Health scare helped strengthen Freddie Kitchens' attitude, approach

BEREA, Ohio -- Freddie Kitchens played quarterback for Alabama and was part of a staff in Arizona that almost won a Super Bowl.

He coached for Bill Parcells and Bruce Arians in the NFL.

But ask Kitchens what he enjoys and he’ll bring up things like sunsets and time with family.

At his initial media conference as the Browns' offensive coordinator, Kitchens also brought a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor.

Take his walk-off line, which he made a point to say he wanted to make clear.

"I have not been offered any head coaching jobs," said Kitchens -- a barb to Gregg Williams saying he has interviewed for 11 coaching jobs since he was coach in Buffalo, four of which he could have just shown up and taken.

Asked what he learned from Arians, Kitchens briefly thought and said: "How to make a cocktail."

Told Arians would be broadcasting the game for CBS, Kitchens didn’t hesitate: "Good, I think he owes me some money [from the] last time we played golf."

Arians did not dispute the former, but told about the latter, he merely said: "I doubt that."

However, Arians spoke glowingly of Kitchens, who got his first job with Parcells in Dallas, then went to Arizona to work with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, then stayed with the Cardinals to work for Arians.

Arians, now retired, said he has zero hesitation about Kitchens stepping into the play-calling role, and doing it well.

"He’s smart and he’s tough," Arians said. "He will have no problem."

The respect for Kitchens around the league seems shared.

"Freddie’s one of my favorite people on the planet," former Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer told NFL Films. "He’s one of those guys that whoever meets him just falls in love with the guy. He’s genuine, he’s honest. You talk to him for five minutes and you walk away going, ‘Man that’s a good dude.’"

Kitchens’ attitude was not shaped by a life-and-death experience he had five years ago; it was merely strengthened.

In June 2013, Kitchens was walking on the field for organized team activities in Arizona when he felt something in his chest. Palmer and Drew Stanton (now with the Browns) called the trainers over when Kitchens complained of being dizzy. The trainer discovered Kitchens’ heart rate and blood pressure were low.

He was immediately taken to the emergency room, where tests showed he had a tear in the inner wall of his aorta -- in medical terms, an ascending aortic dissection. Kitchens was alive because the aorta had not ruptured, but doctors told him he had a 20 percent chance to live and needed immediate surgery.

He was flown to a Phoenix hospital, but on the helicopter, Kitchens thought of his daughters (Bennett and Camden) and how they had once wondered to him what it was like to fly on a helicopter. While in the air, he started taking photos, figuring no matter what happened to him his daughters could see the pictures. As Palmer told NFL Films, Kitchens was "thinking of everybody before himself."

The surgery lasted 10 hours, and included placing a mechanical valve in his heart. He was on the field for training camp a few months later.

Thursday Kitchens reflected on it all.

"I think I was always a person that enjoyed life, and enjoyed the finer things of life," he said. "I enjoyed the things that sometimes get overlooked, you know? So I always appreciated those things.

"I would say that the thing that I realized the most is the impact that you have, as far as me, on other people. And I feel like I’ve had a positive impact on other people because of the notes, the well-wishes, people you may not have heard from in 10 years.

"It’s amazing what people will tell you how they feel about you when they think you’re going to die."