Chuckie Keeton will be stamped on Utah State football forever, in my opinion. —Gary Andersen, Utah State head football coach
LOGAN — The ambitious 17-year-old Texas native had never seen anything like it.
"It was a riot out there," said Chuckie Keeton of watching euphoric Aggie faithful storm the football field after USU defeated BYU 31-16 on a beautiful fall night in 2010.
Then a senior in high school, Keeton was invited, along with several other prep players, to visit the campus the weekend the Aggies hosted BYU. It was a plan designed to show the young recruits that Utah State was building something special in Logan.
"It was huge," said Utah State head football coach Gary Andersen of the impact attending that game had on Keeton. "The whole atmosphere, the packed house, ESPN; it was the perfect storm, if you will. The way we won it; it was off the charts. For him, it showed him this is big-time Division I football, and that's what Chuckie wanted. That's what got him over the top. It was a little risky at that time, but it all worked out."
Risky because this was a program coming back from once being ranked the worst Division I college football program. In fact, for several years attendance at football games was so abysmal, there was talk of moving the program to a lower level of competition.
And then came Gary Andersen.
The program turned around so dramatically under him that it was almost surreal for fans. So when they had their moment, they seized it. And their reaction made a lasting impression on the young quarterback.
In fact, the way the community has rallied around the Aggie's resurgence still inspires Keeton.
"The BYU game was probably my biggest experience," he said. "It was one of the things I'll probably never forget. With that, I have to make my own memories now."
He took a step in that direction when he led the Aggies to an overtime victory against Utah — in Logan.
"The Utah win is the biggest win I've been a part of," he said. "It was also Hall of Fame weekend, and a couple of guys almost cried. It was remarkable to see it having that big of an impact."
Instead of feeling the pressure that comes from knowing a community of fans and alumni are counting on you, Keeton feels energized.
"It doesn't put pressure on me," he said. "It sets a new kind of goal. It's a new aiming point as far as the hill we're going to climb."
In other words, each moment of success only raises the expectation of what's possible for the program. Keeton's legacy is off to an impressive start. He threw for 1,200 yards in nine games last year with 11 touchdowns. He threw only two interceptions.
This year, he has led the Aggies to a 4-1 start, their best since 1978 when USU won its first five games. In the game against UNLV, Keeton passed for 402 yards and went 20-of-33 with four touchdowns.
His path to a place he'd never heard of in a state he thought was buried beneath snow year round began when he was barely old enough to hold a football, let alone throw it.
"I was going to (my older brother's) games all the time, I don't know," he said smiling. "I guess I just wanted a piece of it."
Easy-going but hard working, Keeton has always played quarterback, save his sophomore year of high school when he switched positions to get varsity playing time.
"I always want to have the football whenever I can," he said. "Just being the guy at the right time or at a critical moment has always been what I've wanted. Some people look at it as a fear, like if I mess up, this will happen or I'll get yelled at. I don't really think about it that much."
That's because the youngest of Charles and Lavern's three children wants to be the reliable guy. That's why he understands why BYU senior quarterback Riley Nelson would want to play through injuries.
He admits he's played with injuries because he wanted his teammates to know they could count on him.
"If anything, I feel more pressure from myself," he said. "It doesn't come from the guys. I feel the pressure. I feel encouragement from the guys. I trust myself more than anybody else. I definitely want to be there for them. Sometimes it's hard to let go of the reins. Especially in my position."
He knows what it's like to watch the team in someone else's hands. He played in 11 games and started eight before an injury in Hawaii ended his season..
"That was definitely one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," he said. "I felt that I started to put a stamp on our team, as far as being a guy we can rely on. I kind of got it snatched away from me. It was one of those things where they were just trying to look out for my health. I had a lot of trust in Adam, so that helped. I just want to be somebody that everybody can rely on."
Keeton endured a lengthy battle for the starting job as a junior in high school. While it was at times discouraging and emotionally exhausting, he said it also prepared him for what he faced as a freshman hoping to start for the Aggies.
"It went on forever," said Keeton of fighting to be the starting quarterback for his Cypress Creek High School in Houston, Texas. "It was really strenuous, at least for me. It started in the spring and didn't end until a couple of games before the first game of our junior year."
The worst part was that he thought he'd earned the spot long before coaches gave him the nod. What he learned still serves him well — patience, trust your coaches and never take anything for granted.
"I talked to my dad about it a lot," he said. "It went on forever, and I kind of thought I'd won it more than two days before the game. But it wasn't really up to me ... I just have to keep playing. At least that's the way I look at it."
Andersen said the outgoing, affable young man is extremely competitive, but he also doesn't dwell on mistakes, including losses.
"He bounces back but it hurts him," said Andersen. For example the loss to Wisconsin may have ended on a missed field goal for the Aggies, but the coach said Keeton can rattle off a list of things that would have allowed them to score at other points in the game.
"Like every great competitor, you can't forget it, you have to keep it there in the back of your mind," Andersen said. "But you have to move on. Chuckie is awesome that way. That's why he's so good. He doesn't forget when he's winning; he doesn't forget when he's losing. But he can move on through both of them."
Keeton confirmed his coach's assessment of him, but added that he's experienced the ups and downs of turning a program around before — in high school.
"It's definitely a rollercoaster," he said. "My freshman year, the varsity team won two games out of 10. The next year we went 9-1 in the regular season. That's really how I'm looking at things here. It's fun to see how different it is from where (the program) was."
Keeton's dream is the same as a lot of little boys who run around with footballs long before they can throw them — play in the NFL. But before he chases that dream, he wants an education and a few more moments like the 2010 BYU victory and the 2012 Utah win.
He wants to leave his mark on a storied program, something Andersen said he's already started.
"Chuckie Keeton will be stamped on Utah State football forever, in my opinion," said Andersen. "But I think that will grow and grow and could be something very, very special as he moves forward."
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