BROOKINGS, S.D. | South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier’s saying means a little more to Chase Kern.
Injury cost the former Sioux City East standout all of last season, but he has come back to help the Jackrabbits to a 10-win season, their first in program history, as they prepare to host New Hampshire Saturday in the FCS quarterfinals.
“Coach Stieg always says ‘play every play like it is your last play,'” said Kern, a redshirt junior. “I feel like I do that at a whole other level now.”
The fourth practice of spring ball before the start of his junior year last season Kern tore his right Achilles bringing an end to his season before it began and sending him into redshirt.
With any significant injury an athlete suffers the mental recovery can be as trying as the physical one.
“I didn’t really get too down on myself about it just because I just accepted it happened and just got back to work,” he said. “I love football and the team so I didn’t look at it as that much of a setback, I just wanted to get as healthy as possible as quick as possible.”
Kern said during practice he was stepped on by a football cleat and sustained the injury – which he said felt like he was shot in the leg -- during a later pass rush drill. He would get back to practice in about seven months, but said it took about nine before he felt fully healthy.
The defensive end used his time on the sideline to his advantage.
“If anything it was a good thing because it helped me mature and helped me really appreciate this game I have been playing for the last six years of my life,” Kern said. “It helped me in the sense of studying my opponent because since I was on the sideline for so long that is all I could do. Studying and watching the other team has really become second nature for me.”
Kern had a redshirt season available because he was pressed into action as a true freshman after recording an impressive 116 tackles as a senior at Sioux City East High School.
“(Playing as a true freshman) was tough for me and really made me grow up quick,” he said. “I am in a harder major than a lot of guys and a lot of guys when they first jump on to a football team for college aren’t thinking play right away. For me it was kind of a wake-up call that I really have my priorities straight.
“The hardest part about it was keeping my confidence about my own ability because I was a lot weaker and didn’t have a whole year to develop my body. I had to really hone in on the techniques that freshman year. I came from high school and was the man in high school and made a lot of plays, and then coming to college as a true freshman playing it was the exact opposite.”
Kern played in 10 games his freshman year before playing in all 12 as a reserve as a sophomore, racking up 20 tackles and 1.5 sacks. This season he has 17 tackles and a sack as he now feels he belongs in the ultra-competitive Missouri Valley Football Conference where he has built his body to handle the demands at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds.
The pharmacy major has always held his own in the classroom as he has earned the MVFC Commissioner’s Academic Excellence Award and is a regular on the league honor roll.
“I just started graduate school this semester up here,” said the son of Troy and Cara, who has one year of football and three of school remaining after this year. “Being in a sport in college forces you to schedule your time well. … Luckily my parents did a good job of teaching me how to study in high school and it prepared me well for college.
“It is overwhelming at times being in harder classes, but it will pay off in the future and I see that now in my work ethic and the way I handle my studies.”
SDSU suffered two losses in a three-game stretch to Youngstown State and Northern Iowa, a loss they avenged last week in Brookings. It regrouped well and now the Jackrabbits turn their attention to New Hampshire (9-4) in the quarterfinals Saturday at 2 p.m.
"I think the family atmosphere we have around here helped us. I mean we did have a little hiccup losing those two games early in the conference season, but some teams could fall apart in that situation," Kern said. "I think we as a family owned up to what we had to get better at and focused on that in practice every day."