertson, who was head coach in 2004 when Kirton signed with the Huskies. "I've been in a fog all morning thinking about it."
Kirton was a record-setting running back at Jackson High School in Mill Creek, where he led the state in rushing as a senior in 2003 with 2,675 yards and was named Gatorade and The Associated Press state player of the year.
Kirton signed with UW in 2004. Gilbertson envisioned him as a "big back (6 feet 3, 290 pounds) who could move the chains. He was just such an excellent athlete."
After Gilbertson was fired and Tyrone Willingham hired, Kirton was moved to tight end, and in 2006 caught key touchdown passes that led to early-season victories over Fresno State and UCLA. Kirton moved to the defensive line in 2008 to help shore up needs there, and started three games, making 27 tackles. He was also elected by teammates as one of four team captains for that season.
He played for the Spokane Shock of the now defunct af2 indoor league in 2009 and played the past three years in the Arena Football League with Arizona, Chicago and San Jose, scoring the winning TD for the SaberCats in an 84-77 win over Chicago on Saturday night.
Joel Vincent, the coach at Jackson High, said the news hit hard at Kirton's alma mater.
"It obviously comes as a huge shock," Vincent said. "It's an immensely sad day around here for a lot of the staff. Beyond being a phenomenal athlete, he was a beloved kid here. He had a genuinely good heart and was one of those kids that you couldn't peg into a particular group at school. One minute you'd look and he'd be mixing with the rest of the athletes ... and a few minutes later you'd see him at a table having a conversation with one of our special-ed kids. He was just a good kid."
Kirton is survived by a 2-year-old daughter.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org