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Graduate student defensive lineman Prince Emili tackles Cornell quarterback Richie Kenney in the 2019 season.

Credit: Alec Druggan

Prince Emili has become the face of Penn football.

Emili, a veteran on Penn’s defensive line, has taken a step forward each year on his way to becoming the Quakers’ most prominent defender. As a freshman in 2016, Emili saw no game action after suffering an early-season injury. In his sophomore year, he served as a rotating role player on the defensive line, appearing in seven games.

It was not until Emili’s third year that he burst onto the scene. He made seven starts while appearing in all 10 of the Quakers’ 2018 contests. His 41 tackles were the most among any Red and Blue lineman. Then, in 2019, Emili cemented himself as the core of the Penn defense with a season worthy of a first team All-Ivy selection. He tallied 65 tackles on the season and led the team with 14 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks.

Entering the 2020 season, it looked like Emili would have a chance to both secure another first team All-Ivy season and to win Ivy League Player of the Year. However, the pandemic erased that chance when it forced the Ivy League to cancel all fall sports merely months before kickoff. Instead of gearing up for a final season alongside his teammates, Emili found himself working to find ways to stay in shape and stay connected to the team in a world where everyone was forced to be distant.

“With that year off, I had to find different ways to stay sharp and not lose sight of my goals despite all the crazy events happening in the world,” Emili said. “[We] had to step away from the team for a while, [I had] to train by myself, and it was just a different grind to stay sharp.”

For a sport as mentally and physically demanding as football, a schedule full of lifting, practices, film sessions, and team meetings are required for teams to stay competitive. The pandemic curbed nearly all these activities. Early morning team lifts were replaced with sessions in home gyms and locker room meetings were now hosted via Zoom.

Emili knew that despite the challenge of having his normal football routine shaken up, he had to push through the tough times using the same tenacity and grit he uses to succeed on the field.

“It was very challenging to not be able to have everything in one spot or work with the same people,” Emili said. “You kind of [had] to dig deep and remember why you love it and why you do what you do…[to] kind of pull through it.”

After a long hiatus from competing, Emili and the rest of the Quakers have now found themselves nearing the first game of the season. Penn is nearing the end of its fall preseason and training camp, and it will soon take the field for its first competitive action in nearly two years.

In a normal year, training camp and preseason is a time that can be grueling for players. It requires long hours on the practice field and in team meetings, as the team prepares for the rigorous college football schedule. Although this year’s camp has meant something different to the players. Many of them, especially those like Emili, who find themselves in their final season, are just grateful to be back.

“With the way the Ivy League is set up with no playoffs or anything, I know exactly when my college career is going to end,” Emili, who is now a graduate student, said. “Most people around the country can’t say something like that, but since it’s so definitive, you can kind of feel the end coming with each passing practice. I’ve tried to take it slow and enjoy the process and enjoy camp and enjoy each practice.”

The Quakers’ season, as well as Emili’s final season suiting up in the Red and Blue, will begin Saturday, when the team travels to play Bucknell. While every season-opener brings with it a heightened level of excitement and competitive spirit, this season’s first game will bring with it an entirely new level of meaning.

“I think the year off from football has created some hunger in guys,” Emili said. “While we know that it will end one day, it was taken away from us a year ago, so I feel like [this season] a lot of people are holding it much more dearly than they have before.”