On Saturday, the Bethel University Royals will take on the No. 4 team in the nation, the Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks. Bethel has reached this point because of a spirit dedicated to success and love, and no one brings greater soul to the team than Kyle Kilgore.
Introducing Bethel University Defensive End Kyle Kilgore
There are a lot of football programs around the country that have developed their own unique culture. Notre Dame and Michigan have been built on the legacies of men like the Gipper, Lou Holtz, Ara Parseghian, Bo Schembechler, and Fielding Yost. Men like Bear Bryant and Nick Saban have turned Alabama into the winningest football program in Division-I history and Earl Blaik not only turned Army into a powerhouse football program in the 40s, but also helped turn teenage boys into great leaders of men.
The building of great programs is not limited to the upper level of college sports. John Gagliardi turned St. John’s into arguably the greatest Division-III program ever, helping to lead two generations of men to a greater level of maturity.
While there are colleges and universities where a mystique has developed, there is truly no place like Bethel University in Arden Hills, MN. The Christian university has returned to the playoffs after a four year hiatus, but the success on the field is only a small piece of what makes this place special.
There is truly a unique spirit about the Bethel Royals football program that is far more about love for one another than hatred of any opponent on any given Saturday. That spirit permeates across the campus and has helped to return the Royals to an elite position in college football this season.
That is not an easy culture to develop. Not only does it have to succeed long-term, but it has to be reinvented each and every year. It takes a lot of soul to create a spirit like this – the soul of a champion. At Bethel University, it takes Kyle Kilgore.
The Verdict Is In
There is no higher praise a player can receive than when their opponent recognizes how good they are. If you had listened to the play-by-play guys for Simpson, Carleton, St. Olaf, Hamline, Augsburg, and North Central, you quickly gained a sense of how impressed the coaching staffs, players, and media members have been with the play of Kyle Kilgore this season.
On any given Saturday, you will hear words like “relentless,” “passionate,” “spectacular,” and “dominant.” All of those accolades have been well earned as the senior seemingly has been in on every tackle the defense makes this year.
Of course, to many, this is not a surprise at all. Growing up in a house where football was as much a part of the culture as going to church, Kyle had the ultimate inspiration to excel on the gridiron.
“I’ve been around football for as long as I can remember. My dad is a high school football coach and my older brother has played his whole life and is now a coach. I couldn’t wait to start playing tackle football in third grade and have been loving it ever since!”
Kyle excelled in the sport he loved. He had been a quarterback early on, but an injury his sophomore season, coupled with the fact that future University of Minnesota QB Seth Green was ahead of him, led the Bethel star to consider a position change. That proved to be a wise decision.
Kyle starred on the defensive side of the ball, being named one of the captains of the East Ridge High School (Cottage Grove, MN) football team. He would be named to the All-Conference team in his junior season and was named to the Minnesota All-Star team in his senior year.
How easily Kyle Kilgore transitioned to his new position was a testament to his dedication to the sport he loved. He didn’t just take on a new position, but embraced the challenge of becoming a star at defensive end much as he embraces the challenge of battling in the trenches every Saturday.
That he thrived on defensive was a testament to his commitment and upbringing, but it should have been no surprise that he would make every down like it was his last. Twice Kyle battled illnesses that nearly took his life, but never did he surrender to what many feared would be the inevitable.
Kyle was going to beat his condition much as he tosses aside an attempted double-team, but he was not alone in this fight. With the love of his family and the support of his friends, Kyle grew strong and has prospered ever since.
Those instances had a profound impact on the senior, as they not only gave him a more sobering perspective on life, but they have shown him that football is not really about wins and losses or Xs and Os. It is truly about the men he goes to war with every Saturday. It is about his brothers.
“The best part about football is the fellowship that comes with it. Some of the best friends I’ve ever had have been made through the sport. Being surrounded by people that are tough suckers, who love me well and challenge me to become a better man is incredible. Having the opportunity to walk alongside and attack life with 80+ other dudes in your corner is special.”
