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Story of 49ers’ George Kittle’s bond with family of a fallen soldier, a free Super Bowl trip and a serendipitous run-in with Jerry Rice

San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) speaks during media availability at the Hyatt Regency Miami/James L. Knight Center in Miami, Fla. on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

Josie LaMar was crossing the street to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., when she saw a light-rail station out of the corner of her eye. This stop on the route was labeled “Old Ironsides”, so she squealed. It confused her son, Nicolas.

Her late husband, Martin “Mick” LaMar, used to work at an office on an Old Ironside Road in-between on one of his jobs in-between two tours of duty with the U.S. military. This felt like a sign, she said.

LaMar has seen a few signs of what she felt was evidence that her husband was still watching over them. He he died on a tour of duty with the Army back in 2011.

She and Nicolas were on their way into Levi’s, the 49ers stadium, to meet superstar tight end George Kittle. They all hit it off.

As part of the NFL’s “Salute to Service” program with the USAA and in conjunction with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), LaMar and her son were surprised by winning a free trip to Miami to the Super Bowl this year, as well as a chance to meet Kittle. It wasn’t something they applied for or even knew it was a possibility. She screamed upon receiving the phone call, and Nicolas didn’t even believe it was true at first.

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They’ll leave their Elk Grove, Calif., home and fly out to Miami on 5 a.m. on Friday.

First, though, came the meeting with Kittle, though, and it was a special interaction, she and Kittle said.

“It was awesome,” he told NJ Advance Media. “It was just a genuine, natural interaction. They’re an incredible family.”

They both expected the room to be filled with cameras and observers. A handshake and a “see ya later!” Instead, it was just Kittle, Lamar and her son.

“He made me feel comfortable,” LaMar said via phone. “I told him ‘hey I’m nervous’ he said ‘why are you nervous?’ It’s just little old me!”

They laughed, and then Kittle started to ask them about Mick, how they met, about their family, their affinity for the 49ers and how she became a fan because of him. Kittle introduced them to a few other 49ers players, too, and gifted them with a signed football from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. They received a tour of the stadium and hung out by the locker room.

They told him Mick’s story and how he died, and Kittle listened, intently.

“You could tell he was genuinely interested he wasn’t just asking to be nice,” she said. “He wanted to know about us. You can feel it when somebody is genuine … we were over the moon.”

Here’s that story: LaMar met her husband when he was working for an armored truck company, picking up and dropping off money from various places, including the office where she worked. Eventually, she asked him for his number. A few years later, she proposed to marry him. He said yes.

Right away, she learned something — he was a diehard 49ers fan, obsessed with Jerry Rice. Sunday was his day, at least at first. She knew this when they met during one offseason, and she learned that once Mick started talking about the 49ers reporting for OTAs and minicamp, obsessing over free agency and the NFL Draft.

“I knew that his heart was with football, and with the military,” she said. “So after we got married it wasn’t a surprise that he was watching and then it wasn’t a surprise when he decided to re-enlist. I knew where his heart was …

“When we first got married he told me: ‘By the way, come Sundays, you’re not gonna have a husband’,” LaMar continued, laughing, “because I’m gonna be watching football.”

Eventually, he taught her about football — at her request — and she became a diehard fan too.

LaMar first enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating high school in 1986, when he served in the first Gulf War. He re-enlisted with the Army in 2007 and became a sergeant. He died in 2011 when an Iraqi soldier — who was being trained by the Americans — opened fire.

The day he passed was his and Josie’s anniversary.

She waited for a phone call from her husband; instead she got one from a chaplain soldier, giving her the news. It was the day he was supposed to return home, but his deployment had been extended.

Losing Mick rocked her world. Nicolas was seven, their daughter Sophia was three months old.

After he died in Iraq, the family moved him back to California for his funeral, and then flew back to Dallas to finish Nicolas’ school year. This was the when the Super Bowl was being played at the Cowboys’ stadium, which LaMar didn’t realize was happening.

She was waiting at baggage claim when she saw a familiar face, arriving for the Super Bowl’s festivities.

“I told somebody: I think that’s Jerry Rice over there,” she said.

Nobody believed her.

Why would Jerry Rice be getting his own luggage?

She insisted it was him. It had to be.

So, LaMar approached the man and … she was right. She hugged Rice, told him about her husband — Rice was his favorite player, by far — and took a photo.

This was another moment, LaMar felt. Another sign from Mick.

“That was the greatest moment because I thought, you know, my husband was a big Jerry Rice fan, so to meet him that weekend when we were flying home and burying him,” she said. “It was like, how could you not be a 49ers fan after that happens? He had love for the team, and then you meet Jerry Rice?”

The next sign came more recently, when LaMar received the phone call from TAPS that she and Nicolas won the trip to Miami.

TAPS — in conjunction with the USAA — gifts the family of a fallen soldier each year with Super Bowl trips in association with a team. Last year, the chosen family went to the game in Atlanta accompanied by Falcons coach Dan Quinn.

This year was unique, though, with the 49ers actually making it to the championship game. It helped that the LaMar family were diehard 49ers fans, too.

“For Josie and her family go to see the 49ers play in the Super Bowl, she knows that her husband is going to be there with her in spirit, cheering them on,” said Jessica Harper, the sports and entertainment director of operations for TAPS. “He’s not there but it’s also a new memory they can make that Nick will have with his dad, this memory of attending the Super Bowl in his honor.

“It’s something to make sure we’re not forgetting our fallen heroes, that their sacrifice hasn’t been forgotten, but also that (the LaMar family) can make new memories together that are joyful.”

Plus, Kittle has become a staunch supporter of the organization, choosing TAPS to display on his footwear for the NFL’s “My Cause My Cleats” initiative in December. He was put onto TAPS at the Pro Bowl last year when he interacted with the families of 20 fallen soldiers.

“At the end of the day we’re just normal people,” Kittle said, “and they look up to us and the fact that we can hang out with them for an hour and a half and just spend some time with them and their kids is just a special moment.”

At the end of their Levi’s interaction, LaMar presented Kittle with a photo button with a picture of Mick on it. Kittle brought it with him to Miami.

Two years after he passed, the 49ers made it to the Super Bowl and lost to the Ravens.

Now the 49ers are back, and Josie and Nicolas LaMar will be there too.

“He’s gonna be with us all the time,” she said. “I’m always looking for signs from him. He’s the one that sent me that little sign of Jerry Rice. I’m always looking for signs to know: Ok, he’s with us. He’s with us. It just makes us feel happier that he’s still with us … during the game, I’m going to be looking for my signs.”

And if the 49ers win on Sunday?

“That means,” she said, “he’s pulling some strings up there.”

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© 2020 NJ Advance Media Group