By Kyle Emanuel & Joe Kerlin
Photos by Mike Nowak, Los Angeles Chargers
Kyle Emanuel never envisioned himself playing in the National Football League. In fact, an aspiration to play in the National Basketball Association is what consumed the small-town, Schuyler, Nebraska, native.
Kyle Emanuel was a fifth-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Chargers in 2015. He’s played defensive end and outside and inside linebacker through his first two seasons in the NFL.
Thankfully, for the Bison and Emanuel, his football talent ascended him from an overlooked Division I prospect to a fifth-round NFL draft pick in 2015. In his own words, here’s how he made the leap to the League.
1. YOU NEVER KNOW WHO IS WATCHING
I played just about everything growing up. From baseball in the summer to basketball and wrestling in the winter, if there was competition involved, I was there for it.
As it says in the intro, my first love was basketball. That changed my sophomore year of high school football.
It was my first game at running back for the varsity Schuyler Central High School team. I ran for around 200 yards and scored a couple times. Ironically, one of my former teammates on the Chargers, Trevor Robinson, was playing for Elkhorn High School that night. A couple Notre Dame football scouts were there watching him.
After the game, those scouts went up to my coach and told him they were impressed with my performance. From then on, I knew football was something I could pursue in college.
2. NEBRASKA DIDN’T REALLY WANT ME
Growing up and living in Nebraska, naturally, becoming a Cornhusker was the goal. I had a ton of friends go to school at Nebraska and my dad graduated from there.
I tried my hardest to get noticed by Nebraska in high school and even attended a couple of their camps. They didn’t turn their attention to me until my senior year.
Nebraska asked me to walk on. I guess they thought I would be a prototypical small-town Nebraska non-scholarship kid, who would play on the practice squad for a few years hoping for his “Rudy” moment. Then North Dakota State offered me a full-ride.
3. MY REDSHIRT YEAR WAS NECESSARY
I can’t tell you how important that redshirt year at NDSU was for me. It gave me a chance to gain a sense of my surroundings, set my base in Fargo and it gave me time to get bigger, faster and stronger. It was a true blessing in disguise.
That freshmen class in 2010 was special. Esley Thorton, Adam Keller, Christian Dudzik, Carlton Littlejohn, Travis Beck, Mike Hardie, Trevor Gebhart and I all sat out in 2010. We lived together, worked out together, ate together—we all became best friends. That went a long way in helping us develop into four-time FCS Champs.
4. AVOID DISTRACTIONS BY COMPETING IN EVERY ASPECT OF LIFE
I didn’t love school by any means. I treated school and grades as a competition just like I did trying to get better in the weight room or trying to be the best football player I could. I would get upset with myself if I didn’t do well on a test or essay. I treated school just like I did football, as a competition.
I also surrounded myself with great people to ensure I stayed focused. People like my teammates who were going through the same struggles as me whether it was football or school-related.
I got involved with Blue Key National Honor Society later in college. My roommate and our kicker Adam Keller piqued my interest and that’s where I found more people like my teammates— students who were driven not only academically, but with various extracurricular activities, too.
5. RESPECT YOUR OPPONENT, CREDIT YOUR TEAMMATES
We experienced a lot of success while I was at NDSU, and with the accomplishments came attention.
Craig Bohl, who was my head coach for the first four years of my Bison career, really simplified for us how to conduct ourselves in front of the media.
He said, “Every time you talk to the media, just respect your opponent and give credit to your teammates.” And that’s the way I’ve molded how I talk to the media since college.
I would also add staying humble, because that goes along with giving credit to your teammates.
It’s never about you. You don’t win a championship. The team wins championships.
6. ADAPTING TO CHANGES IN THE LOCKER ROOM
I went through a significant coaching shake-up before my senior year at NDSU. Coach Bohl left with a bunch of his staff, including my defensive ends coach A.J. Cooper. When Chris Klieman became the coach the following season, he brought in a new face to the program, Jamar Cain.
It’s important to be open to new ideas with a new coach. A lot of coaches will say the same thing but in a different way. Although, some coaches have a different technique that they like and you have to adapt to their style of play.
When Cain arrived, he taught a lot of new techniques that the seniors weren’t used to. But we adapted. I ended up with 19.5 sacks my senior season, so something must have worked.
7. SELF-MOTIVATION IS WHAT DROVE ME
Dreams of playing in the NFL never got me out of bed at 5:30 a.m., in the middle of March to go to spring practices. My curiosity did.
I always wanted to know how good at football I could become. From that 200-yard rushing game in high school to sacking Matthew Stafford in my first game in the NFL, the competitiveness with myself nudged me to become the best football player I could be.
Of course, winning the last game of the season in college helped. But, we were taught to never talk about championships. In fact, our strength and conditioning coordinator Jim Kramer banned championship apparel from his weight room.
Winning championships was always in the back of your head. There was a voice telling you anything less than raising that trophy in January was a failure.
It was that mindset that drove my teammates and I forward every year at NDSU.
8. FOOTBALL STARTED BEING MY JOB IN COLLEGE
I was on scholarship at North Dakota State to play football. I never forgot that. I was a five-time Missouri Valley Honor Roll student and a CoSIDA Academic All-America® member, but my number one priority was playing ball.
Playing this game consumed my life in college. Sacrifices are necessary when you’re a champion, and committing myself to the football grind was second nature.
9. ONE FINAL TIP: DARE TO BE DIFFERENT
Like I said earlier, playing in the NFL was never my ultimate goal. But what I did do was make the most of my opportunities. To do this, I had to be different. I was doing things differently than many of my peers. Whether it was in school, on the field or what I was doing away from the game, I wasn’t one to follow the crowd or do what was perceived to be as “cool” by my friends and classmates.
I strayed away from the popular path. Instead of high-tailing my way out of practice after coach blew the final whistle, I wanted to stay. Greatness was in reach, and the only way I could feel it was by doing a little extra.
This is what I tell young athletes all the time. Are you willing to be different? Because that’s what’s going to separate you and make you a better player than your peers.
- 2014 Buck Buchanan Award Winner
- 2014 AFCA FCS All-America First Team
- 2014 Associated Press All-America First Team
- 2014 Sports Network All-America First Team
- 2014 FCS Athletic Directors Association
- Defensive Player of the Year
- 2014 All-MVFC First Team
- 2013 All-MVFC Second Team
- 2012 All-MVFC Honorable Mention
- 35.5 Career Sacks
- 58.5 Career Tackles for Loss
LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL
I think about this a lot. Whenever I’m around friends and family, the question always comes up and my answer has always been the same: I don’t know yet, but I’m excited for whatever it is.
I think there’s so much to explore and so many opportunities out there, so I don’t know if I can sit here and say I absolutely want to do one thing. I’ve met a lot of great people through my time in Fargo, through my time so far in the NFL.
With that said, I have two more years on this contract. I’m in Los Angeles right now getting ready for the 2017 season and acclimating myself to our new coaching staff.
My entire life is in front of me and I can’t wait for what’s next. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy my NFL Life.