The first thing Riverside Military Academy grad Khalid Duke noticed when he arrived in Manhattan, Kansas was the quiet.
The home of Kansas State University — where Duke is now a freshman linebacker — is not quite the bustling metropolis that its New York counterpart is, nor is it even close to as big as Duke’s hometown of Atlanta, where he grew up prior to joining the Eagles.
“Manhattan’s probably about the same size as Gainesville,” he said. “Manhattan is very slow. Similar to Gainesville, it’s calm, quiet.”
Despite this, Duke’s favorite moment since traveling across the country to play for the Wildcats was all about the noise.
He remembers looking up into the stands as hundreds of screaming fans ran onto the field following a Kansas State upset of then No. 5 Oklahoma. The shocking win over the Sooners stands out in a season of highs for the Riverside Military product.
“It wasn’t a surprise to us that we beat them, because we were prepared for it, but they’re still a top five team, great team,” he said. “Playing top talent like Jalen Hurts, CeeDee Lamb, it was pretty fun.”
In a small sample size, Duke has already shown he has what it takes to make a difference at that high a level. Playing for a surprising Kansas State team that sits at 6-4 and spent a couple weeks inside the top 25, Duke has made his impact felt with a pair of sacks and a fumble recovery in limited action.
He credits a strong offseason for the production in his first year at the collegiate level. Duke put on 30 pounds of muscle over the summer, bulking up to more easily shed would-be blockers in pass rush situations. But his work didn’t stop there.
“Putting in extra work, extra sprints, extra weights, extra work in the film room, small things like that got me on the field as a freshman,” he said.
In the five games he’s seen action, Duke has learned just how different Division I football is to high school at the Class A level.
Everyone is stronger at the next level, moves faster and changes direction more quickly. Opposing offenses are more complex and are run by smarter and more athletic quarterbacks.
“You’ve got to practice hard,” Duke said. “You don’t practice hard, you’ll go out on the field and get embarrassed.”
Luckily for Duke, the practice habits he originally formed while at Riverside Military have translated to success in Manhattan, though he remains yet unsatisfied with what he has accomplished so far.
For Duke, performing now is the most important current step to achieving the goal that has been with him since long before the Wildcats extended him an offer to continue his football career in the Big 12 — making it to the NFL.
And while Manhattan may not provide him with the flashiest of stages to prove himself, it does allow him to show his talents in the same quiet yet steady way that he did in high school, a fitting setting for the soft-spoken Duke to grow and improve.
“It’s pretty good here,” he said. “ I enjoy it. I’m playing football pretty well.”