Brotherhood is a term you hear players use a lot, and it is an appropriate term. There is a deep bond that develops when you sweat and bleed with the same guys for three or four months each year, but too often it is said by players as something touted with not as much passion to it. Not true in the case of Kyle Kilgore.
“It’s how are we able to sacrifice for each other and for the team. It’s how we love each other – sometimes with a hug, sometimes with a kick in the rear when we’re out of line, holding one another accountable. It’s the blood, sweat and tears we share in the off-season. It’s much more than that. You’d have to be a part of it to truly understand it!”
Where Brotherhood Blossoms
Bethel University Head Football Coach Steve Johnson is fond of saying that while the school is an incredible place to grow as a person, Bethel is not for everyone. It takes a special kind of student who not only loves the Lord, but who also loves the over 6,500 other men and women who have decided to make the school their academic home.
It only seemed natural that Kyle Kilgore would fit into the Bethel community. Not only as a football player, but simply as a man who loved God.
“The soil is incredibly rich at Bethel. When I was going through the recruiting process, it quickly became clear that Bethel was a program that cared deeply about winning, but cared even more about the quality men it turned out. The community of the university and the brotherhood on the football team was second to none of the schools that I visited.”
While the Bethel football program is special, it is something that takes a little getting used to. There are not many places where 18-21 year old men actively and continuously walk around telling each other how much they love one another, and not just one or two…but all of them. That can be a bit overwhelming for some, and Kyle was not immune to the oddity of it either – at least at first.
“It was definitely kind of weird at first! When I knew that it wasn’t just words, but that my teammates really do love and care for me, it made it so much more special. That’s our team though, we really love each other like brothers, it’s not just words. It’s so cool going through life with people that love you and want the best for you. Its joyful.”
Back to Being Elite
From 1998 to 2014, the Bethel Royals were one of the elite programs in all of Division-III college football. They won at least nine games in eight of those 17 seasons and three times won 12 contests, including most recently in 2013 (12-1), when they won the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and advanced to the regional finals. In 2007 and 2010 they went as far as the national semifinals.
However, injuries took their toll over the last three seasons. The Royals went 5-5 in each of those campaigns, relegating them to a mid-level team in the conference.
For seniors like Kyle Kilgore, they had come when the Royals were a top 25 team annually and they were not leaving the school until they re-established that stature. Kyle and the rest of the upperclassmen have not wanted their football careers to come to an end, not just yet, and they are loving the team’s return to glory.
“It’s been a long time coming. We’ve worked crazy hard to get here, so I am just soaking it in. The best part about making it this far is that it allows for another week that I get to play the sport I love with the people I love. We’re not complacent though, we are hungry for more.”
A return to glory has been led by one of the toughest defenses in the country. The Bethel Royals are 11th in total defense (242.6 yards per game) and are 22nd in points allowed per contest (13.6). This despite being in arguably the toughest conference in D3 football where two of the best offenses in the country reside in St. Thomas and St. John’s.
The Royals defense has not only been good at stopping opponents from scoring, but six times this season they have scored themselves. Interestingly enough, they allowed 163 points and scored almost half that many on their own (72), led by senior Dawson Brown, who has three returns for touchdowns.
While the defense as a whole has been impressive, there has also been a number of individuals who have put up impressive performances, and it has been the seniors who have led the way. Senior linebacker Drew Ragsdale leads the team in tackles with 82 and has forced two fumbles, and senior free safety Dawson Brown is second in tackles with 76 and has six interceptions. Senior defensive tackle Cameron Monson has nine sacks and a fumble recovery.
Then there is Kyle Kilgore. The senior defensive end has 13 sacks this season, tying him for eighth in the country. That includes five in the first two weeks of the playoffs where he has become the most disruptive force of nature since Hurricane Florence.
That was on full display this last Saturday against No. 9 North Central, where Kyle led the team, from the defensive end position, with 10 tackles. Plus, he added three sacks in the game and forced a fumble. It was the senior’s very best performance of the season at a time when his team needed the soul of this defense to come up with an All-American performance.
