Former Jackrabbit football players reconnecting as SDSU heads to the FCS National Championship Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — When Justin Kubesh showed up to play football at South Dakota State University in 2003, he found a pair of used football cleats in his locker along with some used shoulder pads that had rips in the collar. 

“It was definitely more bare bones then,” said Kubesh, who after redshirting in 2003 played linebacker from 2004-2007. “In that transition period, we went without.”

Kubesh played for SDSU during the school’s four transition years to Division I. Back then, the Jackrabbits competed in the Great West Conference and were ineligible to compete in the playoffs and unable to compete for a national championship. 

Fourteen years after his final game, Kubesh will be in the stands cheering on the SDSU football team when they face Sam Houston in the FCS championship at 1 p.m. Sunday in Frisco, Texas.  

“It’s crazy. It’s been really fun,” said Kubesh, who recorded more than 200 tackles in his career. “I couldn’t even tell you how many guys I’ve talked to this last week and how jacked up everybody is. Everyone is very proud of what’s going on.” 

Ryan McKnight, a former SDSU standout offensive lineman from 2006-2010, said at halftime of the Delaware game last weekend, his phone started receiving more and more messages.  

“Ever since then, it’s been nonstop,” McKnight said. “We bought a pile of tickets. We’ve had people from all over the United States say they are coming in for the game. It’s just been awesome.” 

Ryan McKnight

McKnight, whose father also played for SDSU, is the current President of the Jackrabbit Former Players Association. The JFPA was created in 2018 by former SDSU football alumni in a way to give back to the program and keep former players connected. This week, McKnight said he’s heard from hundreds of players, including some that played in 1975 and in the 1980s.  

Both Kubesh and McKnight played with current co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Jimmy Rogers. They both praised the coaching staff, including longtime head coach John Stiegelmeier.

“I would say, SDSU has been waiting for this for a long time,” McKnight said. “Stig has earned this. The team has earned this. The school, the state, everybody has earned this.” 

Kubesh said former players are taking a lot of pride in seeing the team reach the Division I FCS championship game. Both former players have had fun watching Jackrabbit football grow from the Coughlin-Alumni Stadium to Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

“You always had a strong fan base, always a strong following, but it wasn’t what it is today,” McKnight said. 

‘A good catalyst’ 

When the transition to Division I athletics was announced in 2004, Kubesh recalled that many potential players embraced the decision. He said a lot of players were attracted to play Division I football. 

“That was a big deal for a lot of guys,” said Kubesh, who came to Brookings from Olivia, Minnesota. 

SDSU went 6-5 in 2004 and 2005 and 7-4 in 2006 and 2007. Both McKnight and Kubesh pointed to the 2007 season and the season-ending victory over undefeated North Dakota State as a turning point for the program. 

“That win was a pretty good catalyst for future teams,” Kubesh said. 

McKnight, who later played in SDSU’s first Division I playoff game in 2009, said the win over the Bison in 2007 showed everyone the possibilities. 

“We all saw what the leadership of the team could do,” McKnight said. 

As for Sunday’s game, Kubesh said he’s excited to watch the SDSU defense take the field. The Jackrabbit defense has held two opponents to just three points in the playoffs. 

McKnight said the current Jackrabbits don’t show many, if any, weaknesses. 

“I don’t know if a team has been through more adversity with COVID and the pandemic,” McKnight said. “They all walk to the same beat. It’s a bond I haven’t seen in years.” 

KELOLAND Sports Director Sean Bower will also be in Frisco, Texas for the FCS Championship game.  He’ll introduce you to SDSU fans who make the trip to cheer on the Jackrabbits and also show you what the team is doing starting Friday evening on KELOLAND News.  

Then on Sunday, he’ll bring you a closer look at the National Title game on his KELOBower Twitter account, and KELOLAND Weekend News.

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