Even while he worked out last summer with the Tennessee State football team, Jimmie Kitchen said he knew it wasn’t the right fit for him.
“I knew I could play better football; I knew I could play a step up,” he said.
Kitchen will get that chance—a year after he first signed a football scholarship with the Tigers. The defensive lineman from Lithonia signed a scholarship with Georgia Tech on Feb. 23, ending a two-year journey of academic struggles that tested his faith and patience.
His scholarship with Tennessee State was revoked after one of two online literature classes he took did not clear the NCAA Clearinghouse, which monitors grades of recruits.
Kitchen’s family saved to pay for the $487 class, which he needed to become eligible. Kitchen began the six-week course in December of 2010 and word came on Feb. 15 that he had passed.
Almost immediately, the recruiting process heated up again for the 6-foot-3, 265-pounder. He was contacted by Mississippi and Georgia Tech, and a scholarship was offered by the Yellow Jackets after visiting the school on Feb. 17.
“He was in 10th grade when I got here, and I knew he was going to be a tremendous player,” Lithonia coach Marcus Jelks said. “Now, he’ll have a distinct advantage over class of 2011 seniors. It’s like he’s had an unofficial redshirt year.”
Jelks took advantage of Kitchen’s size, quickness and athletic ability by playing him at linebacker, defensive lineman, center and on special teams as a senior. Kitchen tied for the lead among players from DeKalb County public schools as a senior with 82 solo tackles. He had 101 total tackles and six sacks. Kitchen led the county with 12.5 sacks as a sophomore.
“He had a lot of major college schools interested until it looked like he might not qualify,” Jelks said. Tennessee, Central Florida and Louisville were among the schools showing interest initially in Kitchen.
“In my early years in high school I was not doing things right,” Kitchen said. “I knew I had to get the work done. I buckled down and did it. Since my junior year I’ve been working harder, studying harder to make sure I get the grades.”
Most schools backed off when word of Kitchen’s academic struggles came to light. Kitchen said he brought up his grade point average from a 1.6 to a 2.5 his senior year and scored a 930 (out of a possible 1600) on the math/verbal portion of the SAT.
“The light went off in my head in my junior year,” Kitchen said. “It really hit me when I didn’t qualify after I put all that work in.”
But Kitchen persevered, which was not a surprise to his mother, Valerie Wallace.
“Every night he was up doing his class,” she said. “He would always read his assignment to me to make sure everything was right. He was adamant about it. When you tell him no, it’s like yes to him. He just keeps trying.”
Kitchen said he relied on his faith to keep going during his senior season while he was trying to pull up his grades, as well as last year while he was waiting for the opportunity to retake the class.
Prayer, he said, was a big part of his routine. In addition to help from his family and Jelks, Kitchen received advice from Mark Richards, his middle school basketball coach.
“He sat down and talked to me about faith, study habits,” Kitchen said. “He told me God was going to work through me and it was my time to shine.”
Kitchen had gotten the attention of Georgia Tech earlier in his high school career, and Yellow Jackets’ assistant coach Joe Speed began the process again after Kitchen became eligible. Kitchen is Tech’s only defensive line signee for the class of 2011.
“They told me they had an extra scholarship they were holding for me or another defensive lineman,” Kitchen said. “They looked at film and saw I was the better athlete.”