Jesse Nagle vividly remembers what he saw on October 27, 2016. Kaden Bittinger waltzed into the end zone in the ninth grade Bald Eagle Area football game against Bellefonte, Nagle recounted to the Centre Daily Times. A lump in his throat formed as he uttered the next sentence.
“He just pointed to the sky,” Nagle said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Bittinger lost his father earlier that day, a man he called his best friend and the man who introduced him to football. Bittinger was 14 years old and a freshman in high school at the time, and the loss shook him to his core.
“It was me and him all the time,” Bittinger said.
The loss of his father wasn’t the first difficult experience to introduce itself to the young Bittinger’s life. His family’s home burned down when he was six years old, his parents dealt with drug addiction that forced the family to move numerous times throughout his childhood, and he had to move in with his grandmother, who he has lived with for the past five years. Even though it was the most distant memory, the high school senior still clearly remembers the house fire.
“I remember my brother waking me up and saying ‘the house is on fire, we’ve got to get out of here,’” he recalled. “We just got out of there. Everything was destroyed.”
Within a year of the fire, Bittinger would have his world shaken again. When Bittinger was still six years old, in 2008, his father would be sent to prison for the drug issues he dealt with, remaining incarcerated until 2015. His father’s departure from his life made growing up difficult for Bittinger. He lost his best friend, and one of his favorite people to play catch with.
Catch is one of Bittinger’s favorite memories. He remembered going outside most days after school and throwing a football around with his dad, his brother, David Bittinger, and his sister, Devon Etters.
With his father away, he would continue to play catch with his brother and sister, and continue to grow a passion for the game of football. When his father was released from prison, Kaden said he picked right up where he left off with him, spending time together and playing catch.
Unfortunately, his father would return to prison not long after he was released, remaining incarcerated until he was removed to get appropriate care in the hospital. He passed away under that care on Oct. 27, 2016.
After the death of his father, Kaden did his best to stay positive, but it wasn’t always easy. He would have days where he would look at old pictures and that would make him cry, but wouldn’t let anyone see how he upset he was. Instead, he channeled that emotion onto the football field, where he would form a second family.
Kaden’s touchdown on the day his father died marked a transition. He was moving into a new portion of his life. One where football would grow ever-prevalent because of the connection it formed between him and his father, and now, the connection it would form between him and his team.
Nagle, the Bald Eagle Area head football coach, makes sure all of his players, including Kaden, know how much they mean to him. Each one has access to the football staff at any time of day.
“Many kids get close to our coaches,” Nagle said. “They can call at any time. To me, that’s more important than the game of football. If, at midnight, Kaden needs to talk to somebody, he can call me.”
The family he created helps players like Bittinger have an outlet. For a student who has endured a roller coaster of a home life, Bald Eagle football has provided stability at every turn. For Bittinger, that became crucial when he lost his father.
“I just tried to stay positive,” he said. “I knew football was there and my teammates would always be there for me. We always work as a team, and as a family. They’re all nice and supportive, and helped me in every way they can.”
Now that he’s in his senior year, Bittinger is ready to make the most of his opportunity to play one final year with his football family.
“I just want to make it as far as we can together and have fun doing it,” he said. “We’re going to remember this for the rest of our lives.”
While this is the last year he’ll play with his Bald Eagle brethren, Bittinger wants to continue playing the game he loves at the next level. That should be no surprise, considering the impact it’s had on his life.
The high school senior can’t say enough about what football means to him, and how it has helped him.
“Football was always a constant in my life,” he said. “Me and my brother could just play catch anytime we wanted to get away from the situation at the house.”
Once he started having success in football, it became even more important to him, as a way to connect with the memory of his father.
“I just always focus on working hard and making my dad proud,” he said.
Bittinger has used football to form connections that will last a lifetime. Because of football he will always have Nagle and his coaching staff backing him up.
Because of football he will always have his teammates to lift him up when he needs it.
And because of football he will always have a lasting memory of his father, his best friend, in the yard, sharing what they both loved.