BY JEFF FALK Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we want them to. And sometimes they turn out exactly the way they are supposed to.
Mike Kitchen never became an NFL running back, like he had dreamed of, like he had aspired to. Some of the reasons he could’ve controlled, others went beyond his control.
But now, Kitchen is in a pretty good place.
Kitchen turned 30 this year. And when he looks back at what could’ve been, it is not without regret. In his heyday at Lebanon High School, way back in the late 1990s, Kitchen possessed the kind of athletic ability that could’ve led to an NFL career.
“I think it definitely has helped me mature,” said Kitchen. “Sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to. But it doesn’t mean you throw in the towel or abandon your morals. If I didn’t play in the league (NFL), I wanted to work with kids. So I’m living a dream.”
Football led to Kitchen’s bachelor’s degree in sociology from Frostburg State and an associate’s degree in business from Lackawana Junior College. The former Cedar star is employed by Compass Academy, an alternative school in Mount Carmel that works with ‘at-risk’ youth.
A youth development coach, Kitchen pratices behavior modeling, counseling and mentoring as part of his everyday routine.
“I do enjoy it,” said Kitchen. “I like it. It’s fun. I think I’m well-suited for it.”
A 1999 graduate of Lebanon High, Kitchen enjoyed one of the greatest scholastic running careers in Lebanon County football history. His all-time totals are believed to be only third to Lebanon Catholic’s Tommy Long and Cedar Crest’s Jaren Hayes.
“Yes, I do remember. I remember it very vividly,” said Kitchen. “It is what it is. I guess I was pretty good. I thought I really had the total package – enough speed, quickness and vision. But first and foremost, I thought was the vision.
“I remember just having a lot of fun playing the guys,” Kitchen continued. “It was very good to me. It was one of the better times in my life. And the success I had awas a springboard for college.”
In his senior season, the 5-9, 190-pound Kitchen was one of most highly recruited running backs in the eastern portion of the country. Ultimately, he chose Georgia Tech over Maryland and Syracuse.
“It was hectic. It was non-stop,” said Kitchen of the recruiting process. “You want it to be over, but you never want it to stop. But it was exciting having, having so many colleges you wanted to go to wanting you.
“Honestely, Georgia Tech just felt right,” Kitchen added. “All the places rolled out the red carpet. All the places were nice, but when I went to Tech, it had a good feel. I’d be lying if I said that I never thought that mabye things would have gone differently if I had gone somewhere else. But I made my decision on the best feeling I had at the time.”
Things didn’t go well for Kitchen at Georgia Tech. And although he kept pursuing his dream of playing professional football for the next four or five years, he never fully recovered from his time there – at least not football-wise.
First there was an ankle injury. Then there was an issue with grades. Kitchen’s total time at Georgia Tech ammounted to a year and a half.
“There was a possibility of being moved to a different position,” said Kitchen. “But it came down to academics. Essentially I was academically ineligible. And I thought to myself, ‘Why amd I going back there if I’m academically ineligible?’ I had to get a certain grade on a final and didn’t get it.
“If I only knew the things then that I know now,” added Kitchen, “everything would be cool. At the time, I felt like ti was a little too challenging. I was trying to study and do work and get good grades.”
With his eye on ultimately playing his way back to Division One major college football, Kitchen enrolled at Lackawana Junior College, then Division One-AA James Madison, Division Two Kutztown and eventually Frostburg State.
“The plan was to go back to a Division One school,” Kitchen said. “When I was going into my junior year, if anything I felt people were waiting for me to resurface. I knew I could play. it was just a matter of me going and playing.
“It was one of those things,” Kitchen continued. “Do I question my decision-making? Do I question the things out of my control? Everything happens for a reason. Even though the path was different than most, I was certain it was going to lead to the league (the NFL).”
Even after his graduation, Kitchen attended a number of free-agent NFL camps and worked out for a couple of teams.
“What can I do? Move on,” said Kitchen. “If I have any regrets, it’s that I wish I would’ve majored in something else. I liked the course work, but the field I’m in doesn’t pay well. I’m experiencing that right now. But you can put a price on the impact you have on a kid’s life.”