From Timber Lake to Titletown: Tucker Kraft's long road from 9-man superstar to Green Bay Packer
The South Dakota State tight end leaned on himself and family to overcome long odds and personal tragedy on the way to the NFL.
TIMBER LAKE, S.D. — Doug Kraft was everywhere.
On a sign in the hangar at Air Kraft Spraying where the NFL Draft party was held for his son Tucker.
In the newspaper clippings and photos hanging on the office wall.
And on a hill just a mile away, where he was buried after a single-passenger plane crash 10 years ago.
Tucker Kraft was picked by the Green Bay Packers in the third round of the NFL Draft on Friday evening. At the long-awaited but inevitable moment the Kraft family heard their name, it was hard not to feel Doug's presence as the entire town of Timber Lake celebrated.
"People tell me a lot — he's up there watching," Tucker said mere hours before becoming a Packer. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, I know.' I think about him a lot."
It's easy to take a look at Kraft, a 6-foot-5, 256-pound specimen who was an All-American tight end at South Dakota State, and assume he was a born football player, touched by God with gifts the rest of us dream of. His ascension to the NFL may seem preordained.
But as easy as he sometimes made it look on the field, Kraft's rise from this tiny outpost in the literal middle of nowhere South Dakota to Lambeau Field was fraught with tragedy and personal obstacles. From the time he was a teenager to the moment he decided to spurn six-figure offers to leave the Jackrabbits for the SEC, he never stopped working on everything. His body, his pass-catching, his route-running, his understanding of schemes and strategies. After all his family had been through, he would leave nothing to chance.
"This was not something he stumbled into," said Tanner Kraft, Tucker's 26-year-old brother. "This was something he worked tremendously hard for. He's earned everything that's come to him. And he went through a lot to get there."
A football family
Tucker Kraft's earliest memories of football involve playing catch with Doug.
"We'd go out in the yard and toss the skin around all the time," Kraft says. "I remember being a kid sitting in the backyard and him and my oldest brother (Cody) playing catch, and just hearing that football whiz back and forth."
Doug was an ideal teacher of the game, having been a tremendous athlete himself. A three-sport star at Timber Lake, he played college football at Huron University, an NAIA program 150 miles away, and emerged as an All-American wide receiver, setting nearly every receiving record for the program. He was so good, in fact, that despite playing at a tiny college that no longer exists, he was offered a tryout for the Miami Dolphins after he graduated with a criminal justice degree in 1997.
Cody, the oldest, was the first to take after Doug as an athlete. He'd go on to play Division II football at Northern State, and credits Doug for raising him, Tucker and Tanner, to put in the work on the football field, basketball court and anything else they tried.
"He was never demanding," Cody, 29, says, "But there was an understanding that if you were going to do it you were going to go wholesale. There would be no half-assing it. One year Tanner and I started running with the cross country team before football season just to get in shape. But because we'd started the season with a cross country team, guess who was getting up at five in the morning on a Saturday after a football game to run the cross country meets?"
The boys' mother, Tausha Kraft, remembers those lessons well.
"He put that in their heads from an early age," Tausha said. "You always give 100 percent in whatever you do, even if it's something you don't want to be doing. You can't quit. Never be that guy."
Doug worked with his sons as much as he could but never pushed them beyond their own desire to play, and never contradicted or interfered with their coaches. But he made his mark on them.
"I played Division II football, I've played open gym basketball against D1 athletes, and (Doug) is the single best athlete I've ever played against," Cody said of his father. "This one time, he's 39 years old and I'm playing 1-on-1 against him, talking a little smack, and all the sudden he takes me on a fast break and just dunks it on me. We were the same height, about 6-3 and a half and he just... up he went and threw it down on me. I didn't even see it coming."
The most interesting man in Timber Lake
Here's the thing about Doug Kraft, though. His athletic prowess is just a small part of his legacy. He rode horses and motorcycles. Fixed old cars. He played the guitar and the trumpet. He was a volunteer fireman; served on the city council. He ran cattle on the family farm as a youth and became a pilot as an adult. Around Timber Lake, Doug was the guy who got out first after a blizzard to clear snow off the roads and driveways. He volunteered his time giving kids basketball pointers at open gyms and teaching them to play guitar on the side.
"He was just somebody that everybody wanted to be around," said Tanner Kraft. "He just made people feel good, you know? I felt that, of course — he was my dad. But my friends would come over and come into our house and it was like he was their best friend, too. He just treated people right. He was a lot of fun."
