2009 Breakout Performers? Zaire Kitchen

Zaire…the name in Portuguese means "the river that swallows all rivers" and consequently means the end of the line for the small river. Much like the meaning, Zaire Kitchen is normally the end of the line for any opposing player coming his way.

Alternately, he's just as much "Jersey" as Arturo Gatti was in that he's got heart, he's a fighter, he's a hard worker, and he'll hit you hard so you remember he's there.

Fittingly, Zaire hailed from Mercer County (where I called home before moving to Burlington), making a big name for himself in high school at Hightstown HS. I say "fittingly" because Exit 8 (where Zaire lived) is about 45 minutes south of Jersey City, where Gatti roamed, and about 45 minutes northeast of Philadelphia, where Rocky was filmed. They are the two ultimate comeback and underdog stories in boxing and are about guys that displayed the heart and will of a champion. Zaire has been no different that those 2 great storylines.

As a freshman, Zaire endured his first torn ACL injury on the football field and he worked hard and never quit to come back from that injury. He soon made a name for himself on the offensive side of the field playing running back for the Rams. At that time of his senior year, he was about 6' and 185 lbs, which is slightly smaller than his current 6' 2" and 215 lb frame, and rushed for over 1400 yards and had over 60 tackles. Coincidentally, my sister was friends with some people who played against Zaire and they all described him as "a beast." One reference told me a story that he hit Zaire as hard as he could (and he was the same size as Zaire) only to have Zaire get up, look at him, and say "that's how you hit…hit me again." He said he never saw any player like Zaire and he's not surprised how well he's doing at Rutgers.

After his brief trip to Hargrave Military Academy after committing to RU the first time in 2005, Zaire made good on his commitment in 2006 and arrived at RU with high hopes. He worked hard and made it on the field for 11 games as a freshman in RU's memorable 2006 season. Unfortunately, he suffered his second torn left ACL in one of the final games of the season and completed 2006 logging 10 tackles, 7 of them solo, mainly playing special teams. It was a frame of reference he'd soon remember as his high school freshman season was ended the same way. But he never forgot what it was like to fight through it and get back on the field as he did 5 years prior so it was back to work.

Amazingly, Zaire returned to play the following season 2 games in. He contributed heavily to the team as a back-up at the free safety position sharing time with Joe Lefeged. He ended up totaling 27 tackles, 17 of them solo, and cemented his name as a game changing performer with the interception of the final pass in Rutgers' upset of then #2 South Florida. It was a fitting comeback for Zaire and showed what hard work can do in bringing you back from injury. But as fate would have it, Zaire was tested once again. In the second to last game against Pitt, Zaire went down with a torn ACL, this time the right knee. As he did the two times before, he got back on that rehab horse (this time proving to be a great teammate and leading Kordell Young through his rehab as well) determined to make it back on the field.

For the third time, he made it back and rehabbed even quicker this time than the last time. Seeing the field for action at the very start to the season, Zaire would show that he'd once again become a heavy contributor. He and Lefeged were basically splitting time evenly at the safety position and he was yet again an impact player in Rutgers' season. After the 1-5 start and following a "closer than it needed to be" win against Connecticut, Rutgers was in a virtual aerial assault style game against Pittsburgh. With RU struggling to produce turnovers on the season, a Rutgers punt to start the half, and a Pitt score; Rutgers needed something to happen fast as the team was now only up 3. After a 3 and out by the offense, it appeared the momentum had changed sides. The punt sailed in the air and after the Pitt returner caught it, Zaire ripped the ball out of his hands and RU recovered. Rutgers went on to score and get the momentum back for the rest of the game. It was as much a season changing play as you can find, opened up the floodgates for turnovers for the rest of the season, and propelled RU to win the papajohn's.com bowl.

Ending 2008 with 32 tackles, 16 of them solo, 3 forced fumbles, a blocked kick, 2 tackles for loss, and a sack, Zaire is now on track to 2009. He participated in his first spring practice at RU without any injuries and is a frontrunner for starter at safety. He had a solid spring game and has become an elder statesman in the secondary, with Devin McCourty, in showing the underclassmen how to play the safety position at Rutgers. He's provided hope to those around him to overcome tragedy and has been an integral role model for those coming up for how Rutgers plays defense. He's been praised by Coach Schiano on more than one occasion and has lived up to those praises over and over again.

What do I expect to see from Zaire Kitchen for 2009? First off, I can't believe that Zaire has not been named to any watch lists to date and expect he may be by the start of the season. Beyond that, I expect a whole lot of thunderous hits when any offensive player tries to invade the middle of the field. I'm looking to see even more turnovers raining down from a defense that has most Rutgers fans salivating at the opportunity they may create for a special season like 2006. I expect more game changing plays causing a fog to settle over the other team's bench. Most of all, I expect the leader that's emerged to do whatever he can to ensure his defensive backfield is on their "A" game every game. I expect Zaire (and Devin) to show the nation that Rutgers may lose a safety and a cornerback, but we're replacing them with hard working, hard hitting, and swarming players who are ready to cause a storm. In this economy, we hail hard work and with Zaire on this team we are sure to see that effort that makes us relate to the player he is with pride as a breakout performer for 2009.

So, finally, you ask why he's got the name "Thunder" next to his name. It's there because yesterday Jerry Izenburg wrote an article talking about Arturo Gatti and it made me think of Zaire. In this light, Zaire's got "A Puncher's Chance" when it comes to football (1 ). He's a warrior at heart who knows no boundaries. There is no more a role model for what hard work, blue collar effort, and perseverance exemplify than both "Thunder" Gatti and Zaire "Thunder" Kitchen. It's my belief that nicknames should be passed to those who are worthy of them and when you look at it for face value, there's no more a metaphor for what Arturo Gatti was than what Zaire Kitchen is!

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