Emerging as a versatile NFL safety out of a Division II college doesn't come without its challenges, but no adversity can quite prepare you for what Kyle Dugger and his girlfriend Kaiann experienced last season.
He managed to stand out for the New England Patriots during his rookie year, despite a pesky ankle injury and the COVID-19 pandemic making it anything but normal. That growth continued to year two, on and off the field, as he simultaneously got ready to become a father.
Then, Kyle tested positive for the virus after a Week 12 win over the Tennessee Titans. One day into his quarantine, Kaiann went into labor six weeks early.
"It's not how I saw my first child coming into the world," Kyle said. "I wouldn't call it traumatic, but it's definitely something I'll never forget. I was like, there's no way this is happening right now. She's going into labor when I'm at my peak with COVID (symptoms). It didn't seem real that the timing matched up the way it did."
Missing New England's next game against the Buffalo Bills was one thing, but not being there for the birth of your first child is another. Especially, given the complications Kaiann faced.
She arrived at the first hospital already seven centimeters dilated, but frustrated with the care she received there, Kaiann had to advocate for herself and ultimately get transferred to a different hospital.
She had her mother, a close friend, and other support there with her, but watching his girlfriend go through this alone was excruciating for Kyle.
Admittedly, he'd never been in such a trying situation or felt so helpless.
"I've never been in a position where I literally felt like I was almost handcuffed and forced to watch someone struggle," Kyle said. "It's almost as if I was restrained just to see someone I love go through something so difficult. I wasn't there to help her as well as not being there to see such an important moment. It was very weird. I felt like I was being held back and couldn't do anything."
Zairo Christian Dugger was born in early December, weighing six pounds, eight ounces. FaceTime calls with Kaiann would have to suffice as the family navigated the baby's time in the newborn intensive care unit with Kyle isolated for eight full days.
Finally, he was able to meet his son, but it came with mixed emotions.
"I was emotionally drained, honestly. I was still feeling the effects of COVID and it really took a minute to kind of hit me," Kyle said. "Once I got to the hospital I was feeling very drained of any energy I had. It was a mixed feeling with sadness and a dark cloud handing over me as I was meeting him for the first time. I hate it because I wasn't able to be really present."
As things calmed down, he got a new perspective -- especially as the offseason allowed them to head down to Charleston, S.C. to be near family and help Kaiann. Kyle is happy to get up at 4 a.m. to change or feed Zairo.
"Once I realized the opportunity I have been given, and the position I've been put in to take care of my child, it's been amazing," Kyle said. "I want to do as much as possible. Everything he does is just so adorable."
Their first offseason as a family of three has been more than what he hoped for, as he intently watches his son grow. He looks forward to playing with him and teaching him lessons about life as the years go on, and his priorities have changed entirely.
As hard as Kyle had to work to get where he is, he now has new motivation.
"The priorities have definitely switched around a lot," Kyle said. "He's the most important thing. He trumps every other reason for me to work so hard and try to be the best version of myself -- on and off the field."