Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

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The story of Kayleb Wagner

A look back on the freshman year of SIU’s unique running back
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Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto
Kayleb Wagner (25) looks back for the throw as he runs through running back drills as the Salukis prepare in an afternoon practice to take on FBS school Northern Illinois later in the week Sept. 6, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Illinois.

Saluki football recruited more than 30 freshmen in the 2023 class, but one faces unique challenges. Kayleb Wagner, a state record-setting running back in high school, was born without a left forearm or hand.

In June, the then-19-year-old Florida native moved to Carbondale to begin his collegiate career as a running back. He spent the summer participating in kids camps, volunteering at Rendleman Orchards with other freshmen and working out in the fall training camp in August.

“I haven’t seen my momma since July,” Wagner said. “I’m getting kind of homesick.” 

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Kayleb Wagner laughs with the team as the freshman volunteer at Rendleman Orchard June 28, 2023 in Alto Pass, Illinois. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

He began visiting the southern Illinois area the summer before his senior year of high school when he worked with younger kids in NubAbility, a summer camp hosted in Du Quoin, Illinois that works to get limb different youth into mainstream sports. This later resulted in Wagner’s visit to SIU. 

Kayleb Wagner holds a blocking dummy as young kids run through different football drills for the annual Nick Hill Kids Camp June 14, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Illinois. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

“I came from over that to over here on an unofficial visit and then they showed me around, took some pictures and they offered me,” he said. 

Between classes and all the responsibilities of a college athlete, Wagner’s day revolves around Saluki football beginning at 5 a.m. and ending past 6 p.m. most days. 

Kayleb Wagner pulls himself up in a set of pull-ups in a morning workout Nov. 11, 2023 in SIU’s weight room in Carbondale, Illinois. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

“I know a majority of my day is at the facility,” Wagner said. “I wake up at like 5 o’clock, we got 6 a.m. lifts and you know I’m there from like, to the lifts is like seven something (…) then we got meetings, I leave to go to my class at 8:30. I come back after my second class [and] got my academic meeting at 11. Then I’m there basically until practice is over that night at like 5:30, 6 o’clock-ish.” 

Wagner spent his first season at SIU as a redshirt freshman, meaning he would get little to no playing time in a live game. Though he suited up for most home games and a few on the road, Wagner watched the team in their successful 8-5 season from the sidelines. 

Kayleb Wagner looks to coach DJ Davis as he takes direction for a running back drill Sept. 26, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Illinois. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

“I think it’s great for me,” Wagner said. “You know, I think everybody needs to be humbled a little bit. And I think, you know, like all of us come from high school. I’m not saying I’m not humble. I’m saying everybody coming from high school, who was the man, who’s been the man. I feel like not playing, not traveling. Like last week was a real eye opening experience for me when I had to sit in the stands and watch my team so I like that is also motivation.

Although Wagner did not play very much in his first season with the team, he believes the experience both in practice and during a collegiate gameday environment will be beneficial moving forward.

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Kayleb Wagner runs through drills in an afternoon practice Nov. 15, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Illinois. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

“Listen, I’m not doing this again next year,” Wagner said. “Yeah, so like, I’m gonna travel, I’m gonna dress, I’m gonna go to every game because no matter what anybody says they want to be at every game, they want to be dressed in a uniform. And I think it just gives you motivation out there to make that happen.”

Despite his redshirt status, the running back got to step on the field during a live game for the first time during the Salukis home opener against Austin Peay. During his limited action, Wagner was even able to rush for a touchdown, the first of what he hopes are many to come in his SIU career.  

Kayleb Wagner (25) runs towards the sidelines after scoring his first collegiate touchdown in the home opener against Austin Peay Sept. 2, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Illinois. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

“Working all summer doing all that and finally getting an opportunity to play in a game and then I score, it was definitely a highlight you know,” Wagner said. “If I look back every year I’m gonna look back on my freshman year that’ll definitely be the highlight.” 

Having to catch a ball one handed, work out in a unique routine and approach things a bit differently sets his day-to-day routine apart from his teammates. However, this has never stopped Wagner, as shown by the running back’s stellar high school career. Among his accomplishments, Wagner broke current Tennessee Titans star Derrick Henry’s single game rushing yard record as a junior and now holds the Florida high school state record at 525 yards. 

