Tyke Kozeal never could get enough football. Even before he put on shoulder pads and a helmet.
“I was a student manager, I think, when I was in the first grade,” he said.
He served that role for his dad, Mike, the head coach at Sargent High School in central Nebraska. A former player at Chadron State, Mike guided Sargent to the Eight Man-2 state title in 2011, when Tyke was a senior.
His dad, he said, “always told me you’ve got to love to practice just as much as you love to play.”
“That was a big thing for me, because you practice for eight months of the year and then you only get to play 11 games a season,” Tyke said. “So you better like the other stuff — the weightlifting, the film study. I took that to heart.”
Kozeal made the most of his games, rushing for 20 touchdowns as a high school senior and then becoming a fixture at linebacker for the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
He capped a stellar collegiate career last fall by averaging 15.8 tackles per game and becoming an Associated Press first-team All-American.
He’s also The World-Herald’s Midlands college male athlete of the year.
His passion for the sport has never waned.
“He really embraced the grind,” said Josh Lamberson, Kozeal’s head coach at UNK the past two seasons who now is offensive coordinator at Abilene Christian. “All those tackles, all those special plays he made on Saturday afternoons, he made those every day in practice.”
Kozeal arrived in Kearney as a walk-on and redshirted in his first season with the NCAA Division II Lopers. He was a revelation in his second season, setting the program’s single-season tackle record with 118.
That was only the beginning.
The 6-foot, 240-pound Kozeal broke his own record with 136 tackles as a sophomore. Then he did it again with 176 as a junior. Kozeal, who became UNK’s career tackles leader early in his junior season, finished his senior year with 174 tackles. That included 19 against national champion Northwest Missouri State.
Kozeal finished his career with 604 tackles, the second-highest total in NCAA history for all divisions.
Lamberson said Kozeal has great instincts on the field, but he knows Kozeal’s prep work between Saturdays is what made him so effective.
“He’s probably one of the best I’ve seen for what he does for his guys, just elevated everyone else’s game,” Lamberson said. “He’s the epitome of a kid that you would want in your program in really every facet.”
Kozeal hopes more tackles are ahead of him. Last month, he was invited to the Philadelphia Eagles’ rookie camp, but didn’t come away with a contract. He said he’s waiting for other offers.
“I’m going to continue to train and give it a little bit of time and see if anything develops,” Kozeal said. “I’m still in pursuit of the game.”
Kozeal, who was a finalist for the Ken B. Jones Award given to the top student-athlete in the Mid America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, graduated with a 3.8 GPA as a health and physical education major. He started a business with a friend revolving around another of his passions, the outdoors. And this week, he celebrates his two-year wedding anniversary to Jamie, his high school sweetheart.
“She’s been my biggest fan and supporter,” Tyke said.
And like his dad, expect to see Tyke on the sidelines coaching at some point.
“He’ll be great at it,” Lamberson said. “He’s basically been a coach the past four years, on that defense, getting people lined up. I think communicating with people comes very natural to him.
“The great thing about Tyke, he has Plan B, Plan C, Plan D already for his life. He’ll be successful in whatever he ends up doing.”
Other top male athletes
Rashad Brackeen, Peru State basketball: Senior guard averaged 20.2 points and 3.1 assists. Named to Heart of America first team and NAIA D-I All-America honorable mention. Ranked No. 1 in 3-point field goals made per game (3.61) and second in total 3-point field goals made (112).
Chandler Folkerts, Concordia basketball: One of the top players in program history. A second-team All-America choice, Folkerts ended his career second all-time at Concordia in rebounding, third in scoring and fourth in blocked shots. As a senior, he averaged 18.3 points and 8.1 rebounds and shot 68.6 percent from the field.
Lucas Wiechman, Concordia track and field: Wiechman put together a monster senior season. He won a combined eight individual GPAC titles at the 2017 indoor and outdoor conference meets. He was named the men’s athlete of the meet at the GPAC indoor and outdoor championships and at the NAIA indoor championships. Wiechman won a national title in the heptathlon at the indoor meet and also was a member of the 2015 Concordia outdoor national championship team.