"You know what people mean by the (crap) sandwich — where you give someone a compliment, then the thing they need to work on, and then another compliment — he was a master at that," Cody remembers with a smile. "He had this way of making people feel important. People come up and tell me that all the time. He worked harder than anyone I ever knew but somehow he always found time to spend with us boys, going camping, going to the gym, or just goofing off around the house. He was really just the perfect embodiment of this town and what the people here are like and the values that we have."
'He's not coming home'
On June 6, 2013, Doug was spraying pesticide over a wheatfield outside of Ludlow, about 140 miles west of Timber Lake. He lost control of the Weatherly 620B airplane he was flying, crashed and was killed. He died of blunt trauma injuries suffered on impact. He was 39.
Tucker was 12.
"It was sudden — traumatic," Tucker says now, fighting off the emotions of the memories. "I'll never forget the noise my mom made when my brother finally said, you know, 'It was him. It was Dad. He's not coming home.'"
Doug's death sent shockwaves through the community. And it left Tausha widowed and her three boys without a dad. Cody was off at college already. Tanner, at 16, was just starting to develop the same kind of best-buds relationship with Doug that Cody already had.
"Growing up we thought it was weird when other families aren't close," Cody says. "You think everybody's family is like yours. And when you realize that's not the case I think it made us even stronger. We had to find a way to move forward. It wasn't easy, obviously."
Twelve-year-old Tucker struggled to get his head around their new reality.
"In those darkest moments you kind of feel all alone," he said. "But you've just got to remind yourself that you have all these people in your community supporting you. That whole week after it happened I had arms around me damn near 24/7."
With Cody three hours away at Northern, Tanner took it upon himself to be the man of the house. He says now that he was too hard on Tucker. He tried to be more of a father figure than a brother. He eventually realized Tucker was going to be fine, and needed both space to be himself and the companionship of a brother. Their relationship, Tanner says, improved by leaps and bounds when that happened, though the rest of the family says Tanner was the glue that held the family together.
"I never saw a tear fall from Tanner's eyes," Tucker says. "Throughout that whole process he was the strongest person I'd ever seen."
The boys were strong for each other, but for their mother, too.
Tausha, who works as a nurse in nearby Eagle Butte, admits it took her a long time to recover from the loss of her husband. But her boys got her through.
"There was a volleyball game one night," Tausha remembers, "and Tucker came home at halftime, and Tanner went (to the game) at halftime. I was laying on the sofa, because I struggled for a couple of years. And when Tucker came home I was like, OK, what's going on? Volleyball game, girls in short shorts and Tucker left early — what's going on? And Tucker said, well, mom, one of us has to be here. I said what are you talking about, you have to be here? And he said we can't leave you alone because we're afraid you're gonna do something. That's when reality hit me, that I've got to stop doing this. His brothers are the ones who supported him through those times when I wasn't quite there to be doing it."
A new focus
Eventually, football was where Tucker found sanctuary. Playing 9-man football on Doug Kraft Field in the lowest of South Dakota's seven classes, he was a four-year starter for the Panthers, playing primarily running back and linebacker but also seeing time at quarterback and serving as the team's punter. Not surprisingly, he dominated, running over or past any defender who tried to take him 1-on-1.
His physical gifts gave him an almost unfair advantage at that level, but his brothers had helped him along the way.
"One thing I had noticed when he was like a freshman, sophomore, was that he was buddy-buddy, just best friends with everybody," Cody Kraft said. "I was watching one (basketball) game and it was to the point that, like, he didn't want to stuff a guy that he was friends with on the other team. He was too nice. And I was like, hey buddy, you can absolutely be the nice guy off the court, be as sweet as possible to everyone. But when you're competing against someone, they're not your friend in that moment. You've got to be tough.
"We were playing 1-on-1 a little while after that and he tried to go through me and I just kind of shoved him to the ground. He was like, you can't do that, that's a foul. I said, kid, it's time for you to get a little tougher, because when you get outside Timber Lake the level of competition is gonna hit you like a ton of bricks."
Another family challenge
If it was starting to feel like the family was coming out of the fog following Doug's death, that peace would soon be interrupted.
Tausha developed an autoimmune disease in 2014, one that made breathing difficult and resulted in multiple visits to the emergency room, a series of intubations and eventually trips to the Mayo Clinic. Tausha battled the issues for years, and soon Tanner was off at college, too, at Lake Area Tech in Watertown.
