KEARNEY — Kyle Larson is thankful for the relationships he built during his athletic career.
It was a career he never expected. A passion for kicking a football in his free time on his family’s farm in Funk led him to creating memories most small-town kids only dream of.
He also credits his parents for entering him in Punt, Pass and Kick competitions around 10 years old. The competitions allowed him to break the nerves he had kicking in front of people and gave him the confidence that carried him to a professional football career as a punter.
Larson attended Kearney High School from 1995 to 1999 where he was a two-sport star. He spent five years as a punter on the University of Nebraska football team before embarking on a five-year NFL career with the Cincinnati Bengals.
"As you get older, it’s not necessarily a certain punt or a play that you reflect on but it’s more the experiences with the rest of the guys, the athletes, the coaches that you tend to remember," Larson said. "I think that’s the most important thing in life is relationships with others, whether that’s family or friends."
Larson played center, linebacker and punter for the Bearcats under former coach Riley Harris.
As a senior in 1998, he averaged a state-best 46.5 yards per punt. In his prep career, Larson averaged better than 40 yards per punt attempt.
He didn’t play a winter sport. Instead, he dedicated that time to weight training and preparing for the track and field season.
Larson joined the Bearcats’ track and field program as a freshman in 1996. The program was in the early stages of its dynasty, winning two Class A state championships before Larson’s arrival.
During Larson’s four years of high school, the Bearcats won a state championship every season. It was part of the Bearcats’ stretch of 11 state championships from 1994 to 2004.
"It was really amazing to be a part of that tradition," Larson said. "I tribute that to the guys who came before me. All I did was just learn from those guys. They really took me under their wings and saw how they did things and just tried to model myself after that. They just had a lot of great attributes about them that helped me be a better athlete."
On the track and field team, Larson was coached by his father, Steve, who has been the Bearcats’ throws coach since 1974. Steve’s development of throwers was one of the major reasons for the Bearcats’ unprecedented success.
Larson placed second in the discus and third in the shot put at the Nebraska State Track and Field Championship his senior year in 1999.
"He taught me at a young age how to put a long, hard day’s work in," Larson said. "He really helped me along when it came to how to carrying myself through life, whether that was with workouts or practice or in the classroom."
Larson turned down a scholarship offer to the University of Nebraska at Kearney to walk-on for the Cornhuskers as a punter.
He redshirted his first season and then sat behind starting punter Dan Hadenfeldt his second year.
Larson received his chance to play as a sophomore for the Huskers in 2001.
He was a third-team All-Big 12 honoree as a sophomore before emerging as one of the best punters in college football during his final two years for the Huskers.
After being a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, which is presented annually to college football’s top punter, in 2002, Larson was one of three finalists for the 2003 award. He also was a first-team All-American and earned a Blackshirt his senior year.
Besides his personal accomplishments, Larson also played in the 2002 BCS National Championship Game against the Miami Hurricanes, which the Huskers lost 37-14 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The Huskers won the 2003 Alamo Bowl against Michigan State with Larson as the punter.
"It was unmatched as far as the experiences go," Larson said. "I would’ve never dreamed of going into that that I would have as many experiences as I did. I’m a farm boy from Funk, Nebraska, and getting to go to more places than I could imagine. Playing in that national championship with the atmosphere and the stealth fighters flying over before the national anthem alongside my friends was a memory I won’t forget."
After his collegiate career, Larson signed as an undrafted free agent with the Bengals in 2004. He was part of the Bengals’ turnaround, helping them post their first winning season in 15 years when they won the AFC North and made the playoffs in 2005.
Larson played in every game during his five-year career with the Bengals before being released after the 2008 season.
One moment that stands out to Larson during his time with the Bengals was when he was the placeholder on the field-goal unit against the New England Patriots in 2004. The Bengals lined up to attempt a field goal, and Larson saw a hole in the Patriots’ defense and called for a fake field goal. He received the snap and rushed 11 yards for his first and only touchdown in his pro career.
He was 28 years old when the Bengals waived him. He received interest from four NFL teams. But he opted to retire instead of keeping his pro career alive.
"My wife and I had our oldest son and we talked about it and prayed about it and decided that we wanted to get back home," Larson said. "Not for one second have I ever looked back. I feel extremely blessed and grateful for that time that I played, but I am so happy we are back home."
Larson resides in Kearney with his wife Lindsay, who’s originally from Kearney, and their four sons, who are all under the age of 12.
He works for Nebraska Machinery Company and helps his father on the family farm in Funk. He remains involved in football by coaching his oldest son’s tackle football team last fall and doing one-on-one lessons with kickers if they approach him.
He also actively follows the Bearcats and commends the job football coach Brandon Cool and track and field coach Broc Howard are doing leading their respective programs.
Although he misses the camaraderie of football, he’s thankful for where his life currently is and for the support his wife has shown him during the years as he chased his dream of playing pro football.
"My wife has been the biggest supporter I’ve ever had," Larson said. "She’s been my rock in life. I would never have been able to play throughout my college years and in the NFL without her. God has blessed me with an amazing wife that I just couldn’t imagine having a better wife and friend in life than my wife Lindsay."