As would be expected, the news of the sudden death of former Husky football player Johnie Kirton — who was a captain as a senior in 2008 — is hitting hard.
Kirton, who was playing this season with the San Jose SaberCats of the Arena Football League, was found dead in a Santa Clara hotel room Monday night. The San Jose Mercury News has the latest details, though a cause of death remains unknown (the Santa Clara County Coroner’s Office said in the last hour it has no information to release).
“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 after a record-breaking career at Jackson High in Mill Creek (edited from previous version). “I’ve been in a fog all morning thinking about it.”
John Pettas, who was then UW’s offensive coordinator, said of Kirton that “he was one of my favorite kids there. A nice kid. Always happy.”
Joel Vincent, the head coach at Jackson High, said he received the news this morning in a phone call from another famous sporting alum of that school, Travis Snider.
“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 because one minute he’d be mixing with the rest of the athletes and you would turn around 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.”
Vincent said he had kept in contact with Kirton through the years, first through his UW career and then the last four years as he continued to pursue a pro career in the Arena Football League.
Kirton signed with UW in 2004 after rushing for 2,675 yards at Jackson High. Gilbertson envisioned him as a “big back who could move the chains,” he recalled this morning. “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 TD passes that led to early-season wins against Fresno State and UCLA. He moved to the defensive line in 2008 to help shore up needs there, and started three games, making 27 tackles, also elected by teammates as one of the captains for that season.
He had played the last 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 Saturday night.
Former teammates also expressed their shock at the sudden death of Kirton, who was 26, on various social media.
Juan Garcia, who was one of four captains on the 2008 team along with Kirton, wrote on Facebook that he will “never forget how many times we (laughed) together” and “it was an honor calling you friend, teammate and brother.”
Kirton leaves behind a young daughter.