On Friday, the night before South Dakota State was set to take on Illinois State, Wall High School graduate Conrad Kjerstad sent a text message to Jacks co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jay Bubak asking what he could do to help his team take down the Redbirds.
The past three years, Kjerstad wouldn’t have needed to send a text. He’d simply show up in his No. 18 jersey and make play after play at strong safety. This fall, however, he won’t make a tackle, interception or even take part in a single snap.
The former NFL prospect will likely never be able to play football ever again, he announced last week, because of a degenerative spinal condition that worsened in recent months.
“I would love to have a perfect neck and be playing. But I’m doing my job, the best way I know how,” said Kjerstad, SDSU’s starter the past two years and a 2009 academic All-American.
A 2009 All-Missouri Valley Football second-team selection, Kjerstad will still be a captain and will travel to all games as a student coach. On Aug. 28, Kjerstad was in the booth against Delaware.
He’d love to be playing, but Kjerstad is now concerned with how to help his team this year.
“I’m trying to do as much as I can. It’s completely different than playing. My job right now is to give my team any edge I can,” said Kjerstad, who lettered 17 times as an Eagle. “… I’m confident it’s the right decision, but it isn’t an easy one.”
So far, the Jackrabbits have sorely missed Kjerstad, who had five interceptions last year. In 2009, which saw the defensive back record 81 tackles, SDSU gave up six points in its first two games. In 2010, the Jackrabbits have given up 50 points in two contests, including a 24-14 loss to Illinois State at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium in Brookings on Saturday and a 26-3 loss to Delaware last weekend.
The Jacks hadn’t started a season 0-2 since 2007, when the team rallied to win the Great West Football Conference title.
“Obviously, we will miss his playmaking ability. We will miss his leadership on the field,” said Jackrabbits coach John Stiegelmeier. “We’re disappointed for him because he’s worked so hard and accomplished so much.”
Leading up to last week’s announcement, Kjerstad claimed he didn’t know much about the injury, but had made a final decision that he was done playing football.
The odd injury was described by Stiegelmeier as a continual irritation.
“It was finally identified before the start of the fall camp, and there’s a reason for that,” said Stiegelmeier. “He’s been tough, but he’s been a winner in every phase of that decision.”
Kjerstad, whose 10 career interceptions are four shy of breaking the school record, had the attention of NFL scouts, according to Bubak. Clayton Kjerstad, a 1968 Wall graduate and Conrad’s father, also thought his son would have been drafted.
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“It’s tough, because not only was he one of our best players, but he could have gone on. He very well could have played in the NFL. He’s got the skill set and the work ethic, without a question,” said Bubak, who coached former NFL players Matt Chatham and Josh Stamer while he was at the University of South Dakota.
Kjerstad, listed at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, has a profile on ESPN.com’s 2011 NFL draft website.
The preseason All-American wanted to be out there battling with his fellow Jackrabbits. But once Kjerstad knew his career was over, he had to let his football family know.
He first spoke with his position coach.
“That conversation was really, really tough,” Bubak said. “A young man works his butt off, and he’s told he can’t (go). Conrad isn’t a guy that shows his emotions a lot, but he was when he talked to me. (It’s) just a dang shame.”
He then informed his fellow players.
“It was an experience I never thought I would have to do. It’s just a really horrible situation. No one wants to say goodbye to the thing they love. But for whatever reason, it wasn’t meant to be,” Kjerstad said. “I’m still trying to deal with it.”
Despite only playing in a few drills in fall camp, Kjerstad was voted a team captain alongside Ryan McKnight, Kyle Minett and Cole Brodie.
“Being named a captain was one of my greatest accomplishments. Individual awards are great, but when it comes from my teammates, it’s really something special,” Kjerstad said.
His coaches know he deserves the honor.
“He’s just a fantastic player and has made such an impact since he’s been here. Conrad is smart and just does the little things perfect. I know everybody associated with South Dakota State football wants him to be in pads this year,” said Bubak, who is in his sixth year with the Jackrabbits.
Although he might not make the stat sheet, teammates say he’ll still have a significant impact on the team.
“He’s the leader of this defense,” said Corey Jeske, the Jacks’ new starting strong safety.