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Setbacks and comebacks: College football through the lens of 8th year senior Kyle Pugh

Three season-ending injuries, a year hampered by COVID, and two MAC titles later, Kyle Pugh begins one last journey at NIU.

MAC Championship - Buffalo v Northern Illinois Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The melodies of Fetty Wap music blare from apartments adjacent to a college campus. The sidewalks visible from those apartment balconies are littered with hoverboards. Students return in droves, noses entrenched in their phones on popular apps such as Vine and YikYak.

This is the scene on many college campuses across the United States in August 2015, including the one at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, a few hours away from Chicago.

Inside a nearby practice facility in DeKalb, the Northern Illinois Huskies shape up for the upcoming season in hopes of defending their 2014 MAC title. Elsewhere in the sport, a new era swings into full session as the much-anticipated College Football Playoff begins its second season of existence. At this time, only Ohio State, Oregon, Alabama, and Florida State can claim appearances in the heralded event on their résumés.

One of the faces situated at this Northern Illinois practice is 18-year old Chicago area native linebacker Kyle Pugh, who is preparing to take a redshirt for his true freshman season.

Seven years later, the surrounding scene and culture may have changed, but a 25-year old Pugh pulls up to the same fall camp once again in DeKalb. Instead of holding redshirt status, he is the most seasoned member of the roster — including the coaching staff.

Kyle Pugh is an eighth-year senior.

As the coaching staff experienced a complete overhaul, and as the successive senior classes graduated, and as the finals weeks transpired each semester, Pugh’s student ID never expired and his mindset never wavered. He’s focused on winning a MAC championship at Northern Illinois.

Pugh’s time at Northern Illinois exceeds that of the longest-tenured player on eight NFL teams, including his hometown Chicago Bears. How did Pugh get to this uncharted territory of eight years at a single university? He was granted a redshirt in 2015, back when redshirts were required to sit out the entire season. He also received an unprecedented redshirt — along with every other college football player — for the 2020 pandemic-stricken season in which Northern Illinois played six games.

Northwestern v Iowa
Kyle Pugh records a tackle on Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson in 2018. Hockenson prepares to enter his fourth season with the Detroit Lions this fall.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

But with the redshirts combined horrific injury luck.

The inside linebacker suffered an onslaught of injuries, seemingly striking at the commencement of every season. Four games into 2017, Pugh suffered a ruptured bicep tendon to derail his first season as a starter. Two games into 2019, a shoulder injury axed another promising campaign. And one game in 2021, a knee injury prematurely concluded what could have been a storybook senior season.

“It definitely takes time to process each injury and know the battle back will be different each time,” Pugh said. “I have to allow myself to feel what’s going on and have the self dialogue to understand that it is what it is, it happens, and I can either quit or get up and battle back. I still haven’t come to an injury that I can’t come back from.”

Facing three season-ending injuries in a college career would cause a litany of players to hang up the pads and cleats forever. But Pugh is wired differently. Fascinated by the process of overcoming obstacles, he approached each setback with a levelheaded mindset and persevered. Feeling healthy entering his eighth year, Pugh can proudly state that he conquered each roadblock thrown in his direction.

“I find myself falling in love with the process and details of it all,” Pugh said. “I like to push myself beyond my limits and each time I have to restart or come back from injury, I find out what I’m really made of. It tests my character every time. I get to start with the baseline — day one after surgery — and I get to see myself progress. I set obstacles and then achieve them, and then set new obstacles and achieve those as well.”

When Pugh has been able to play, he’s been sensational. This was evident from his first-ever start at inside linebacker in 2017, when he racked up a career-high 17 tackles to go along with an interception in a Friday night opener against Boston College. Although an injury hampered his progress that year, he returned even stronger in 2018 with a career-high 106 tackles. Pugh attained All-MAC honors and led a defensive-minded Huskies squad to a MAC championship that season.

Two years later, to add to those achievements, Pugh was showered with All-MAC honors in the abbreviated 2020 season after registering 36 tackles and serving as the team lead in tackles for loss. To this day, Pugh has qualified for all-conference designation in the both of the two years he remained fully healthy since first cracking the starting lineup in 2017.

