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)