SANTA CLARA, Calif. — With four boom mics hanging over his head, San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle — still in his full pads — looked around at the throng surrounding him, as he was congratulated by Brett Favre in the 49ers locker room.
“Jeez, Louise, are you kidding me guys? What are you all doing here? Where did you all come from?” he said.
Kittle became a local cult hero after a record-setting season in 2018, but with the 49ers at 7-0 for the first time since their Super Bowl prime, he and the team have started to draw national attention, and some love from a childhood hero.
“I grew up watching Brett Favre,” the Wisconsin-born Kittle told reporters at the interview podium. “It was pretty cool. I was a Bears fan, kind of, but I got to watch Brett play for a long time. He’s one of my favorite players. I enjoyed that he played with a passion, and I think we’re similar in that regard.”
“It was a great holiday today,” said Kittle, who hauled in six passes for 86 yards.
Favre was on hand to celebrate a holiday near to Kittle’s heart, wearing a National Tight End Day t-shirt when he met Kittle in the locker room following the game. The Hall of Fame quarterback was trailed by television cameras for NFL Films’ The Grind on Epix, and as he moved to sign the shoulder of Kittle’s 1994 throwback jersey, still stretched across his shoulders, Kittle pulled back.
“What, they won’t give you another one?” Favre said.
“I don’t think so,” Kittle said.
Kittle attained a level of national acclaim last season, when he broke Tony Gonzalez’s record for receiving yards by a tight end in a single season with 1,377. The former fifth-round pick out of Iowa continued to impress this year, hauling in 48 balls for 462 yards through seven games, well on pace for another 1,000-yard season. His love of professional wrestling — glossed “The People’s Tight End” by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — and affinity for Skittles and Panda Express have only made him more endearing.
Now that the 49ers are off to their best start since 1990, with the 3-4-1 Arizona Cardinals on tap for next week, Kittle and San Francisco have re-emerged as a national story, after the franchise had been the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight since the departure of Jim Harbaugh.
They’ve done it very much their own way, with Kyle Shanahan’s playcalling and John Lynch assembling a group of cast-offs and young, undervalued specialists, centered around playmakers like Jimmy Garoppolo, Kittle and now, Emmanuel Sanders.
Kittle, Sanders, rookie Deebo Samuel and pass rushers Kwon Alexander and Dee Ford all dance through warm-ups, and don’t shy away from displays of personality during play. After Kittle caught a ball that was tipped by Kendrick Bourne and nearly intercepted in the first quarter — a third-down conversion that saved San Francisco’s opening drive — Kittle calmly turned around and pantomimed shooting a basketball, letting the gooseneck hang for several seconds. The crowd of 69,083 — out in force despite high winds and fires in the north Bay — roared its approval.
In the locker room, Kittle turned and pulled out two, green Packers jerseys for Favre to sign, instead of inking the jersey on his back.
“Can you make that one out to Sauce?” Kittle said, flattening one jersey against the back of a piece of rolling luggage.
“Sauce?” Favre said, cocking an eyebrow.
The two then signed a National Tight End Day shirt and several footballs for the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital — which benefitted from the proceeds of National Tight End Day shirt sales — and Kittle signed his bobblehead.
“Like the locker room? Not bad, right?” Kittle said.
“I don’t miss it,” said Favre, who retired for good in 2010.
“You love it,” Kittle said. “Are they all here for you?”
Favre replied that the camera crew was here for both of them, and Kittle — still incredulous of his newfound fame — shrugged it off.
“It was National Tight End Day, and they didn’t even let me score,” Kittle said. “I got in, but they just didn’t … I guess I’m not allowed to score against NFC South teams.”
Kittle did look to have a nine-yard touchdown catch at the end of the first quarter, but Deebo Samuel — blocking off a defensive back to the side of Kittle after Kittle caught the ball — was called for offensive pass interference.
That proved to not make much of a difference. Tevin Coleman rushed for a 19-yard score up the gut on the next play, the 49ers scored more points than they have since 1993, and Favre came away entertained.
“That was fun,” Favre said, as he hugged Kittle. “I haven’t seen a game in I can’t tell you how long, especially in San Francisco.”
Said Kittle: “Come back whenever you want. Good game, right? Our fans are rocking.”