In his last game, Johnie Kirton was a hero in the sport he loved. Kirton scored three touchdowns -- including the game-winner in overtime -- for the SaberCats in an 84-77 victory over Chicago at HP Pavilion.
Two days later, on Monday, Kirton was found dead in a Santa Clara hotel room, leaving his Arena Football League teammates shocked and searching for answers.
"We're just stunned," Mark Grieb, the team's quarterback, said Tuesday. "One minute you're playing with a guy and then the next you hear that this has happened. He was such a good guy who really fit in well with the team."
Few details are known, including the cause of death. But Santa Clara police Capt. Phil Cooke said there was no indication that any crime had occurred in connection with the case.
Kirton, 26, was the father of a 2-year-old daughter living in Arizona.
A native of Everett, Wash., who captained the Washington Huskies football team his senior year, Kirton had just joined the SaberCats. The team acquired the 6-foot-3, 290-pound fullback May 9 in a trade with the Arizona Rattlers.
He made an immediate impact on the field, scoring five touchdowns in two games for the SaberCats, whose 8-3 record is tied for the league's best.
But football was the last thing on anyone's mind Tuesday.
"He was such a great kid, and in the short time he was in San Jose he was such a valued member of our organization's family," said team co-owner and coach Darren Arbet in a statement. "Johnie was a great team guy and hard-nosed player, and he will be sorely missed."
His high school coach said Kirton's gifts were not limited to sports.
"Beyond being a phenomenal athlete, he was a beloved kid here," Jackson High's Joel Vincent told The Seattle Times. "He had a genuinely good heart and was one of those kids that you couldn't peg into a particular group at school because one minute he'd be mixing with the rest of the athletes and you would turn around and a few minutes later you'd see him at a table having a conversation with one of our special ed kids."
Grieb said a teammate discovered Kirton's body after a receiving a call from Kirton's girlfriend. She was concerned that she couldn't reach Kirton and asked the teammate to look in on him.
Cooke said Santa Clara police responded to a call at a hotel on El Camino Real shortly after 11 p.m. Monday where they found an unidentified man dead. Although the SaberCats announced Kirton's death Tuesday morning, Cooke and the Santa Clara County Coroner's Office would not officially confirm his identity as the investigation continues.
"It's a tough situation because he just came here two weeks ago," Grieb said. "But it's like one of my teammates said, you could just tell that he had a kind heart."
The Gatorade State Player of the Year in Washington in 2003, Kirton rushed for 2,675 yards as a high school senior. In college, he first played tight end and then defensive tackle. As a senior captain in 2008, he played in 12 games, including two starts.
After playing in Arizona as an AFL rookie in 2010, he spent the 2011 season with Chicago where he broke four team records, including rushing yards in a season. He had returned to the Rattlers this year, playing two games before being traded to the SaberCats.
"My love of the game is still there," Kirton told the Ahwatukee (Ariz.) Foothill News this month. "I'm playing it because I love it."
Kirton also had worked for the Kyrene School District in Tempe, Ariz., helping run an after-school program called the Kyrene Kids Club, where he taught football. He would give Rattlers' tickets to kids and their families.
"I just try to find ways to keep their attention and interest," Kirton told the Arizona newspaper. He grew up the oldest in a large family so, "I was a natural leader just because the other kids looked up to me. That is how I will relate to these kids."
Arbet canceled the team's practice Tuesday, but many team members still gathered at the SaberCats' training facility in Sunnyvale so they could mourn together. The Arizona team also did not practice so their players could grieve.
The SaberCats plan to honor Kirton by wearing helmet stickers bearing his number 37 at their game Saturday against the Milwaukee Mustangs.
Sean Maher of the Bay Area News Group contributed to this report. Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.