Kayleb Wagner turns to run down field after making a catch in a practice drill Sept. 26, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Illinois. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

“I knew I had ran for a mile that night,” Wagner said. “But I didn’t know how much I ran for. In the moment it was just kind of like “let’s win the game.”” 

Henry subsequently invited Wagner to the Tennessee game against Jacksonville where he met and spoke to him on the sidelines. 

“We still talk sometimes,” Wagner said. “Like the beginning of the year he texted me and told me, like, keep my head up. Like, you know, things are gonna get rough. You know, look at him, he didn’t really play his freshman year and stuff like that.” 

Rather than setting him back, being an athlete with a limb difference motivates Wagner to work harder in order to both inspire and be a form of representation for the younger generation.

Freshman running back Kayleb Wagner sits in the stands of Saluki Stadium Oct. 7, 2023 in Carbondale, Illinois. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

“The kids like me that have limb differences… when I was a kid growing up, I didn’t have nobody like that to really like look up to,” Wagner said. “I think what motivates me is just keep doing what I’m doing, keep inspiring kids like that. There’s so many kids coming to my games, that drive hours and hours to see me play. You know, just to like, just to watch.”  

According to Wagner, one young boy drove over two hours to come watch his game after being connected through a mutual friend.

“Before the game he kind of had his arm like hid in his jacket or whatever, blah, blah, and then after I scored my first touchdown, he kind of like rolled his sleeve up like put his arm on the fence and was acting normal.” Wagner said. “I was like that right there you know, that’s more special than breaking a record or winning a state championship or anything that right there is like, you know, like, wow, I’m impacting this kid, you know?”

Wagner has been a source of inspiration for more than just one young fan. Saluki football hosts an annual Blackout Cancer game each year, during which community members get to bid on players jerseys in weeks prior to the game. The winner of Wagner’s jersey bid a total of $333 to have the name of a young boy, “Hank”, on the back. Hank also was born with a limb difference. 

Kayleb Wagner presents his game-worn jersey to young fan Hank moments after the end of the annual Blackout Cancer game Nov. 4, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Illinois. Saluki fans have the opportunity to bid on jerseys and choose a name to go on the back. Hank’s family bid to put his first name on the back of Wagner’s jersey with a winning bid of $333. Similarly to Wagner, Hank also has a limb difference. The game raised $24,000 for the Coach Kill Cancer Fund that is paid out to Southern Illinois Hospital (SIH) Foundation. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)


“I didn’t even notice it at first until actually, till the game and I was like oh, okay, that’s cool,” Wagner said. “Even up here, I’m still impacting people you know, and I think the impact I’m leaving on the kids or the younger generation limb difference people is like a great impact.” 

Spending the first year as a redshirt was Wagner’s preference coming in as a freshman in order to extend his eligibility and time as a college athlete.

Kayleb Wagner (25) prays alongside Saluki Football before taking the field to face Missouri State at home for family weekend Sept. 30, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Illinois. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

“My next upcoming years I hope to accomplish, you know, winning a national championship, that’s the ultimate goal you know, that’s everybody’s ultimate goal,” Wagner said. “I just hope to, you know, be a good leader, [a] good positive role model and the younger kids that continue to come in, my teammates, and just be the best player in person I can be because, the better I am and it’ll make people better around me and the better I help, the more encouraged and the more I do. I think the goal is to make everybody else around you better so that we all [get] better because there’s no “I” in team. So it’s a team sport. So everybody has to be good, It’s not just a one man job.”

The Salukis ended the 2023 season with a second round playoff exit against Idaho, and their 8-5 record marked their best season since 2009. The team kicks off the next season against power-five school Brigham Young University (BYU) on August 31, when Wagner hopes to burn his redshirt status and get his collegiate career on the run.

Kayleb Wagner (25) enters the field for the annual Blackout Cancer game Nov. 4, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Illinois. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

 

Kayleb Wagner (left) of Saluki football talks with Hansel Enmanuel (right) of Austin Peay basketball after being introduced following the game between the Governors and Salukis Dec. 12, 2023 at Banterra Center in Carbondale, Illinois (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

Photo editor Lylee Gibbs can be reached at [email protected]. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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