This is a story of one who got away. If you grow up playing football in Nebraska and show real potential to play in college it’s sort of assumed or ordained that you will wind up playing for the University of Nebraska, whether as a recruited scholarship or walk-on student-athlete. The Cornhuskers nearly always get the cream of the state’s football crop to come to Lincoln. But once in a while and with greater frequency these days NU loses out on a real gem who decides for various reasons, sometimes because the brain trust in Lincoln doesn’t recognize or appreciate the local talent, to play their college ball elsewhere. The Huskers have lost out on some stellar players that way in the last decade, including several who went on to excel in college and to make it all the way to the NFL. This is a profile of one of these who got away – Kenton Keith of Omaha. The running back thought he had showed enough in high school to get the Huskers to bite but it didn’t happen. Well, actually, NU did show initial interest but then a shakeup there found him in the lurch, without the scholarship offer he’d expected. The rest is history. He went on to star at New Mexico State and after toiling in the Canadian Football League he made it in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, where he helped the club win a division title as a solid number two back. Things unraveled a bit for him after that but he had already found his football redemption by proving he could play at the highest level. Xavier Omon and Danny Woodhead followed him as in-state backs ignored by Nebraska and finding college stardom and making NFL rosters. Woodhead, of course, has become a popular and valuable contributor with the Patriots.
Kenton Keith’s Long and Winding Journey to Football Redemption
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha native Kenton Keith’s circuitous path to football nirvana took him to the gridiron wilderness of New Mexico and Canada before he made it to the NFL. When he landed a roster spot last off-season with the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts it marked the end of a nine-year odyssey for the fleet tailback.
“You can look at my football life and almost understand how my whole life has been. Nothing was given me. Everything was hard-earned. I always had to play against the odds and God has blessed me for every hurdle that I got over,” he said.
It all began in 1998. As a senior at Omaha Benson High School Keith was a prime target of elite Division I schools. He’d narrowed his choices to Nebraska and Penn State. He leaned toward the Huskers, where his father, Percy Keith, played. Tom Osborne was a close family friend.
“Everything was so perfect at one time,” Keith, 27, said.
Once Oz resigned, Keith said Frank Solich and Co. backed away from him late in the recruiting game. Other schools that once coveted Keith suddenly gave him “the cold shoulder” too. Why would a kid branded a phenom for his exploits with the North Omaha Bears and Benson and for his rare combo of speed, size and instinct find himself a pariah? Keith said his stock fell as a result of a Benson administrator labeling him a gang member and a poor student.
The truth, Keith said. is “I was busting my butt to make my grades right and they were actually already good.” He said he was never in a gang, only a rap music group. Music is still a huge part of his life.
He ended up with but two scholarship offers — from NAIA Morningside and D-I New Mexico State. A last gasp effort by NU, including a call from Oz, did not sway his decision to play for the Aggies down in Las Cruces, N.M., far from family, friends, media centers and NFL scouts.
The way NU did him left Keith “discouraged and upset.” “A lot of stuff happened between me and Nebraska that nobody knows about,” he said.
Instead of being embittered, he said, “I made the best of it I could.” After a stellar if injury-plagued four-year career at NMSU, Keith went undrafted by the NFL in 2001. He was devastated. He quit football before the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL called in 2002. He spent a year-and-a-half on the team’s practice squad. Then, in 2003, his chance finally came and he blew up the league. Three-and-a-half productive seasons and one failed NFL tryout (with the New York Jets) later, he’s now a contributor for the most watched team in all pro sports.
Despite the many “backstreets” he took to get there, he never doubted he could play with the big boys. “I always knew what I could do,” he said.
