One of the reasons so many people in the state have fallen in love with Kansas State football is because of the "Kansas" in "Kansas State.''
Of the 124 players listed on the Wildcats' roster — some of them redshirts, some of them most likely destined to never play in a game — 51 are from Kansas.
From places like Wamego, Clay Center and Garden Plain. From Wichita and Olathe and Topeka. From Canton, Osawkie and Albert.
Having watched Bill Snyder coach for a lot of years, there's one thing I can assure you about every one of the players at K-State — whether they're from Kansas or not — they will get an opportunity.
It might not pan out. But Snyder is famous for giving unsung players a shot. And when one makes it, the way defensive end Jordan Voelker is making it this season, a warm, fuzzy feeling ensues.
Voelker, from Newton, is a senior who spent two years at Butler Community College after not being recruited by any big-time schools out of high school. He switched from defensive end to tight end during his sophomore year at Butler in 2009 and now is back at DE.
There were times last season, his first at Kansas State, where he felt overmatched.
"He would say, 'Dad, I'm out of my league,' '' Voelker's father, Randall, a Kansas State offensive lineman in the 1980s, recalled. "He didn't think there was any way he could play with those guys in the Big 12. I just told him to get that thought out of his mind. You work hard and it'll all work out.''
When Randall Voelker feared his message wasn't getting through, he enlisted some of Jordan's old high school coaches to make a call.
Jordan Voelker hung on. And now he's the defensive end who slapped down a Robert Griffin pass on the final play of the game last week to preserve a win over Baylor. He's a guy with three sacks and three tackles for loss. He's a guy with two broken up passes and two deflections.
Now he's a guy.
"I wasn't really sure at the outset,'' Voelker said. "I wasn't sure how the transition from offense back to defense was going to work. I just kept hoping there would be that opportunity where I could get back on the field. I always had that want-to, wanting to show everybody what I could do.''
Voelker made only cameo appearances for the Wildcats in 2010. But in a new season, and in a revamped K-State defense, he has been a big contributor as No. 20 K-State prepares today for Missouri and a chance to improve to 5-0.
Voelker saw how much his dad loved K-State and always dreamed of playing there. When it didn't happen out of high school, he found a niche playing for some outstanding teams at Butler. He was never a standout for the Grizzlies, but did enough to earn a walk-on invite to K-State.
"They thought I was undersized to play tight end in the Big 12,'' Voelker said. "But they wanted to utilize my athleticism in other ways and they thought I would be a better fit for a stand-up defensive lineman. I didn't really have a problem with it. I was willing to give it a try.''
Voelker still misses playing offense, though. He enjoyed getting his hands on the football occasionally and forming that bond with the offensive linemen that only offensive linemen can understand.
It's the strongest bond in football, one that comes from playing the most unsavory and unappreciated positions on the field. Voelker thought that's where he fit in best.
"There's a common goal for those guys and that's to protect the quarterback,'' he said. "They take a lot of pride in that and it takes all of them to get the job done. If one of them messes up, then they don't succeed.''
Conversely, Voelker's job as a defensive end is to get to the person he often strived to protect as a tight end. He's discovering that hitting a quarterback isn't a bad way to play football, either.
"There's a little more freedom to playing defensive end,'' Voelker said. "You can kind of run your own show a little bit and try to make plays.''
Voelker (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) regularly comes up against guys 50, 60 and 70 pounds heavier. So he tries to utilize his advantage in speed and agility.
"You have to try to outsmart those offensive linemen a little bit,'' Voelker said. "My pre-snap reads have really helped my performance. I look at a lot of film and try to find tips to know where the ball is going to go.''
On a defense highlighted by linebackers Arthur Brown and Tre Walker and a veteran secondary, Voelker has helped give the defensive line, a real weakness for K-State last season, a boost.
And all because he didn't give up.
Another Kansas kid hung in there and found a way to become a factor.
"He's having some fun and it's been a good ride so far,'' Randall Voelker said. "He learned a really good lesson last year. There was a real learning curve for Jordan and I think he's learned a lot.''