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Kyle Kasun living his dream as a walk-on at Nebraska

Kyle Kasun had his Rudy moment when he was lifted up on his teammates' shoulders after a game-saving interception during the spring game. "It's not like that anymore," Kasun said recently. But that's OK. He's living his dream by being on the Huskers. Courtesy of Nebraska athletics department

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Kyle Kasun gave up on football before he got to school last year at Nebraska.

A solid high school defensive back and receiver from Papillion, Nebraska, he turned down an invitation to walk on at South Dakota State and embraced life as a student in Lincoln. Kasun joined a fraternity. He reveled over his luck in scoring a roommate-free dorm room at Neihardt Hall.

He sat in the student section as the Cornhuskers played, though he did not often stay for the whole game.

When he made it to the end of the fourth quarter, Nebraska lost in the final seconds to Brigham Young and Wisconsin. He found it difficult to watch -- and not in the same way as most of the 90,000-some fans at Memorial Stadium.

"It made me miss it even more," Kasun said.

He thought he could help. He wanted to help.

Last Saturday night, Kasun again stayed until the end. He stood on the east sideline in full uniform after 10:30 p.m. as the first wave of Huskers filed toward their locker room under the north end zone seats in the wake of Nebraska's 43-10 win over Fresno State.

Not bad for a 5-foot-11, 185-pound cornerback who made the team at an open tryout in March, halfway through spring practice.

Kasun did not play Saturday. He likely won't see the field this week when the Huskers host Wyoming, or Sept. 17 when Oregon visits.

His best hope? To earn a spot on special teams.

"That would be perfect," Kasun said.

Actually, he said, Saturday night was just about perfect. Kasun walked through the tunnel to the field with his teammates before kickoff as the noise from outside penetrated the walls of the old building. Kasun said he couldn't get a view over the heads of his teammates.

"Then, all of a sudden, I saw all the people," he said. "The stadium was full. Goose bumps came out. It's what I've waited my whole life for."

Running down a dream

You can imagine the reaction from Kasun's pals at the Phi Delta Theta house last winter when he told them of his dream.

Kasun missed football. He wanted to play again.

"They didn't right come out and say, 'I don't think you're going to be able to do it,'" Kasun said.

As a student at Papillion-La Vista South High School, he had hoped to extend his playing career after graduating in 2015. Tom Kasun took his son to camps in South Carolina and Indiana. Kyle also went to camp in Lincoln the summer before his junior year after he received a letter from Bo Pelini, then the Nebraska coach.

But then Kasun heard nothing.

"Growing up in Nebraska, Nebraska football was all I cared about," he said. "Part of the reason I lost that passion was because they never recruited me. I didn't want to go anywhere else. I was down on myself."

In his dorm room last fall, Kasun wrote four words on a black-and-white marker board: "Think big. Dream bigger."

His dream grew clear as the regular season ended at Nebraska. The Huskers finished 5-7, their third losing season in 54 years, but received a bid to play UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl.

Kasun's cousin, Mitch Mann, had tried out unsuccessfully after working as an equipment manager. And Kasun knew of a freshman from Omaha, Jeremiah Stovall, who got an invite to join the team in January after a tryout.

"I thought, 'Man, if he could make the team, maybe I could make it.'"

And so Kasun, beginning late last fall, worked out twice daily at the campus rec center. In the mornings, he focused on the combine-style drills that he expected to constitute a tryout; in the afternoon, he worked on strength.

"I didn't want to tell anybody," Kasun said, "because I was scared about what might happen."

Kasun kept the dream from even his parents.

He saw the Huskers during bowl practice after one of his December workouts. Kasun casually stood on the sideline a few feet from coach Mike Riley.

"It was so cool," Kasun said.

Mainly, he watched the scout-team defense. He noticed the defensive backs were no bigger than him.

Kasun's confidence rose. He asked a few friends to throw balls for him during workouts. Soon, Tom Kasun suspected something.

"I would ask about school," Kyle's father said, "and he would talk about how he went to watch football practice. I could see a spark."

After the bowl game, a 37-29 Nebraska victory that injected life into a drab winter, Kasun emailed Kenny Wilhite, the Huskers' director of high school relations, to ask about a spring tryout. Several times, Wilhite responded that he was unsure. Kasun worried. Would it happen?

Alas, word came in March. He told his parents about a week before the big day. Tom drove to Lincoln but couldn't get in the main doors of the Hawks Championship Center to watch. Instead of seeking an alternate route, he waited in the parking lot.

"Something told me just to let him do his thing," Tom Kasun said.

Kyle ran the 40-yard dash in 4.64 seconds. He jumped 32.5 inches and timed 4.05 seconds in the shuttle run, his best mark, as Riley watched. At the end, Wilhite gathered Kasun and two others among the 20 or so in attendance to tell them that the Huskers would be in contact.

Later that week, Kasun learned he had made the team. He was summoned to the football office to complete paperwork, which Riley had to sign. The coach delivered a speech about representing the program properly.

"That gave me chills," Kasun said.

Kyle immediately called his sister, Courtney, a recent Nebraska graduate who works for State Farm; his dad, a crew leader for the Omaha Public Power District; and, of course, his mom, Julie, an independent insurance agent in suburban Omaha.

"Disbelief," Julie Kasun said. "I was jumping around the office at work."

'Is this really happening?'

Kasun had already missed a chunk of spring practice. When he was cleared to play -- the only newcomer via the spring tryout -- a class conflict prevented him from attending all but the final 20 minutes of two weekly workouts.

Yet Kasun fit in well. He received a spot in a back corner of the locker room near Stovall, quarterback-turned-receiver Zack Darlington, defensive backs Avery Anderson and Eric Lee and receiver Ty Betka. Stovall and fellow walk-on Tanner Zlab taught Kasun to read the playbook. Lee, a former ESPN 300 recruit from Colorado, mentored him in practice. Defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg, a third-year sophomore, befriended Kasun.

By the April 17 spring game, he had experienced just two full practices. But on the final play, Kasun intercepted prize freshman QB Patrick O'Brien to win the game for the defense. Defensive players, encouraged by Stoltenberg, raised Kasun on their shoulders.

Tom Kasun, making his way from the stands to the sideline before the final play to greet Kyle, watched from afar.

Four words streamed through his mind: "Is this really happening?"

Kasun's celebrity skyrocketed. Yet to receive clearance to eat at the training table, he was recognized by the woman who checks identification. She let him in to eat.

For a while, he was the spring-game hero.

"It's not like that anymore," Kasun said recently.

He worked with Chris Jones and Joshua Kalu, the Huskers' top cornerbacks, in the summer. When Kasun joined the team, he said, he couldn't cover any of the receivers. He has since improved.

"He wanted to go to Nebraska because he loved it," Riley said. "And I think that is so special. Those guys have to have resiliency. They have to persevere. It's not going to happen overnight, but they're willing to do it -- and it's a great thing for the team."

For Kasun, the passion for football is back.

"It was definitely worth it," Kasun said Saturday night, the glowing scoreboard behind him. "I feel like I'm where I'm supposed to be."