Before running out in front of 33,101 people Saturday, Kaleb Nunez retreated to a private spot in the Air Force locker room.

“I had an emotional moment by myself,” the junior defensive tackle said.

Two years ago, just after Nunez began his freshman year at the academy, his father’s health took a turn for the worse. Domingo Nunez had undergone surgery for pancreatic cancer, and the prognosis looked promising. But then complications arrived in the form of an infection.

The academy granted Kaleb leave for more than a month to be with his family as his father received treatment in intensive care. On Sept. 19, 2017, Domingo died at 49.

“That was probably the lowest point in my life,” Kaleb said, recalling his efforts to keep up with academy schoolwork from afar while watching his father’s final weeks. “But my dad taught me to keep grinding. He wanted me to finish this place no matter what. I promised him before he died that I was going to do everything in my power to finish and graduate.”

But there was another goal. Domingo wanted to watch Kaleb play college football.

On Saturday, that happened.

Nunez played in his first game — he had dressed for several games, but never traveled and hadn’t stayed in the team hotel for a home contest in his first two years — and had a hand in three tackles, including a sack.

“Just knowing he was watching from above made me super emotional,” Nunez said.

He didn’t have to deal with the emotions alone.

Nunez’s younger brother Isaiah is a freshman outside linebacker at Air Force. He didn’t suit up for the game but was on the sidelines. Kaleb sought him out immediately after running out of the tunnel and the brothers shared a “big, ol’ hug.”

“He was just as excited to see me play as I was to play,” Kaleb said.

Air Force hadn’t known exactly where Kaleb would fit into the defense this year. He saw time at nose guard and defensive tackle in fall camp, but when Jared Bair went down with a leg injury a starting tackle spot became open and he seized it.

“He has enough length and is really active on his feet,” coach Troy Calhoun said. “Really, really great energy. Guy that loves playing football.”

Added nose guard Mosese Fifita, “He definitely brings physicality and discipline. He’s really focused on just doing his job; what he can do best and help the team win.”

Nunez’s family ties run deep with the team. His older brother, Talor, played at Texas Tech under current Falcons defensive line coach Terrance Jamison.

Calhoun said he called Talor while doing background work as Jameson was going through the interview process and received a strong endorsement.

Kaleb, who plays at 6-foot-1, 275 pounds, said his goal now is to keep his spot on the defense.

“I’m going to do my best to make sure I keep it where it’s at,” he said. “Keep the competition going and make everybody behind me try to catch up.”

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