FARGO — One of the all-time greatest football players to wear a North Dakota State football uniform is keeping his NFL career about as short as his college career. After four seasons, linebacker Kyle Emanuel of the Los Angeles Chargers is walking away from the game.
All it took was an extensive look at a few MRIs since the end of last season. Emanuel has had a couple of concussions and that played a factor, he said. He went back and forth but when he put all of the injuries together on one mental page, his decision was made.
"I started to look at some of those things and they were more serious than maybe you thought," Emanuel said. "I have a lot of life to live and I want to have an active lifestyle so the X factor for me was my long-term health."
The 27-year-old Emanuel said he's not sure what's next for him. He was an academic All-American at NDSU in addition to winning the Buck Buchanan Award his senior year at NDSU in 2014, which goes to the best defensive player in Division I FCS football. He played on four FCS national championship teams and finished his career sixth all-time in the FCS in quarterback sacks with 35.5.
Moreover, Emanuel played in 61 career college games, about a full season more than most college players. So did former Bison safety Christian Dudzik, who wasn't sure when asked if that many games as a Bison contributed to a shorter NFL career.
"Good question, it's hard to say," Dudzik said. "It's hard to know because on any given play you can have a non-contact injury like blowing out a knee."
Emanuel, however, thinks it could have shortened his NFL career. He likes to say he played nine years of competitive football, no matter what the level.
"And you know what kind of style of football we played," he said of NDSU. "It wasn't easy on the body. Having said that, I wouldn't trade those years for anything."
Emanuel announced his retirement on his personal Twitter account Thursday morning. It was immediately met with fond reactions from former teammates, coaches and fans. He was called a good teammate but a better person on more than one occasion.
True to his college allegiance, Emanuel finished his goodbye tweet with "Go Bison."
Kyle congrats my guy. Great player better teammate. Enjoy retirement! https://t.co/KO30n3FRFm— Marcus Williams (@TheRealMarcWill) April 4, 2019
"I think that tells you how much he bleeds green and gold and how important his experience was here," said NDSU defensive line coach Nick Goeser, who coached Emanuel his entire five years at NDSU.
Goeser admits to wondering over the last few years how long Emanuel would play in the NFL. He cites Emanuel's cross-section of interests that go well beyond football.
"He always wanted to make sure his body was good and wanted to make sure he could live the rest of his life and enjoy the rest of his life," Goeser said. "Maybe I'm a little surprised, but I understand the other side of it, too."
Still, for Emanuel to stay relatively healthy despite 61 college games and 63 more in the NFL is a tribute to how Emanuel took care of himself. And, as Dudzik said, he did it at a position that creates contact on almost every play.
What stands out more than anything, Dudzik said, was Emanuel's work ethic and leadership.
"He had the best motor I've ever been around," Dudzik said. "I told him it's a little bit of talent and 10 times the effort and hustle. Honestly, his style of play and the way he ran to the ball was an inspiration to me. What I saw on film is what I wanted to look like even though he was a D-end."
Goeser said he still shows video clips of Emanuel's hustle to his current players. There are plays like Emanuel making a tackle about 40 to 50 yards downfield against South Dakota State and Iowa State. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Emanuel came to NDSU as a linebacker, but was switched to defensive end before his redshirt freshman season.
With the Chargers, he made a quick adjustment back to linebacker, including a memorable fumble recovery for a touchdown last season.
"That's not an easy transition," Goeser said, "but it shows the kind of ability that kid had and that knowledge and ability to learn and understand things. That's what made him special."
Congrats on a hell of a career brotha!! Always been a role model and I guy I’ve looked up to for doing it the right way. Enjoy retirement!! https://t.co/z8hrIUFr01— Nick DeLuca (@N_DeLuca49) April 4, 2019
Emanuel finished his career with 133 tackles with 11 for lost yards. In college, he had 234 tackles, one memorable interception against Missouri State where he turned into a fullback and a very memorable Colten Heagle blocked field goal that Emanuel took 59 yards to the 5-yard line in the 2013 FCS national title game that broke open a tied game in a 35-7 win over Towson.
"It's been an incredible journey, I can't begin to describe the memories, the moments and the adventures I've been able to go on," Emanuel said. "It's been a lot of good. It wasn't an easy road, that's for sure, but it was an amazing ride and it's hard to say it's over but it's time to move on."
Emanuel played out his four-year rookie contract valued at $2.5 million and had drawn interest from other teams. He said the Chargers offered him something. The Los Angeles Raiders were interested and he took a visit to the Detroit Lions and really liked where that franchise was headed.
It was tempting to find some excuse to return. He opted to say no.
"It was easily the hardest decision I've ever made, walking away from all you've known and the biggest part of your life for the last nine years," Emanuel said.
Dudzik, from Omaha, Neb., said he got a clue recently that Emanuel was thinking of other options when he spoke with Emanuel's mother. "I'm not surprised today, but I was hoping his career would continue," Dudzik said.