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Kitna & Palmer close friends despite differences

CINCINNATI (AP) _ Jon Kitna's closest friend on the Bengals couldn't be more different.

Carson Palmer is younger, bigger and richer, blessed with a strong arm and California cool. He won the Heisman Trophy and was a No. 1 draft pick; Kitna entered the league as an undrafted practice squad quarterback, relying on savvy and gumption to gain a toehold in the NFL.

They play the same position, a potentially uncomfortable arrangement. For one to play, the other has to get hurt.

An odd pairing? Absolutely. And it has evolved into an uncommon friendship that came into focus in the past week when Palmer got hurt and Kitna got his job.

Kitna was visibly disappointed when Palmer sprained his left knee in a 35-28 loss to New England. Palmer was visibly happy that his mentor got to play again. They commiserated and encouraged.

That's what friends do.

It's hard for me to have a lot of close friends because I'm at a different stage in life than most of the people I play with,'' said Kitna, 32.But he's probably my best friend on the team, to be honest, somebody that I've spent a lot of time with and enjoy spending time with.''

It's a relationship that neither anticipated.

The Bengals drafted Palmer out of Southern California with the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, a signal to Kitna that his days in Cincinnati were limited. Kitna responded with the best season of his career, winning the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award. He did it while tutoring the youngster who would soon replace him.

It was an uncommon display of unselfishness.

It's just amazing,'' coach Marvin Lewis said.He has great faith. I think that's a lot of his inner strength.

``Whether he plays another snap or another 10 years, he feels like he's been lucky. He enjoys every moment of it. I do think he stands alone as far as being at the top of that. He's a great role model.''

His integrity was tested last March, when Lewis decided it was time for Palmer to take over. Kitna knew it was coming, but it was still tough to take. The Bengals offered to trade him to a team that would give him a chance to compete for a starting job, but Kitna chose to stay on as Palmer's backup and teacher.

There's a lot of teams I think I could start for, but I don't think that would be the best thing,'' Kitna said.I love it here, my family loves it here. We are entrenched in this community. To me, there's a lot more involved than just playing football. Being a starter somewhere may not always be the best thing for my family.''

So he accepted the demotion, made sure his teammates accepted it, too, and went about training his replacement. Along the way, a friendship formed.

Kitna does a lot more than teach Palmer how to handle defenses. He acts as a go-between on the sideline, talking to receivers about a just-completed series so he can give the young quarterbacks some insight without overwhelming him.

He helps impart that knowledge to Carson day-in and day-out as they go through meetings and sit at their locker together,'' Lewis said.I think that's been very, very helpful.''

During their time together, they learned they had one important thing in common that drew them close.

It's our competitiveness,'' said Palmer, who claims to be the best pool player on the team.We play golf, we play pool, cards, whatever it may be. For some reason, we just get along.

``I've already swung at him or tried to pop him, and he'd do the same thing to me. When we both get going at whatever sport it may be, we just have something where we don't want to lose. We love beating each other and hate losing to each other. Of course, we have a lot of the same interests, playing the same position, but I think it's our competitiveness that makes us good friends.''

Kitna is expected to start Sunday against the Buffalo Bills at Paul Brown Stadium, giving Palmer another week to let his knee heal. Palmer will be on the sideline, trying to help Kitna any way he can.

He's been the guy that I've been looking up to,'' Palmer said.And now that I have his job, I'm going to try to do it to the best of my ability, the way he did it when I was playing.''

Kitna is excited about the chance to play, but looks forward to becoming the backup again once Palmer's knee heals. It's the role where he's most comfortable right now.

``This has been probably my most enjoyable year in nine years in the NFL, sitting back and watching Carson grow into the quarterback he's been at the end of the season,'' Kitna said.

He couldn't have done it alone.

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