Yet, the numbers don’t really give a true indicator of how much of a force Kyle was in this contest. In the first quarter, with the score tied a zero, Cardinals running back Ethan Greenfield took a toss to the right and raced down the sidelines looking like he may turn a 14 yard gain into a 37 yard touchdown run. However, almost out of nowhere, Kilgore chased the play down from his end position on the opposite side of the line, hauling down Greenfield.
The announcer for North Central calling the game was in total disbelief. “He came from the left side of our line to chase down that play. Isn’t that like 40 yards away from where he made the tackle?” he wondered. “That’s just ridiculous,” his partner in the booth exclaimed.
No, it’s just Kyle Kilgore.
A Hero Off the Field as Well
Bethel University football isn’t known just for their success on Saturdays. This is a program where players make a difference off the field as well. For the last six years, a Royals player has been chosen to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team and this year that player was Kyle Kilgore.
From a list of nearly 170 players from throughout college football, 22 are chosen and the Bethel senior was chosen for his work in the community that dated back to his time at East Ridge High School. This has included raising money for cancer research, working with kids with physical and mental disabilities, traveling to other countries to help struggling families and communities, while doing it all with a joyful heart of service to God.
It was no surprise to his head coach that Kyle would earn such an award.
“He became an excellent player and defensive leader almost immediately. He has received many academic and athletic awards,” Coach Johnson explained. “However, the greater impact in my estimation is his soft heart and competitive nature. This gift has helped produce a culture of toughness mixed with authentic affection for teammates and coaches. He has the unique quality of raising the standards of those around him as well. He became the standard for our football team in the classroom, the weight room, the hallway and the field.”
His Christian faith has been one of guiding influences for Kyle Kilgore, and he has seen how the sport has not only given him opportunities to demonstrate that faith, but to also help it flourish.
“Faith first, football second. But that doesn’t mean they don’t influence each other. I actually think that our football team is kind of similar to what the early church was. How we walk alongside and sacrifice for each other is similar to how the church is described in Acts 4:32-35
‘All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had… There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.’
“I’m certainly not saying we do a perfect job of this all the time, but it is similar to what we are striving to do. This is just one example of how my faith and football blended.”
Of course, there may be no more important influence on his life than that of his family. His brothers have a very special place in his heart, but his parents and siblings have been the greatest influence of all.
“My parents are incredible. They sacrifice quite a bit to make my college experience a reality. They have done an unbelievable job raising me and my siblings. I have never questioned their love for me, and their support and encouragement is awesome. They never babied me, but gave me the guidance I needed. I want to be like my dad in the way that he treats my mom and how he has raised me.”
No Ordinary Man
Coach Steve Johnson is famous for his sayings. One such Johnsonism is “Don’t take for ordinary what is consecrated to you.” In other words, if something is special to you, keep it special.
No one was embraced that way of thinking more than Kyle Kilgore. This isn’t just a fantastic football player who took advantage of a position change to become a potential All-American. This is a young man who saw the face of death and has made it his purpose to transform lives much as God has transformed his. A young man who is embracing every day as consecrated.
At 6-4, 245 pounds, Kyle Kilgore has the look of a size of a football player. With long flowing hair and a grin that must be terrifying to opposing quarterbacks, he could very easily be viewed as the second coming of Packers linebacker Clay Mathews, but there is far more to the defensive end than football.
In the movie Remember the Titans, Coach Yost gives a locker room speech near the end of the movie where he explains that the city has learned to “trust this soul of a man rather than his color.” Kyle Kilgore has not only provided the soul that his teammates, coaches, and fans can trust will help lead the Royals to victory, but that beneath that rough exterior is a man who will be the first to praise them during their successes and carry them when they have fallen.
In a country clamoring for leaders with heart, people should know that on Saturday they can watch one young man with the soul to change a game, a community, a country. They will see Kyle Kilgore.
Images of Kyle Kilgore Courtesy of Bethel Athletics.
By Robert Pannier