"I spent a lot of that time alone, at my house," Tucker remembers. "And I realized like, OK, I'm not gonna rely on anybody to pay for my college tuition but myself. I knew I was naturally gifted athletically. So I decided I was going to get a scholarship."
Tausha tried to hide as much of her physical struggle from Tucker as she could. She'd drive herself to the ER in Eagle Butte after he was asleep, and as a nurse knew how to give herself an IV. And there were times Cody and Tanner would come and be with Tucker to distract him from the fact that Tausha was back in the hospital on oxygen.
Meanwhile, Kraft was emerging as a football star, and colleges were taking notice.
But Kraft knew anything he accomplished in 9-man football would be taken with a grain of salt. He recognized that dominating that level wasn't enough.
"Playing in this part of the state, playing against the same 9-man competition over and over again, you can only better yourself so much," Kraft said. "So I sought out everything extra I could. Lifting, strength conditioning. If I couldn't be the smartest or most polished high school prospect going into college I was going to be the toughest."
Everyone in Timber Lake took notice. Ross Kraft, a cousin of Tucker's, remembers seeing him in the yard running sprints with a parachute tied to his back and thinking, "What the (hell) is he doing?" The work never stopped.
"By the time he was a junior, I remember coming home from college and he'd been hanging out in the weight room and I just realized how high the sky was for him," Cody Kraft said. "You could see he was going to do some impressive stuff in his career. Getting to the NFL, honestly, felt more like a when than an if."
Eventually, Tausha found the treatment she needed and has made a mostly full recovery. Tucker never worried he might lose his mom, but Tausha, 49, said she was told there was a chance she may not live past 45.
"I've already done that," she says with a proud grin. "And I've gotten better. I'm on some amazing meds from some amazing doctors. My lung functions stopped deteriorating. And I'm back to being able to walk without oxygen and work again."
Tausha remarried, to Guthrie Ducheneaux, in 2018. It didn't take long for him to become close to the Kraft boys.
"The first time I came up here and met them, I went home and my brothers asked me what it was like and I said they're a bunch of cavemen," Ducheneaux said. "I told Tausha that and she said, 'Oh that's just what it's like in a house full of boys,' and I said, 'No, I grew up in a house full of boys, too, and it wasn't like that.' These kids are special. They always have each other's back. They're the epitome of family."
Joining the Jacks
Kraft committed to SDSU in June of 2018 after attending their junior camp. Though he had played mostly running back for the Panthers, SDSU saw his size and the way he ran over defenders and envisioned an unstoppable tight end. The Jacks had just sent tight end Dallas Goedert to the NFL, and while Kraft was only slightly familiar with Goedert, SDSU knew the Timber Lake star had a chance to be the same kind of impact player at the position that Goedert was.
Kraft had slid mostly under the recruiting radar to that point, but Wyoming, an FBS school in the Mountain West, caught wind of him late and made a scholarship offer. Iowa State, in the Big 12, was interested in him as a walk-on. Kraft admits he nearly flipped to Wyoming, but ultimately stayed with SDSU. It would not be the first time he would spurn an offer from an FBS school.
SDSU's coaches were well aware of the personal hardships Kraft had dealt with in his youth, and he shared with them in private conversations that the memory of his father and well-being of his mother were both driving forces for him. They saw right away the determination he brought with him to the field. Kraft had set a high bar for himself before even taking the field, and quickly showed he would reach it.
"He was just different," said Jimmy Rogers, who was the defensive coordinator at SDSU when Kraft arrived and is now the head coach. "He knew what he needed to work on and he just kept working on it. There's some guys that know what they need to work on but they don't have the confidence to feel like they're ever going to get it. He failed a bunch early, just on the mental side of things, because coming to college is significantly different than playing high school ball in Timber Lake. But he stayed at it and just kept getting better and better and better."
Ryan Olson, who was SDSU's tight ends coach and now directs the offensive line, remembers being impressed by Kraft's self-awareness, and enthusiasm to learn everything about his new position and the details of a more-advanced offensive system.
"He understood that he was a little bit behind in terms of concepts and understanding the defense, so he asked a lot of questions," Olson said. "He didn't just want to memorize his route. He wanted to understand the whole picture. He wanted to know the 'why' on every step and every play. He'd come into my office and just draw plays on the white board - do you think this will work? What about this? Sometimes I'd come back from lunch or a meeting and there'd be all kinds of, just, Star Wars stuff drawn up on my board and I'd just be like, well, I guess Tucker was here."
