Two weeks ago, San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle sat at his locker inside Levi’s Stadium watching a video on his iPhone.
The archived clip showed Kittle, clad in worn blue jeans and a black “Austin 3:16” shirt, entering a wrestling ring in Walcott, Iowa, after a match.
“I went over the top rope there,” Kittle said, reliving the moment over a year-and-a-half later. “Now that’s pretty badass.”
As he gazed at himself executing a perfect Stone Cold Stunner, Kittle didn’t even attempt to hide the massive smile that stretched across his face.
“That feeling is almost better than scoring a touchdown,” he said.
Kittle — whose touchdown celebrations mimic the taunts of his favorite wrestler, Stone Cold Steve Austin — has become a cult hero for 49ers fans in his second season with the team. Along with his record-setting performances, he’s delivered an electrifying brand of carefree showmanship that’s channelled his inner “Texas Rattlesnake.” Arrive. Raise Hell. Leave.
“I’ve always respected Stone Cold,” he said. “I’ve always liked his attitude and basically everything he does… I just kind of stuck with him and this mindset of ‘screw everybody’ and he doesn’t care of what anyone else thinks.”
Professional wrestling wasn’t always Kittle’s first choice of entertainment growing up. While he was familiar with the WWE as a child, staying up to watch Monday Night Raw and ordering pay-per-views on Sunday nights were not regular occurrences for the Madison, Wisconsin native.
When he arrived at Iowa — his father’s alma mater — on scholarship in 2013, Kittle would meet Steve Manders, who would expand the 19-year-old’s horizons. Like Kittle, Manders was a freshman on the football team. Unlike Kittle, he was a walk-on fullback. During post-practice workouts, the two became fast, close friends.
Taking advantage of the archived footage provided by the newly launched WWE Network, Manders would show Kittle matches from the 1990s, which featured some of the most popular wrestlers to ever step foot in the ring, like Sting, The Rock and, of course, Stone Cold Steve Austin.
“I’d work out at like 6 a.m. so I’d come home and take a nap.” Kittle said. “He’d work out with the 7:30 group, so he would just come over while I was sleeping and he would just turn on WWE Network. He knew I wasn’t the biggest fan, so he would show me their best matches and he literally gave me like a storyline of like ‘These matches, in order, you need to watch to learn about Stone Cold.”
Before long, Kittle had become obsessed, even catching up on the current WWE storylines. Eventually, Kittle, his then girlfriend Claire Till, Manders and several other Iowa teammates would all get together to watch broadcasts of Monday Night Raw and Smackdown each week.
According to Manders, some of their teammates would make fun of them because of their passion for the sport.
A few years later, Manders, who had always wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler himself, stumbled upon the opportunity to attend Iowa-native Seth Rollins’ wrestling camp, the Black and Brave Wrestling Academy.
After 12 weeks of training, Marek Brave, who was a coach at the camp, spoke with Manders and suggested that Kittle make an appearance.
“At the time, it was kind of hard because George was living in Texas preparing for the NFL,” Manders said. “After his pro day, I think this was in April, I was like ‘Do you want to come down to Black and Brave?” And he was like ‘Uh, yeah.’ … Like a kid in a candy store, he sees this ring and I’m in there running around and he thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
While there, Kittle was able to meet Rollins and go through drills with Manders. Bouncing off of the ropes, taking bumps and shoulder tackles and even learning how to sell hits.
A month later, it was Kittle’s time to shine in the ring, coming to the rescue of Manders, who now goes by his stage name “The Hawkeye,” after a match, unleashing the Stone Cold Stunner on SCW Pro wrestler, Johnny Wisdom.
Eighteen months later, it still makes him giddy.
This season, Kittle has further channelled the “Stone Cold mentality.” Over the course of 14 games, Kittle has racked up 1,164 yards, setting a franchise record for receiving yards by a tight end.
His playing style is angry, yet lively. He can catch the ball in traffic with one hand, or leave defenders 15-yards behind him when he accelerates for an 85-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown, reaching upwards of 20 mph — the third-fastest speed by a tight end this season. He’s raising hell, and breaking records, surpassing the single-season receiving yards record for a San Francisco tight end (becoming the first to crack 1,000) and coming within five yards of breaking the single-game record with 210 yards receiving against the Denver Broncos.
“[Stone Cold] is going to go out there and win and kick everyone’s ass,” Kittle said standing next to the Steve Austin action figure that sits in his locker. “That hit home with me … It’s what I try to do.”
There are now even fan pages that have photoshopped Kittle’s face onto Steve Austin’s body. When he earned his first career Pro Bowl nod on Dec. 18, in true kick-ass-don’t-care fashion, he celebrated by watching Netflix and ordering Chinese food. After catching three balls for 51 yards against the Seattle Seahawks and breaking a franchise losing streak dating back to 2011, Kittle came to post-game availability in a Stone Cold t-shirt, urging reporters to hurry up, because he had tickets to WWE’s TLC pay-per-view in San Jose.
The national recognition has the people who once made fun of him for his passion for the professional wrestling praising his name. But with this newfound fame, Kittle has remained the same person he’s always been, just like his hero, Austin.
“That’s why George is so successful. He’s himself,” Manders said. “It’s the same reason why people gravitate towards Stone Cold: They were themselves, they didn’t give a shit.”