Daniel Whitehall, Hastings soccer: He had a season unlike anything seen at Hastings, shattering the goal-scoring record with 34 this season. He was named national player of the year and a first-team All-American. He was also named national tournament offensive MVP.
Nate Meier, Doane football: NAIA second-team All-American for the second straight year after a record-breaking season. The senior running back broke the single-season Doane rushing record with 1,590 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. He set the single-game record with 291 yards in a win over Hastings. Meier finished with 38 rushing touchdowns, second most at Doane, and 3,838 rushing yards, third most at Doane. Doane went 9-2 and advanced to the NAIA playoffs for the second straight year.
Grant Van Scoy, Southeast baseball: Leaves SCC as the all-time hits leader and is up for All-American and a Gold Glove at shortstop. Led the Storm to their first NJCAA Division II World Series. He has signed with Illinois.
Cole Gray, Midland baseball: Chosen as the co-GPAC player of the year. He led the league with a .411 batting average and set a program single-season record with 88 hits. Gray finished in the top four all-time in eight offensive categories for his career at Midland. He helped lead Midland to the GPAC postseason championship and a pair of wins at nationals, a program first.
2016: Kale Wolken, Doane
2015: Cole Manhart, UNK
2014: Glen Clinton, Chadron State
2013: Raufeon Stots, UNK
2012: Anthony Dunn, Doane
2011: BJ Lawrence, Doane
2010: Silas Fluellen, Wayne State
2009: Joe McLain, Chadron State
2008: Tervel Dlagnev, UNK
2007: Danny Woodhead, Chadron State
2006: Richie Ross, UNK
2005: Les Sigman, UNO
2004: Whit Smith, Midland Lutheran
2003: Nick Svehla, UNK
2002: Matt Strand, Chadron State
2001: Brady Borner, Wayne State
2000: Casey Beran, Chadron State
1999: Ed Thompson, UNO
1998: Chris Allen, Midland
1997: Curtis Hawkins, Doane
1996: Chris Dahl, Doane
1995: Byron Chamberlain, Wayne State
1994: Brad Ottis, Wayne State
1993: Brian Nielsen, UNK
1992: Tim Stutheit, Bellevue
1991: Nate Bradley, Peru State
1990: Gene Brooks, Concordia
1989: Don Beebe, Chadron State
1988: Lori Briscoe, Midland
1987: Beth Stuart, Kearney State
1986: Dana Janssen, Neb. Wesleyan
1985: Dana Janssen, Neb. Wesleyan
1984: Steve Bartek, Doane
1983: Kari Kramme, Midland
1982: Kregg Einspahr, Concordia
1981: Alvin Holder, Peru State
1980: Tim Higgins, Kearney State
1979: Brad Fults, Chadron State
1978: Paul Bergman, Hastings
1977: Rick Cotton, Doane
1976: Mike Riedmann, Wayne State
1975: Tom Kropp, Kearney State
1974: Fletcher Lewis, SE-Fairbury
1973: Kurt Nielsen, Neb. Wesleyan
1972: Ken Monroe, Wayne State
1971: Mel Washington, UNO
1970: Larry Green, Doane
1969: Rich Osentowski, Kearney State
1968: Marlin Briscoe, Omaha U.
1967: Fred Davis, Doane
1966: Dwight Tietjen, Neb. Wesleyan
1965: Dean deBuhr, Wayne State
1964: Bryce Olson, Dana
1963: Roger Sayers, Omaha U.
1962: Bob Frieze, Midland
1961: Marvin Teel, McCook
1960: Larry Snell, Kearney State
1959: Tom Osborne, Hastings
1958: Doug Gibson, Peru State
1957: Elmer Trail, McCook
1956: Ron Donahue, Midland
1955: Chuck Stickels, Hastings
1954: Neil Moore, Dana
1953: Bill Becher, Hastings
1952: Don Kane, Wayne State
Note: The award was separated for males and females beginning in 1989.