Before Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens could begin to take in any of the joy associated with having friends and family scattered throughout the stadium — including on the other team’s sideline — he had to endure a lot of pain.
Hitchens, who the Chiefs signed in the offseason to a five-year deal worth roughly $9 million per year, started at inside linebacker on Sunday as he had each game this season. That wasn’t a given, at least not to those who saw him helped off the field at Arrowhead Stadium last week with bruised ribs.
“Hitch is a warrior,” Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford said when asked if he was surprised Hitchens played as the Chiefs beat the Cleveland Browns. “I’m still surprised though, but he’s a warrior. It’s good (that he played). I just want to have him for the whole year.”
The painstakingly slow manner in which Hitchens bent his sore body to even put on socks while seated at his locker simultaneously painted the picture of how much he wanted to play and how much it hurt to have done so. The 6-foot tall, 235-pound Ohio native had a day that ran the emotional gamut.
Hitchens helped his team to a 37-21 win essentially in his backyard, saw one of his best friends go down with an injury and drew a personal-foul penalty on an exchange where he admittedly should’ve exercised better judgment in the heat of the moment.
Hitchens shared the team-high in tackles (eight) despite having to spend time on the sideline after taking a shot to the ribs.
“I didn’t feel good, but there’s a point where you can fight through it,” said Hitchens, who entered the weekend listed as questionable to play. “It’s bruised. There’s nothing broken or something like that, so it’s just pain tolerance.
“I felt good running out there at first, then I had to wrap somebody up and I kind of felt it. I had to come out for a couple plays, and then I just finished the game. I’m just going have to take care of it week by week and then go from there.”
Undrafted rookie Ben Niemann came into the game for Hitchens when Hitchens exited to gather himself. The pain subsided enough for Hitchens to keep playing.
“Hitchens and Tyreek (Hill) did a real nice job of playing today,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “They were tender coming in, but they pushed through all that and did a nice job of playing.”
Hitchens grew up in Lorain, Ohio, about 30 miles away from FirstEnergy Stadium. Amy and Brad Anderson, who raised Hitchens from the time he was 12 and who he refers to as his parents, attended the game, as did Hitchens’ in-laws. The game marked the second time he played in Cleveland since coming into the NFL. He played in his home state once as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
Hitchens’ said he treated the game the same as any other — playing near home didn’t add any extra emotion. He brings that every game regardless of location. But his personal cheering section witnessed something out of character for him late in the third quarter.
He slapped the ball out of the hand of Browns tight end David Njoku after making a tackle on Njoku after a 12-yard gain on third-and-23. The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Hitchens gave the Browns a first down and set up a Baker Mayfield touchdown pass to start the fourth quarter. Replays appeared to show Njoku kick Hitchens in the helmet after the tackle.
“I got kicked right in the face,” Hitchens said. “I made the tackle, grabbing his legs. As he was getting up, he kicked me right in the face and I smacked the ball out of his hand. But I should’ve known better. They always get the second guy, not the first guy. I mean, there’s cheap plays. It’s football.”
The game also marked the second time Hitchens faced his former college teammate and fellow linebacker at the the University of Iowa, Christian Kirksey. Kriskey started at middle linebacker for the Browns.
Kirksey, a native of St. Louis and son of a pastor, has remained close with Hitchens since college. They were drafted the same year, and Kirksey served as best man in Hitchens’ wedding.
“The first time playing each other we were texting all throughout the week, like, ‘We gonna beat y’all,’ this and that,” Hitchens said. “This week was interesting. I actually texted him something that had nothing to do with football. I didn’t even run into my mind that we were playing each other this week.
“But this morning my mom texted both of us and put is in a group chat and said, ‘Enjoy the moments. Love you guys.’ That was the first time he was on a text message with me talking about football. It’s a blessing to have friend around the league. We’re living out our dreams.”
Kirksey, who made three tackles, left the game with a hamstring injury.
“It’s always fun when you get the opportunity to play football, especially against one of your friends,” Hitchens said. “Unfortunately, he got hurt today. I’ll be praying for him. Hopefully, it’s good news.”