He’s not only “beaten the odds” but proven a valuable addition. Signed as a free agent in January, he enjoyed a strong training camp and by the Sept. 6 opener the 5’11, 209-pound rookie established himself as the No. 2 back behind Joseph Addai. Keith saw spot relief duty the first three games. Then, when Addai got dinged in the Sept. 30 game versus Denver, Keith came in to gain 80 yards on 10 carries as the Colts won 38-20. With Addai out nursing an injury, Keith started the Oct. 7 Tampa Bay game and showed his dependability and durability by rushing for 121 yards on 28 carries and one touchdown and catching five passes for 37 more yards in a 33-14 Indy win.
In the next two games Keith also saw significant action. In a 29-7 win over Jacksonville he split time with Addai — gaining 56 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. In a 31-7 win over Carolina he tallied 36 yards rushing. His playing time decreased in Indy’s Nov. 4 marquee showdown with New England. But in a near comeback over San Diego last Sunday night he got the call on a critical second-half drive and responded. His running set up the Colts in the red zone and he converted a dump pass into an 7-yard TD reception to draw Indy within seven. For the season he’s totaled 369 yards rushing and three TDs, averaging a solid 4.6 yards per attempt, and he’s added 62 yards receiving and one more score.
He’s shown glimpses in the NFL of the breakaway ability he’s always possessed.
“I’ve always been told I’m a big play type of guy. I don’t know if I really look to do it, it just always happens,” he said. “I think my vision is what separates me from a lot of runners. I read people’s body language to see where I can go…turn. If a guy is committed to one side, then there’s no way he can get back to the cutback if you can get there first.
“I think it’s just something that you feel. It’s almost like you can feel it before you can see it. It’s weird, man.”
He’s put his moves on hold for now, content playing it safe getting “positive yards and first downs. It’s almost like when you’re playing the backup role and you’re just put in for one game you don’t want to do anything wrong,” he said. “I’ve been getting to the secondary a lot…and I think maybe there’s been times where I could have put a move on somebody and taken it outside and gone the distance. I mean, that’s going to come soon when I get a little bit more comfortable.”
He’s “95 percent comfortable” with the playbook now. The “learning process,” he said, is more challenging than any physical adjustment he’s had to make. To his surprise the 7-2 Colts are smaller than his former Roughriders’ teammates. But the Colts speed and the game’s tempo, he said, are faster than up north.
For Keith, who’s mostly played on mediocre teams, the Colts’ winning attitude is a breath of fresh air. He doesn’t know when his next major playing time will come, but he’s sure he’ll be ready when it does.
“I really believe the way you practice is how you’re going to play…so I try to make sure I practice real hard and stay mentally focused out there.”
Whatever happens, he’s glad he stuck this long and winding journey out. “It seems like it’s a big reward for the way things have been going throughout my football career,” he said. “God blessed me to come here with the Colts and to be like a perfect fit for what this team needed.”
- Joseph Addai Will Reportedly Sign With New England Patriots (boston.sbnation.com)
- Colts Under The Microscope: Austin Collie (stampedeblue.com)
Jana Murrell was somewhat of a trendsetter when I did this mini-profile on her in 2005. She was the first Miss Nebraska who was not Caucasian (though she is biracial she identifies as African-American) and she competed with several other women of color in the Miss USA pageant that year. Since then more African-American women have become pageant winners and finalists both here and nationally. She went on to compete in other national pageants, including Miss Earth USA. She was an on-camera television traffic reporter for a time at KETV in Omaha. But all along she was studying for her Ph.D. in physical therapy. She went on to work as Essence Pageant emcee and director of operations. And I just read where she’s newly engaged to be married. She and other women of color have helped redefine standards of beauty in America that are more diverse and inclusive and that’s a good thing. Black is beautiful, baby. So is brown and every other hue.
Jana Murrell: Working Towards a New Standard of Beauty
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
After years of neglect, women of color are fast emerging as new cultural icons of beauty in America. Reigning Miss Nebraska USA Jana Murrell, a 23-year-old African-American from Omaha competing in the Miss USA 2005 pageant being broadcast April 11 by NBC, is part of this barrier-breaking trend. “I think it’s about time,” said Murrell, gesturing in her best spokesmodel way at her North Omaha home. “You know, it’s really hard to change the public’s opinion of beauty from the blond-haired, blue-eyed girl that’s kind of been IT forever. So, for us to be able to make that change is something pretty powerful. I’m glad society’s being more accepting and more open to different kinds of beauty. Beauty’s everywhere.”