After redshirting in 2019 Kraft was ready to be a regular contributor in the COVID-delayed spring season of 2020, but was slowed by an injury in the season opener. He played in seven games and caught seven passes as SDSU reached the national championship game. But Kraft's performance in the title game loss to Sam Houston State included multiple dropped passes and penalties.
"He played awful — the worst game he's ever played," Olson said. "He knew it, and he didn't try to sugarcoat it."
With a short turnaround between the spring and the fall season of 2021, SDSU granted all their players as much time as they needed to go home or take time off to recharge. Kraft stayed in Brookings and worked harder than he ever had.
"He never went home, I mean, he literally never left," Olson said. "And he was on the JUGS (pass throwing) machine every day. He was hitting bags every day. That, to me, was him saying, 'I'm not good enough, so I'm gonna work my ass off until I prove to myself that I am.' He's just gonna work and work until he gets there. To me, that summer was what turned him into the player he is now."
The results came quick. Kraft caught five balls for 53 yards in the 2021 season-opening rout of Colorado State, setting him on his way to an All-America season. He caught 65 passes for 780 yards and six touchdowns, putting himself officially on the NFL radar, though he was still just a sophomore. SDSU won 11 games, reaching the FCS semifinals.
Becoming Tucker Kraft
By this time, Kraft's fun-loving personality was starting to shine through. He took on a more vocal role in meetings and in the huddle. Reporters recognized he was a quote machine. Fans saw the emotion and flair he brought to games. You only needed to watch Tucker Kraft play once to see he made sure to have fun on the field.
"Tucker's always been Tucker, from freshman scout team guy to NFL Draft pick," said SDSU defensive end Quinton Hicks. "He's a guy you love being around. If I'm ever down — Tucker's never down. Tucker has never had a bad day. That's why we all love him."
One of coach John Stiegelmeier's mantras was to, "Be an individual within the team." So Kraft's carefree attitude was embraced, and rarely needed to be reined in.
"Everybody here in this program kind of accepts everybody and gets along with each other," Rogers said. "But to have a guy that can be lighthearted and be committed and still produce and work hard even though he's kind of seen as a jokester, I think those things are important."
Kraft admits he likes to have fun, and clearly does not need to be reminded not to take himself too seriously. But he also offers that his demeanor may come from another source.
"I think there's a lot of remembrance of my dad through me to other people," Tucker said. "My mannerisms, my grin, my sense of humor. I feel like he lives through me and my brothers in a lot of ways."
If Kraft endeared himself to teammates and coaches with his positivity, what happened in the summer of 2022 would only strengthen those ties.
Kraft's breakout season and impressive measurables had caught the attention of scouts everywhere. And with recent changes to NCAA rules, Kraft could not only take advantage of a one-time free transfer rule, but other schools could now offer him lucrative packages under the guise of the NCAA's new NIL (name-image-likeness) standards.
Kraft got calls from teams in the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC among others, offering six figures in cash and other gifts. In return, to make such arrangements legal under the NIL guidelines, Kraft would have to do some form of endorsements or public appearances. He listened to the offers, and admits to considering them strongly.
"We're talking about a different kind of money than most of us deal with," Olson said. "So there was a little stretch there, I think it was a Friday, where I remember thinking, it's over. He's gone. We thought it was a done deal."
Jacks guard Mason McCormick was Kraft's confidant through the negotiations, and isn't bashful about how hard he lobbied for his teammate to stay. Not only could Kraft win a title with the Jacks, McCormick reasoned, but there was no guarantee he'd have the same role for a blue blood.
"I told him, 'Dude, you got a good thing going here, and you can be pretty sure you're going to be our guy here,'" said McCormick, an All-American and NFL prospect himself. "South Dakota State made Tucker and myself who we are. Who are we to go somewhere else and have a different school reap the benefits of what this place created for us?"
That said, none of the players would've begrudged Kraft for leaving. Many would have gone if given the same opportunity. Kraft didn't.
"You've got to stay true to yourself," Kraft said a few weeks after recommitting to SDSU. He was convinced he could be a high draft pick without leaving FCS for the big time. And he wanted to win a national championship before going pro.
"His decision just reaffirmed who he is as a person," Olson said. "I'll admit, when I thought he was leaving, I was pissed off. I was hurt. I just couldn't believe it. And then he called me to say he was staying and it was just like, 'No, he's exactly the kid I thought he was.' It meant a lot to me and I'm sure it meant a lot to the guys."
