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George Kittle's tribute to veterans—Is this the kind of off-field action we need more of in the NFL?

On a crisp autumn Sunday, as the 49ers marched into Jacksonville’s EverBank Stadium in 2023, an unexpected blitz was brewing off the gridiron. George Kittle, San Francisco‘s All-Pro tight end known for his bone-crushing blocks and gravity-defying catches, was about to face a play he never saw coming. It wasn’t a linebacker or a safety that would leave him stunned, but a fan with a game plan straight out of left field.

As the pre-game warmups unfolded like a well-executed two-minute drill, Claire Kittle found herself in an impromptu huddle near the sidelines. The stranger she met wasn’t there to run a route. Instead, he carried a piece of battlefield memorabilia. What transpired next would prove that sometimes the most powerful offensive strategies happen far from the end zone.

A battlefield tribute scores a touchdown with George Kittle

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In the newly released Netflix series “Receiver,” George Kittle often talks about the thrill of the game. But nothing could’ve prepared him for the emotional blitz that came his way off the field. Chris Kleinsorge, a retired Army veteran, called an audible that would make even the most seasoned quarterback take notice. At EverBank Stadium, he handed Claire Kittle a piece of uniform straight from the trenches of Afghanistan, complete with a message that hit harder.

Claire, usually composed on the sidelines, couldn’t hold back her tears as she read the handwritten note. “I really did get teared up and, and choked up a bit,” she confessed in the documentary. The message read, “To George Kittle, As the 49ers Salute to Service nominee, on behalf of all military veterans, I want to thank you for all you have done to help my fellow brothers and sisters in arms.” Signed off with “Respectfully, SSG (ret) Chris Kleinsorge Airborne, 173rd, 82nd,” it was more than just ink on fabric – it was a battle-worn salute.

For Kittle, this wasn’t just another day at the office. In “Receiver,” we see him stunned, declaring, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever gotten.” It’s a far cry from his usual “every week is National Tight Ends Day” bravado, showing a vulnerability rarely seen on the gridiron. This unexpected play resonated deeply with the tight end, whose own playbook is filled with extensive support for veterans.

Indeed, Kittle’s commitment to the military isn’t just a sideline activity – it’s a family tradition. With his uncle Pat and grandfather Carl having served, Kittle’s support runs deeper than any offensive scheme. He’s donated over 200 tickets to service members for nearly every home and away game, founded the Hidden Pearls Podcast shared stories of 45 veterans, and contributed nearly $150,000 to military nonprofits. It’s a full-contact approach to philanthropy that would make any drill sergeant proud.

So who is Chris Kleinsorg? His path from the trenches to the turf is a playbook of grit and fandom.

Kleinsorge’s journey and Kittle’s touchdown of gratitude

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Kleinsorge, a 43-year-old Santa Rosa native, served in Afghanistan from May 2007 to August 2008, finding his own personal USO show in 49ers games. “For at least three and a half hours, he said it felt ‘like I was there,'” as a source reveals. Kleinsorge wasn’t just watching games; he was catching a Hail Mary of hope every Sunday, his lifelong fandom a bulletproof vest against the harsh realities of deployment.

The uniform piece Kleinsorge gifted to Kittle wasn’t just fabric; it was a time capsule of sacrifice. After eight and a half years of active duty, including his stint with the 173rd and 82nd Airborne, Kleinsorge was medically discharged from Fort Bragg. But his connection to the 49ers remained unbroken, a red and gold lifeline that stretched from Santa Clara to Afghanistan and back. “I wanted to give him something that really means something,” Kleinsorge told NBC Sports Bay Area, his words carrying the weight of both his service and his fandom.

Kittle’s response was like a perfectly executed two-minute drill. The invitation to Levi’s Stadium for the Week 11 matchup against the Buccaneers left Kleinsorge more pumped than a linebacker on game day. It wasn’t just a ticket; it was recognition, appreciation, and a bridge between two worlds. As Kleinsorge puts it, “His dedication to it… He’s willing to do whatever he needs to do, giving his time and his money. Those things are worth something.”

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These moments of connection are like unexpected onside kicks, catching everyone off guard with their impact. They remind us that while players battle on the gridiron, fans like Kleinsorge fight on real battlegrounds. It’s a handoff of mutual respect, a play that doesn’t just move the chains but moves hearts.