Murrell is one of several women of color competing in the 54th annual event, which takes place at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore, MD.
Currently on break from her physical therapy doctorate studies at Creighton University, where she was a 2000 Presidential Diversity scholarship recipient, Murrell defies beauty pageant contestant stereotypes in many ways. The product of an interracial family, the mocha-complexioned, 5-foot-11 Murrell, whose blue eyes change to green, gray and blue-green depending on the light, embodies expectation-bending with her fairly exotic look and eclectic resume. A former competitive athlete who teaches step aerobics, Murrell is also a perennial Dean’s List student. She’s equally comfortable rehabbing patients in a set of scrubs to gliding down a runway in a swimsuit or evening gown to working out in sweats to making an elegant public appearance in a smart ensemble. This combination tomboy, girly girl and nerd enjoys how her versatility keeps people guessing. Her biracial makeup is another expression of her multi-dimensional identity.
“What I like best, which I think actually could help me at Miss USA, is that you can’t tell what I am. A lot of people come up and ask me, ‘What are you?’ And I like that. I like being different looking,” Murrell said. “I like that our society is becoming so mixed and integrated and such a melting pot that sometimes you can’t tell what people are anymore. And when you can’t tell what they are, you can’t label them. They’re just people. Now, beauty is just beauty. Not black or white…”
However, she said she still runs up against old attitudes that beg the question, “’What’s it like being a black Miss Nebraska?’” And I’m like, ‘Why don’t you ask me what it’s like being me?’ Or, ‘Why do I have to be the black Miss Nebraska? Why can’t I be Miss Nebraska?’” Good point.
The North High graduate entered her first Miss Nebraska USA pageant only a few years ago. She finished as first-runnerup twice, before winning the crown and sash in Norfolk, Neb. last fall. Always looking for new ways to challenge herself, she views the pageant thing as an opportunity to improve herself and to test the fashion/entertainment waters. She’s “dabbled” in modeling. An agent once urged her to go to New York, but her mother nixed that. School came first. With her long-term professional track charted — Murrell plans working with patients suffering from neurological disorders — she has the security of a career awaiting her. But with a year off from school to fulfill her title’s goodwill obligations, she hopes Miss USA provides a forum for being seen and discovered.
“If I meet the people I would like to meet and get the chances I would like to get,” she said, “then this is the time I can really pursue that and see what happens. It’s kind of like my last chance to really go for that.”
Speaking from Baltimore on the eve of Miss USA, Murrell was prepping for a telecast number in the “little red” Tadashi dress contestants wear. She said the many pre-pageant activities make for 16-hour days. There are meet-and-greet events, photo shoots, tapings, fittings, fashion shows, rehearsals. “It’s fast-paced, go-go-go. You don’t get a lot of sleep. But it’s a lot of fun. I’m still feeling really prepared and ready and confident. And I still feel like I might do it,” she said. Win, or finish high, she means. No Miss Nebraska has ever won and the last semi-finalist from here was in 1980. Whatever happens, she’ll have plenty of family on hand, including her parents. “I’ll have quite a little cheering section.”
She’s struck up a few friendships with contestants. Away from the cameras, she said, the vibe among the women “is like a big slumber party.” Besides meeting some Baltimore Ravens players for a staged game of flag football, she hasn’t hooked-up with any big names or door-opener types yet. Hobnobbing with The Donald, as in pageant principal Donald Trump, is sure to be a highlight as will be pressing-the-flesh with celebrity judge Sugar Ray Leonard. Even if someone doesn’t make her an offer she can’t refuse, Murrell can take solace in the fact “we’re the pageant that’s still on TV,” referring to the rival Miss America pageant’s relative decline.