Northern Illinois is unquestionably the most decorated team in the MAC since 2010. The Huskies hold five conference titles to their name since the aforementioned season, and Pugh was a member of the roster for two of those championships. Northern Illinois also qualified for the 2015 MAC Championship Game in Detroit during his initial redshirt season, but despite all this success, the team witnessed moments of hardship during Pugh’s elongated stay in DeKalb.

In 2019, longtime head coach Rod Carey — who recruited Pugh in 2014 — departed to Temple and was replaced with Baltimore Ravens running backs coach and university alumnus Thomas Hammock. But the rebuilding effort under Hammock quickly struck rock bottom. After missing out on bowl eligibility in 2019, Northern Illinois did not win a single one of its six contests in 2020 — ensuring its first winless season since 1997.

“I was in a leadership role with such a young team but I did the most growing in that season,” Pugh said. “I was a poor leader in 2020 and I take that season personally because I think we would have got more wins if the leadership was better on my end. It was a learning lesson. I grew from it. I’ve worked with Coach Hammock and his staff on how to be an efficient leader, and I grew as a man in that time.”

Through all the adversity and through the relaxation of transfer and redshirt rules, Pugh stuck it out as a Huskie. His rationale for remaining in DeKalb was the belief in the new head coach and the culture he was constructing.

“Coach Hammock — his culture, the way that he develops men, and his transparency from top to bottom in his program,” Pugh said on his reason for remaining at Northern Illinois, despite the rise of the transfer portal. “I don’t see myself chasing anything bigger and better than that. It doesn’t get better than what he’s building here, and I’m just blessed to be a part of it.”

Pugh’s trust in the program paid off. In 2021, Northern Illinois completed one of the most unlikely turnarounds in college football by transforming a winless record into a MAC championship. While injuries prevented Pugh from participating in the majority of the Huskies’ bounce-back season, he played an integral leadership role in elevating the program back to Detroit for the third time since he joined the roster in 2015.

“It was a surprise to everybody outside of the program,” Pugh said. “But anybody who was involved in the 2020 season, if you watched that film, we’re in every one of those games with a very, very young team. It was just simmering at that point. When Coach Hammock got his guys settled in and got his culture established, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone in the building what was gonna happen in a year or two.”

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Brigham Young
Kyle Pugh tackles BYU quarterback Zach Wilson during a 7-6 win in 2018. Pugh attained Second Team All-MAC honors that season while starting in the MAC Championship Game.
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

But watching a MAC championship from the sidelines was not the closure Pugh needed to conclude his time at Northern Illinois. He evaluated his personal situation in the offseason, and after discussing a potential return with Hammock, the longtime linebacker decided to capitalize on an invaluable opportunity to suit up in red and black.

“There are no guarantees when it comes to football,” Pugh said. “I decided that I wasn’t done with football in my heart and my body wasn’t done with it so I took the guaranteed year — I had one more left — so I took the opportunity to rest the best way I could. Coach Hammock made it known for me that there was a spot for me if I wanted to come back. I stuck with the guarantee and allowed myself an opportunity to play the sport that I love one more time.”

Throughout Pugh’s college career, he witnessed the landscape of the sport completely alter. In addition to ongoing conference realignment, his time as a student-athlete coincided with seven of the eight College Football Playoffs held to date, the introduction of a redshirt rule which permitted players to participate in up to four games, and the creation of the transfer portal. The sport transformed in unfathomable fashion since Pugh first arrived in DeKalb, and the effects of the changes have been observed by the program veteran.

“The biggest change is the amount of new faces that come and go,” Pugh said. “When I started, it was more common for you to start with the group of guys and finish with the group of guys. As the times have changed, you start with the group of guys in the offseason and when the season hits, you have a new group of guys. The biggest change is the flexibility of the roster.”

Remaining at a single college for eight years has its benefits outside of the gridiron too. Pugh has watched a plethora of degrees stack up while spending double the amount of time in the classroom compared to most student-athletes. Pugh first received an undergraduate degree in kinesiology and followed it up with a master’s degree in sports management. This December, he is on track to attain a second master’s in sports psychology.

While attaining a second master’s is one of Pugh’s December objectives, another goal involves completing his fourth trip to Detroit in eight years. When contemplating on how he envisions the culmination of spending nearly a decade in college, Pugh didn’t hesitate.

“To go out a champion.”

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