Starting defensive end Justin Kitchen reveals his life's passions: music, community service and of course, football. He delves into his close relationship with his mother, who is his biggest fan. Kitchen, who turned down scholarship offers from South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Virginia, believed Duke would give him the best chance to succeed after college.
When senior captain Phillip Alexander broke his leg Sept. 11 in a game against Connecticut, his backup Justin Kitchen stepped into the starting role. The defensive end has since shined on the football field as one of the team’s most effective players. Still, his actions off the field are truly what define him.
Kitchen was an all-around star at Charlotte (N.C.) Country Day. There he served as the senior class’ student president while excelling in academics and as a three-sport athlete. He played football, earning North Carolina Defensive Player of the Year his senior season, he threw shot and discus and ran relays in track, winning the state discuss title his junior year, and he also played basketball.
The son of two ministers Brenda Kitchen and John Kee, Kitchen was raised by his mother, who instilled in him a strong sense of responsibility in him.
“My goal was to make sure that I raised him to be a responsible young man, not to be irresponsible in his decisions,” she said. “In the African-American community it is said sometimes that we raise our daughters and love our sons. My goal was not to love him into manhood, but to raise him, meaning to hold him responsible.”
After attending an elite private school throughout their lives, Kitchen and five of his basketball teammates, who were among his best friends since elementary school, decided that they wanted to give back to children who were less fortunate than themselves.
One friend’s grandfather runs a school in Cape Town, South Africa and during their junior year at Charlotte Country Day the group of six began discussing the idea of running a basketball camp for poverty-stricken children in South Africa.
When the teenagers brought the idea before their parents, they heard a response that may have deterred most, but not Kitchen and his classmates.
“You can do it, but we’re not going to pay for it,” his mother said she told him when she and the other parents were approached about the trip. “They said ‘fine,’ we’ll put together a campaign and go to business owners.”
Brenda Kitchen said the friends produced a presentation and divided local companies and merchants so that each shared the fundraising responsibility for the trip.
“We went around Charlotte and raised money,” Justin Kitchen said. “We told a bunch of businesses what we wanted to do and they funded the whole trip.... We bought basketball goals and basketballs and went to South Africa and tried to teach kids how to play basketball.”
They raised more than $30,000, and companies donated plane tickets and trophies. The group raised so much money that it had $5,000 left over to donate to the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
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Kitchen, his friends and two chaperones traveled to South Africa and taught approximately 250 to 350 kids how to play basketball during the summer of 2001.
“[I learned] how fortunate we are here,” Kitchen said. “The stuff that we took them was the [only] stuff that they had. It’s just amazing how fortunate we are.”
The trip was a remarkable experience for the entire group, as the American teenagers began to understand how lucky they are. Spending time in the surrounding shanty towns made them realize that the children would do nearly anything for something as simple as tennis shoes. It was an eye-opening and incredibly worthwhile experience for Kitchen, his mother said.
“He loves doing for other people in any way, and his decision-making process is so extraordinary for a man of his age,” she said. “He has such a compassionate heart for people that he is always thinking of ways to do and go a step beyond and rise above.”
Kitchen says he maintains many of the same values that his mother instilled in him, especially regarding education. The Kitchen said he choose Duke over South Carolina, Vanderbilt or Virginia—where he also received scholarship offers to play football—because Duke gave him the best chance to succeed after college. After completing his psychology degree he eventually hopes to go to graduate school and become a teacher.
“I just think it would be interesting, and I like working with kids,” Kitchen said of teaching.
Before that, however, Kitchen plans to pursue one of his passions, music. Kee, his father, is a Grammy-nominated Gospel singer and his mother sang in the church choir.
“That played a huge role in my interest in music, just knowing someone that close to you that’s made in the music industry makes it seem like its possible, because you’ve seen somebody do it,” Kitchen said.
He has been banging on things since infancy, his mother said, and he received his first drum set at the age of three. The drummer played his first concert at age five and now plays for a band called Starting Tuesday.
“I’m a big music guy, I love to play drums and listen to music,” said Kitchen, who also plays piano, trombone and saxophone among other instruments. “I have a band, and I just love music.”
Playing football, his other love, was something that he became involved in later in his life. He never participated in youth leagues, but he came home from school one day in the seventh grade and told his mother that he wanted to play.
Bob Witman, his high school coach, said he started off as a “regular old skinny kid,” but by the 9th or 10th grade he had become a muscular and athletic young man. Kitchen, who played safety in high school before making the switch to defensive line in college, was particularly close to his high school defensive coordinator, Mike Fresina.
“He was definitely a coach’s dream—big and strong and athletic,” Fresina said. “Most importantly, he was willing to take chances and learn new things and take coaching. The greatest compliment any coach will tell you that can be paid to a player is that he is very coachable. He was never one of those guys who thought he knew the best way, he wanted to learn the best way to do things and that was fantastic.”
At Duke, head football coach Ted Roof has characterized him in similar ways.
“He’s a guy that was a high school safety who became a college linebacker his freshman year, and now he’s playing with his hand on the ground,” Roof said. “It’s a different world for him, but I’ve been real pleased with him and expect him to play well for us.”
Brenda Kitchen believes that football has taught her son valuable lessons in life, especially playing the game at the Division-I level.
“It’s taught him perseverance, it went from being a sport that was fun to actually mirroring what life is and what its like to have a job and responsibility,” she said. “There’s a lot that goes into playing Division-I ball, it’s a year long commitment. Sometimes it becomes very frustrating but most of the time it’s very rewarding.”