Getting to know Riley Koval, a true scholar-athlete

By Lora Hlavsa

Scots wide receiver Riley Koval ’13 is having one hell of a season. Over the last eight games, Koval has totaled 285 yards over 31 catches; 111 of those yards were in the Scots’ recent 59-0 victory over Trinity Bible College (ND) on October 20. But recently, Koval has a lot more to be proud of than his stats. Earlier this month, the Mount Horeb, WI native was one of 147 semi-finalists for the 2012 William V. Campbell Award, a college football award that recognizes the absolute best scholar-athlete in the nation. Past winners have included NFL greats Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning, and this year, Macalester’s very own Koval is one of 41 DIII athletes who will be competing against DI and DII players for the ultimate honors. But Koval has a lot more than just football on his mind; the Sociology/Educational Studies double major is tackling both of his capstones as well as applying to law school. This week, I had the privilege of sitting down with this stellar player and discussing everything from his rocky start in the game to his recently acquired tattoo. LH: How did you get your start in football? RK: It’s funny, I actually played soccer for almost as many years as I played football. I played soccer until I was in seventh grade, and then of all my friends were moving towards football and I enjoyed watching football. So I made the transition over and I was actually an absolutely awful, awful football player. Seventh and eighth grade I got out there for kick off and kick returns. You can’t even hit people on that in youth, so I just sat there and caught the ball. I didn’t even get to run since the play was just over. So I was awful. Luckily, one of my middle school P.E. teachers was the freshman football coach. He told me that everyone gets a fresh start once high school comes around, so I worked really hard all off-season and by the time freshman year rolled around, I was a different player. I started both ways and was captain, and I took off from there. I started out as a wide receiver and I also played defense in the secondary, but I didn’t have the good mentality for hitting people, I liked running away from them more than running at them. LH: How was playing football in high school different than playing football at the collegiate level? RK: When you’re in high school, you think you’re never going to be closer to your teammates than you are with guys that you’ve grown up with since kindergarten. You think that nothing’s ever going to break those bonds or be stronger than those bonds. High school was wonderful. But it’s entirely different playing in college. I would argue that you’re even much closer [than in high school], at least at Macalester, which is a big reason why I chose it. A lot of people talk about ‘family atmosphere’ and things like that [at other schools], but we’ve really created that here. I mean, I got a tattoo with two of my teammates with the Macalester crest on it. That tells you how much I feel about the Macalester family. And it’s not just football, it’s also the institution and everything that it stands for as well. It’s different from high school because instead of just growing up with these guys, you’re spending 24 hours a day with these guys, you’re living with these guys, you’re eating with these guys, and you’re sleeping in the same room as these guys. It’s more special and it’s been awesome. LH: You transferred here sophomore year from North Park University (IL). Why did you wind up coming out here to Macalester? RK: The second I stepped foot on Macalester’s campus I knew it was where I wanted to be when I visited here while I was in high school. I even wrote a paper in high school about why I chose Macalester. And then I got my financial aid package back and it’s normally unbelievable for everyone, but it wasn’t anything near what my parents were expecting. We were kind of in scramble mode and we had to go to my next best option. I knew I wanted to play football in a big city, and so Chicago was the next best bet. I went to North Park (University), and it wasn’t what I was looking for. Guys weren’t well-rounded or interested in more things than just football, and I was very interested in doing a lot of things. There was a huge divide between athletes and students. It just wasn’t what I was looking for. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just transfer to Macalester and it’ll be fine’ but then I talked to the coach. He said that I couldn’t transfer during freshman year and that I would have to wait until the end of the year. And I just thought, ‘Ugh, this is not good, I know that’s where I want to be, I know it’s the right situation for me.’ I did a lot of research and found some speeches from President Rosenberg where he talked about wanting Macalester to be the best fit for every student. I used the language that he used and wrote letters to him and other administrators. Luckily they were moved and interested in what I was saying and made a change for me to come here. I told the guys probably three weeks after being at Mac, ‘After three weeks here I’m closer to you guys and know you guys better than I knew my teammates that I played a full season with at North Park.’ That’s a testament to the guys here and to what they represent. LH: What is you favorite Mac football memory so far? RK: It’s gotta be winning the Bucket (vs. Hamline) last year. That was just so special. We got letters and emails all week that we put up in the locker room from people all over the world. The most moving ones were from soldiers in Iraq that said, ‘Man, we’re paying close attention this game.’ That made me think, ‘Wow, if we can win this game, it’s going to make someone’s day that’s overseas fighting for us.’ People were paying attention since we hadn’t won it in over ten years. Winning that bucket was really, really special. LH: Looking ahead to these final two games of the season against Augsburg and Hamline, what do you hope to accomplish as a player in your final games at Macalester and what do you hope to accomplish as a team? RK: I just want to go out to the best of my abilities, whether that’s catching the ball or blocking for my team, I just want to finish strong and go out knowing that I left it all out on the field and have no regrets. So far, I think I’ve done that. I talked to the guys a few weeks ago, and at that point we had just lost three games in a row, so we were 3 and 3 with four games left. I said, ‘Listen, it’s easy to be down right now, since we’ve lost three straight weeks. We have a horrible taste in our mouths, but if you keep the big picture in mind, we have four games left and the school record is seven wins.’ That’s what we have our eyes on. We’re taking it week by week, one win closer to seven, one win closer to seven, and it’d be pretty special to tie the all-time record for most wins. That’s our goal in these last two weeks, as well as to defend the Bucket for the first time in a long time. Getting it was one thing, but to get it back-to-back years and go out with that bucket under our belt as a senior class would be a nice way to finish off and leave our stamp on the program. LH: You mentioned you’ve grown pretty close to your teammates over the last few years. What are you going to miss most about the Macalester football program and just Macalester as a community in general? RK: I think what I’m going to miss most is just being around the guys. The best memories are in the locker room, before and after every practice and before and after every game. Just being around so many guys and having so many close friends within the football program, it’s going to be hard watching those guys go through workouts when I’m doing my old man workout on the treadmill. Also, I’ve been playing competitive sports my entire life, so I don’t know what it’s like to not have some kind of outlet to get that competitiveness out. That’ll be an adjustment. Maybe I’ll get more into the Timberwolves games and get season tickets. It’s going to be
an adjustment, but there’s going to be a lot of good memories to look back on to help get me through that. LH: You were recently a semi-finalist for the 2012 William V. Campbell Award, a pretty prestigious honor. How did you feel when you found out? RK: That was an unbelievable honor. I’ve had little things before, like being All-State in high school. That’s great, but this one really meant the most to me. I think it really represented what I try to stand for as a person and what I think Macalester football represents. It’s about doing work in the classroom, community and on the field, and that’s just so much bigger than just being a good player. It meant the world to me to be on that list with some of my current heroes. I’m a die-hard Notre Dame football fan and [Notre Dame Linebacker] Manti Te’o was on that list. To hear my name mentioned alongside those guys was really special. It was one of the biggest honors of my life. LH: Since the William V. Campbell Award recognizes exemplary scholar-athletes, how do you manage to keep your grades up in the classroom when you’re spending hours a day practicing and working really hard to get those wins on the field? RK: It’s definitely a challenge, but I think that I’ve tried to spin it in a way. I try to use these time constraints as an advantage and use it to help me manage my time more. I don’t have six hours a night to work on homework, maybe I only have two hours a night, so those two hours are going to have to be really focused. Football provides me with more structure. It certainly sucks up more time, but you can also use that to keep you on track and keep you grounded. It gets me up every morning, since I have to get up for my lifts. LH: What do you think the Sunday after your final game against Hamline is going to be like? RK: I think it’s going to be unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. I looked around after my last game in high school and a lot of people were crying. I didn’t quite have that moment because I knew that I had four more years of this. It was sad to be leaving my teammates, but I had four more years to keep doing what I love. And so I think it’s going to be an unexpected and indescribable feeling on Sunday morning. It’s gonna be a surreal moment that I’m not looking forward to. LH: What are your future plans? Do they involve football, whether it’s playing or coaching, in any way? RK: My future plans on the academic side are going to law school next year. I want to choose something that’s not the traditional role that people see lawyers as doing. I don’t know if I’ll be in the courtroom. I think it’s a degree that can be used for a lot of good that people often don’t see. It’s a powerful position where you have the power to help a lot of people. I can help someone’s idea become a patent, help a couple purchase their first home, help represent a minority group that can’t defend themselves, things like that. I’d like to use my degree for other’s well-being. I know people who have helped me a lot along the way and I want a fulfilling career where I can help others. As for football, I think it’d be pretty tough for me to not be involved in some way. I think probably with the constraints I’m facing in terms of jobs and school, I would love to help out at the high school level. I think that’s a time when you can have a lot of impact on kids’ lives. They’re learning who they are. I had a lot of positive mentors that helped me get to where I am today. I couldn’t be at Macalester and nominated for these awards if these people hadn’t helped give me direction and guidance, and it’d be awesome to give back like they did. Every summer, I go back and work at my high school’s camp. These last two years, I’ve worked the Macalester football camp, and this year I got to work the Minnesota Vikings camp. Those have all been super rewarding experiences. [With high school students] you really have kids at a time where they are easily molded. With some kids, teachers aren’t able to have that influence. But the kids that are out there playing football, they’re interested in football, and you’re in a position where you can hopefully get them more interested in the well-rounded things. I definitely want to help out with football and also use it as a wider avenue to help kids grow as individuals. refresh –>