Damian Ilalio wasn’t expecting much to come from his call with Taylor Braet.
Braet. Kansas State football’s director of football recruiting, texted Ilalio early on July 23 asking if he could talk to the Manhattan High defensive lineman at some point in the day. Ilalio, who works as a laborer, had work throughout the day but accepted the offer for a FaceTime call that night.
The only abnormal part of the request was for Ilalio’s parents to be there for the conversation.
“I wasn’t expecting a whole lot,” Ilalio told The Mercury in a phone interview. “I had just got off a late shift and was tired, not suspecting anything. It was another call, a check-up to see how I was doing.”
Ilalio picked up his phone to see Braet and head coach Chris Klieman. As the conversation went on, Klieman started speaking about what he saw for Ilalio’s future.
“I kind of got excited,” Ilalio said.
It was at that point when Klieman got to the heart of the call: Kansas State wanted to offer Ilalio a scholarship to be a part of its 2021 recruiting class.
“All the tiredness went away,” Ilalio said. “My parents were happy for me. It was really great.”
Ilalio accepted the scholarship Tuesday, becoming the Wildcats’ 13th overall commit in the 2021 class and the second Manhattan High player in as many years to choose Kansas State.
Accepting the offer, which was Ilalio’s first from a Power 5 program and his 10th overall, was an easy choice. However, the circumstances that preceded the decision were anything but.
When Ilalio first started receiving offers in March, he was determined to take as much time as needed to make his decision. He wanted to have an opportunity to visit the schools that showed interest and process what options were on the table.
“For me, I always thought I wouldn’t make a decision until the last minute,” Ilalio told the Mercury in a June interview. “Not because I’m lazy, but I wanted to have as much time as possible to evaluate everyone, just in case something changed last minute and I couldn’t go to a school for some reason. I want all the time I’m given to make a good decision for my future.”
Then, the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States. Suddenly, the NCAA instituted a dead period for recruiting, barring schools from allowing prospective players from taking official visits, visiting with coaches face-to-face or having coaches visit players at games. The only way for the two sides to communicate is through letters and phone calls.
With the uncertainty surrounding when, or if, Ilalio would be able to have a standard recruitment, he decided to go with what he knew.
He has lived in Manhattan since his freshman year of high school, when he moved from Washington. In that time, he has grown to know both the city and the football program that dominates its Saturdays in the fall.
“Since I got here my freshman year, I could tell how much the city loves K-State, how integrated it was, how everybody bled purple,” Ilalio said. “I really liked the energy I felt when I got here. I like the community. I like the place I’m at.”
As he adjusted to living in Manhattan, Ilalio also started making his mark on the football field. At the end of his junior season, he was named the Centennial League’s Defensive Player of the Year and earned a spot on the All-Flint Hills first team for the second time.
Around the same time, he also took an unofficial visit to Kansas State; it still is the only campus Ilalio has been able to visit.
With the circumstances as they are, Kansas State’s offer was the only one that made sense to Ilalio. His relationships with the coaches were already solid by the time the pandemic began, and he already had seen what the school had to offer facility- and gameday-wise.
It made four days go from a short period of time to plenty for a decision.
“I’m comfortable with the staff, comfortable with the place,” Ilalio said. “I love it in Manhattan. ... I didn’t want to make my decision that long because it was an important offer to me and it didn’t deserve a long wait. I didn’t feel like there was another school that could compete. I’m really comfortable here, I really love it here and at a time like this where the world is going crazy, I don’t want to venture out to something new.”
With the decision out of the way, Ilalio is focusing on his senior season. While he said he always will listen to what coaches from other colleges have to say about their programs, Ilalio is firm on his decision.
“I think my mind is pretty made up of where I want to go ... I do feel relieved now that I have that secured,” Ilalio said. “It’s relieving knowing my hard work has paid off and that the next chapter I’ve set up for myself is waiting for me. That’s really nice.”