When Syd Kitson played professional football, only the glamor boys made the big bucks. The hulking 285-pound offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers rarely expected more than a journeyman's payday.
"I was a third-round pick who signed for $50,000 — and the government took half of it," Kitson, 50, says.
The jock's blond mane that people used to compare to Robert Redford's is now the receding hairline of a middle-aged businessman. Packers jersey No. 64 has been mothballed in favor of a business suit.
Kitson, an overachiever respected on and off the field, is a Florida developer with an electrifying project.
Babcock Ranch, near one of the nation's most notoriously depressed real estate markets, would be a city of nearly 20,000 homes powered entirely by solar energy. Nothing like it exists in the United States, possibly the world.
Kitson and his partners bought the 90,000-acre Babcock Ranch in 2006 for a price that's never been disclosed. They turned around and sold 73,000 acres to the state for $350 million. The resulting nature preserve harbors Florida panthers and Indian mounds. The remaining acreage northeast of Fort Myers will support residential and commercial development.
It was Kitson, the 6-foot-5 economics major from Wake Forest University, who provided the sinew that held the deals together. Kitson, best known for years as a golf course owner and developer, has immersed himself in lean-and-green living, yet another change of direction for an ex-jock with a gimpy shoulder who's been forced to be flexible.
Tom Hoban, who manages much of the real estate for Kitson's Palm Beach development company, Kitson and Partners, described his boss' reputation as "someone with integrity, someone you trust and someone who could write a big check." The two-step deal included negotiations with the Babcock family, then face time with a skeptical Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Syd told Gov. Bush, 'We're not your stereotypically greedy bad boy developer,' " Hoban said. "Gov. Bush, to his credit, really got behind it."
Greed rarely entered the equation during Kitson's playing days. Modestly talented pro football players can pull down $1 million a year these days, but Kitson never made more than $100,000 annually in a career that spanned the early 1980s.
Kitson grew up in northern New Jersey, the son of a metallurgist who made coatings for aircraft engines. Standing 6 feet 4 by the eighth grade, Kitson devoted himself to football, despite his slight 150-pound frame. He filled out by eating four to five meals a day and landed on the squad at Wake Forest University as a tight end.
"Then I ate myself right into the offensive line," Kitson said.
The Packers drafted Kitson as an offensive guard in 1980. He was taken in the third round with the 61st pick.
"Syd was not an overly gifted-type player — kind of a try-hard guy, a solid guy. More than anything he was a decent human being and people liked being around him," said Larry McCarren, who played center for the Packers and roomed with Kitson.
Kitson assumed he'd play 10 years in the NFL. His body begged to differ. In a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders in 1982, linebacker Matt Millen cracked Kitson's shoulder. Though he lingered in the league two more years, Kitson's days were numbered. Cut in 1984 after a season with the Dallas Cowboys, Kitson was an oversized 20-something with "very little experience and very few skills."
"Everyone in your class is six years ahead of you. It's like you're just coming out of college," he said. "In the business world, you don't get any benefit from playing football."
McCarren, one of the lucky few who stayed in Green Bay and continued to work in sports as a Packers radio commentator, agrees.
"In the era we played, retirement was a misnomer. You never made enough money. You were changing careers, that's what you were doing," McCarren said.
Kitson returned to New Jersey, started a family, worked construction, landscaped, got his real estate license. Eager to learn, he took a job for no pay at one real estate company. By the mid 1990s he had established a specialty that segued with sports: buying, managing and salvaging troubled golf courses, first in New Jersey, then in Florida. He settled in Florida full time in 2000.
It was investing in golf courses, specifically Ibis Golf & Country Club in West Palm Beach, that introduced Kitson to the notion of swamp as selling point. He was appointed to the board of the Loxahatchee Wildlife Preserve, a wooded extension of the Everglades that surrounds Ibis.
Kitson executive Hoban met him in 1999 while at Morgan Stanley. The New York investment house became a 50-50 partner on Kitson's deals, including Babcock.
"We at Morgan Stanley took choosing partners seriously. Most developers left our offices empty-handed," Hoban said. "When things go bad — and inevitably things do go bad — having a good partner either makes or breaks a deal."
Now he's embarked on the riskiest venture of his career: building a new city in a depressed state known for its real estate flops. A famous fizzle close to home was Oldsmar, conceived by auto pioneer Ransom Olds in the early 20th century as a new town populated by retired Detroit auto workers. It remained a semirural backwater for decades.
The solar energy innovation, a partnership with Florida Power & Light, is the game-changer Kitson and his partners are counting on to break Florida's run of bad luck. Shunning the plain-vanilla, cookie-cutter, terra-cotta roof development with a golf course, Kitson and Partners is preaching self-sufficiency, walkability and a return to nature.
"For those who think Florida is finished, I'd tell those people they're 100 percent wrong," Kitson said. "People will migrate to Florida as they always have. I think it's going to be better and stronger."
Spoken like an athlete confident his legs — and luck — will hold up.