Winning it all
The Jacks returned a loaded roster in 2022, and Kraft figured to be the focal point of the offense under rookie coordinator Zach Lujan. That lasted all of five plays. Kraft suffered a serious foot injury the first time he touched the ball in an eventual 7-3 loss to Iowa. He would miss six weeks after undergoing "tightrope surgery," which sutures the ligament that connects the tibia and fibula together.
But SDSU went undefeated while he was out, then got that much stronger when he returned. There had been some hope among SDSU coaches that the injury would implore Kraft to stay in school for at least another year. Due to COVID, he technically still had two remaining years of eligibility. He privately admitted multiple times throughout the year that he was constantly going back and forth on what he might do.
But after returning in a big way in a win over North Dakota, NFL scouts told Kraft they'd seen enough to maintain their confidence in him, and Kraft announced a month later he would be entering the NFL Draft after the season, the first Jackrabbit ever to declare early.
On the last home game of his career, Kraft caught a first quarter 36-yard touchdown pass from Mark Gronowski to send the Jacks on their way to a 39-18 semifinal romp of Montana State, the same team that bounced them from the playoffs the previous year, to clinch a return trip to Frisco for the national championship. They'd be playing the rival North Dakota State Bison.
In the postgame press conference, Kraft asked a reporter to snap a photo of him and teammate Caleb Sanders, and both players flashed a "horns down" symbol — a mocking inversion of NDSU's "horns up" hand gesture. When it showed up on Twitter, Bison fans lost their minds and SDSU coaches were not thrilled. Kraft offered no apologies.
"You know, I think he's earned that," said Stiegelmeier, who retired after the season. "I don't think with Tucker it was ever false confidence. As he developed as a player I think he got more confident, maybe a little more brash, but deep down he's got an unbelievable foundation."
It was just Tucker being Tucker. Three weeks later, on Jan. 8, the Jacks slammed the Bison 45-21 to win the program's first-ever national championship. Kraft's decision to stay at SDSU had been given the ultimate validation.
The next level
The next few months were a whirlwind. There was the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in late February. Kraft and his girlfriend, Baylee Jandahl, got engaged shortly after. Pro Day back at South Dakota State in late March. And then last weekend's draft.
The Krafts threw a big party on Friday, expecting Tucker would be taken that day in round two or three. The party was held in the main hangar of the Air Kraft Spraying building. Hundreds of friends and family were there, as well as several of Doug Kraft's former teammates. Doug's brother, Jake, who runs the business, gave helicopter rides. Pounds and pounds of BBQ chicken and roast beef were served, and the beer and booze flowed freely. Timber Lake knows how to party.
Tucker spent the day lifting weights with Hicks in Tanner's garage, and they later drove outside of town to shoot clay pigeons before heading to the party.
The airport was a good place to host the party because of its size, but that wasn't the only reason to have it there. Where else would Tucker Kraft want to be when his name was called on national television than in the building where he'd forged so many memories with his father?
"Being here," Tanner Kraft said with a deep breath, "it really brings everything home. It puts it all in perspective. This is where he's from. These are his roots. I couldn't be more proud to call him my brother."
When the Packers took Kraft in round three with the 78th pick, the Timber Lake crowd kicked their party into high gear. Tausha and Guthrie are, or were, Vikings fans. They laughed at the irony. Tucker fought back tears when he got the phone call, thanking the Packers for, "Making this small-town boy's dream come true."
And after everyone had time to let it sink in that this was really happening — Tucker Kraft, from Timber Lake, South Dakota, was going to play at Lambeau Field — thoughts turned to Doug Kraft.
"I try to keep thinking about how proud Doug would be right now," said Jake Kraft. "I can't even imagine how ecstatic he'd be. He'd probably be the proudest man on earth. It'd be unreal if he was here right now."
But, as so many people said that night, he was there. And he'll still be there with Tucker in Green Bay and wherever his endlessly promising career takes him.
"I remember all the good parts of my father," Tucker said. "The last week I spent with him. The first week without him. Going trucking with him, waking up in the sleeper to doughnuts and Gatorade. Spending countless hours on the tractor. But really, I remember my father as someone who really invested himself back into the community. You walk out this door right here to the west and you see my dad out there buried on a hill. And that's who I am. That's my community. That's my family. There are little bits of (Doug) all over this town. And I'm going to carry that with me for the rest of my life."