Kitchens puts losses in proper perspective

Linebacker Darrin Kitchens raises his helmet to the band after a 41-11 loss to LSU in 2011.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer/FILE
Published: Saturday, July 6, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 5, 2013 at 9:25 p.m.

Most in Gator Nation have tried to erase the mental images of Florida's Sugar Bowl debacle against Louisville.

The pick-six that started it. The penalties. The dumb mistakes. The late hits. Charlie Strong celebrating on the opposite sideline.

But there is one image from that night UF fans seem to want to cling to. To embrace, actually.

It is the image of a lone Gator player standing on the empty sideline after the game, facing the UF band, his helmet in his hand raised off his head, singing the alma mater while the rest of his teammates were already in the locker room, or headed in that direction.

Outside linebacker Darrin Kitchens' decision to stand alone and honor the team's postgame tradition while no one else did has endeared him to Florida fans, some who captured the moment with cell phone photos and videos.

“I got a lot of feedback on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter,” Kitchens said earlier this week. “A lot of people were telling me how much they respected me for what I did.”

So, why did he do it? Why did he stay and sing while everyone else walked away?

Kitchens, a senior from Homestead, said he did it for two main reasons. The love and loyalty he feels for his school. The respect he has for the band, especially the seniors who were playing the alma mater and fight song for perhaps the last time.

“It's very special to be here at the University of Florida. I just tried to show my respect,” he said. “Everyone was going to the locker room and I saw the band playing the alma mater, and some of them are seniors.

“Something inside me compelled me to go and stand and show my respect for the seniors (in the band) that were leaving. I just did it. The band works hard just like we work hard. They're at the games like we're at the games. I wanted to show them respect.

“I wasn't paying any attention at first (that I was the only one). I looked around and I was like, ‘Wow.' ”

Maturity also may have been a factor in Kitchens' decision to stay.

He's only one of two married players on the team (wide receiver/running back Trey Burton is the other) and will become a father during the 2013 season. Kitchens seems to have a way of putting things (like losses) in their proper perspective.

“Whether I meet my expectations or not, I really want to have fun and enjoy playing football,” he said. “That's what I feel it's all about. That's why everybody starts playing football, because they love the game. I just want to have fun.”

Kitchens certainly seems to be in a good place and having fun at the moment.

He got married to his high school sweetheart a little more than a year ago (June 23, 2012), his wife, Natalie, is five months' pregnant (their baby daughter is due during the Gators' open date in the fall), he's heading into his senior season at the school he's dreamed about playing for since he was in the ninth grade, and he'll become the first one in his family to earn a college degree when he graduates from UF in the spring.

“I'm ecstatic about everything,” he said. “It's a wonderful feeling to have my wife supporting me after every long day, after every grind and practice. To be able to come home to a wife that loves and supports me, it's amazing. I thank God. She's been the backbone in a lot of parts of my life.

“Not only having a Florida degree will be big, but just having a college degree. I'm going to be the first in my family. That's very important to me. I think I'm paving the way for future generations. It's really big.”

Kitchens is majoring in hospitality and tourism. He said he hopes to own a chain of hotels one day.

He said he is guided by his strong faith.

“I just put everything into God's hands,” he said. “Everything I want to do in life, I just trust God. Whether it comes to pass or doesn't, I know God has his best for me, so I'm not worrying about anything.

“Being married and being an athlete, it's exciting, it's a full plate. But I just like to thank God for the opportunities because I know a lot of people don't have this chance. I thank God for a full plate.”

Kitchens, who was signed by former Gators coach Urban Meyer, has played in 35 games during his UF career and has been a standout on special teams. He started his third game in the Sugar Bowl and has a chance to open the season as a starter at outside linebacker.

“That would be lovely,” he said. “I love playing football. I love being here. The opportunity is limitless. It would be amazing to be able to start my senior year.”

Despite losing two NFL first-round picks on defense (tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam), Kitchens said the unit could be just as strong or stronger this season.

“I have no doubt,” he said. “I'm not worried about our defense. I'm excited and looking forward to what we're going to do on the field this season.”

Kitchens said that bad night in the Sugar Bowl six months ago will be a factor in 2013.

“Having a great season is good, but losing the last game puts a bitter taste in your mouth,” he said. “That bitter taste is motivation throughout the offseason and to come back and win every game this season.”

Kitchens won't guarantee the Gators will win every game this fall. But he can guarantee that regardless of the outcome, he'll be standing there in front of the band singing the alma mater and fight song after every game.

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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