So my big goal, at least for this team, is to win a conference championship — I've only been able to win one since I've been here, but it was an incredible feeling. And I definitely want to relive that. And then, we've been to three bowl games in a row now and won the last two, and I want to keep that going. —Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton
LOGAN — Chuckie Keeton is much, much more than "just" a football player.
Oh, make no mistake about it, this young man is a tremendous player, one of the best college quarterbacks in the entire country.
But his leadership ability, big-picture perspective, and amazing attitude in the face of adversity make him a lot more than just another gridiron great.
After all, this is a guy who suddenly had his 2013 campaign ripped away from him when, in the sixth game of the season last October against BYU, he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament — yes, the dreaded ACL injury that has befallen so many athletes over the years.
But, incredibly, Keeton says in some ways the devastating injury may have been a blessing in disguise.
"It was tough for a little bit," he said, "but at the end of the day, I knew I still had a heart and I knew I had a brain, so I knew I'd still live. ... I love football and everything that comes with it, but I mean, if something exploded and football no longer existed, I'd still be able to live. I guess that was the backdrop I had and the thing that was in the back of my mind.
"It definitely gave me a different outlook, not just on life, but just on a lot of different aspects of life. First of all, football isn't life — that's a very big thing. Whenever you're caught up in either having a really good season where people know you more for football than, like, he was the guy that might've opened the door for this lady, then it kinda changes your perspective. It makes you think a lot more about just football than your actual life. Football isn't going to be here for the rest of my life, but everything else will.
"It was an experience, to say the least," Keeton said of dealing with the torn ACL. "It was an experience that I definitely won't forget. But more than anything else — OK, I'd rather have not torn my ACL, but I cannot regret that it happened because so much good has come from it that I can't have any hard feelings towards it. It was something that — it's crazy to say I'm happy I tore my ACL — but at the end of the day, I kinda am. I learned a lot from it."
"The play" took place on Oct. 4, 2013 in the first quarter of a home game against the Cougars when Keeton scrambled out of the pocket and headed upfield, leaped to avoid a tackler and gain more yardage, then was hit by another BYU defender just as he landed. He went down and the knee buckled, and Keeton immediately knew it wasn't a routine football injury.
"The thing is, I've had a few tweaks in my knee, I've dealt with pain before and the pain has always been temporary," he said. "So I knew I could get through it. "But when I hit the ground, I knew it was something different; I knew it wasn't normal pain. So immediately, I started to panic a little bit; I was yelling a lot, so that wasn't good. But I didn't cuss, which is a good thing — I kept my integrity.
"When I got up, I knew I wasn't really walking that easily and I knew I had a lot of instability in my knee, because when I hit the ground and I kind of rolled over and my leg just kind of fell," Keeton said. "As soon as I got up and I saw my guys around me, I was definitely OK and all that. Of course, I was still hurting, but I knew everything would be OK.
"Sure, it was the end of my football season, but I knew at one point there would be better things to come, and I've got one more year so I'm looking forward to that."
As anyone who has dealt with a torn ACL knows, it's a long, painful process to get that knee healed up again — surgery, the frustration brought on my forced inactivity, months of rehabilitation therapy, and all the mental and emotional uncertainty that goes with it: Will that knee ever be the same again? Will you be able to do all the things you could do before?
For an athlete like Keeton, whose footspeed, athleticism and agility are such huge parts of his success, there was certainly cause for concern.
But he took a look at that big, dark cloud and, by maintaining an extremely positive perspective through it all, was able to see a brilliant silver lining in it.
"It was really tough at first," he admitted, pointing out that whenever the Aggies played a road game, he was so stressed out he couldn't eat a thing because his "stomach was just churning the whole time."
For him, the thing he missed the most was "the interaction with my teammates. And that was one thing that killed me more than not being able to play, because I can't tell them what I need to tell them and I can't tell them what they need to see."
He was soon able to be on the sideline during home games, though, and when a teammate suffered a concussion against Wyoming, it was Keeton who drove to the hospital to check up on him before the game ended.
"There I go being 'Team Mom' again," Keeton said. "I had to make sure he was all good, because everyone's at the game so none of the coaches are gonna be able to go. ... And I was like, well, he needs a face. ... Nobody really questioned it, just because that's kinda like what I do.
"Overall, my junior year sideline experience was love-hate at the end of the day. It was love because I was able to be with my guys and I was able to help (freshman quarterback) Darell (Garretson) as much as I could and keep the receivers and the O-line levelheaded and all that. But man, some of that was stressful at the same time. ... It was a love-hate experience. I love that we did so great, I truly do, but my only negative to that was that I wasn't able to be on the field with them to experience it and share it with them."
Keeton also saw something else take place among his teammates after his injury.
"I know the dynamic and the way we did things changed a little bit when I went down," he said, "and it was great to see because I know some of the guys they vocalized it that they needed to step up a little bit more and with that, I think that's another reason we played so much better toward the end of the season.
"And that's what gives me a lot more hope for this upcoming season, because I plan on being able to provide for them the way I used to, if not a little bit better, and I know that they have a little bit more in the tank because I've seen it. And at the end of the day, I think when we combine it, it's gonna be a great combination."
Yes, thankfully, Keeton still has his senior season left to play. And he and USU coach Matt Wells are hopefully optimistic that Keeton will return and be the same scrambling, difference-making QB he's always been.
Of course, it all depends on how that left knee responds.
"It's definitely good," Keeton said. "It's not at a hundred percent yet, but I definitely foresee it being there by the end of the summer. And it's not anything that's anything to worry about. It's just all the different movements that I do and different movements that our plays command that's just new to my knee.
"It's not new to anything like in my mind, I know how to do everything and I know how to execute it. But it's just a different feeling for my knee that it hasn't felt in a long time. So it takes a couple of repetitions at it and then after that it's perfect."
Coach Wells certainly hopes so.
"You expect Chuckie Keeton to be your four-year starter and here he comes," the Aggies' second-year coach said. "The unfortunate part is he got hurt in the middle of last year. But if you had asked me a year ago at this time, I knew he'd be my starting quarterback this year. He's just coming off an injury — that's it.
"From a health standpoint, I expect a very, very high level of play. I expect him to start right where he left off, which was very, very efficient, very effective, very explosive, very stingy with the football — all of those things. So as long as he gets back to being the same Chuckie, then I expect that that's what we'll see.
"Time will tell; none of us know," Wells said. "Let's be real with it. Every knee is different, every rehab is different; we do feel like he's right on track. And from what I hear, he's doing well. But until that is proven out there on the field in a live game, then we won't know. But I've got full confidence in that kid. There's not a kid that's gonna work harder in this program than him, and I'm looking forward to watching him play."
Keeton admitted that, at times, he might be his own worst enemy.
"The thing that's probably not the greatest with me is that I trusted my body too much, and I'll take the blame for that," he said. "That could be why I've been hurt a couple times. But I definitely don't believe in second-guessing anything.
"I can't really say it's a trust thing," he said of his rebuilt knee. "It's really just getting my muscles back; more than anything, it's getting the muscles around my knee back into the swing of things.
"And it's OK — I've already run into a couple things at home, so I've been testing myself."
Keeton can take inspiration from other football stars like Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who both came back from similar ACL injuries to play at an extremely high level again.
Keeton is a native of Houston, and since Griffin played his college football at Baylor, the Aggies' quarterback is well-acquainted with Griffin's accomplishments.
"The year before he won the Heisman Trophy, he actually tore his ACL," Keeton said of Griffin. "So when he did it with the Redskins, that was actually his second time doing it. I don't know if it was the same knee, but he's done it before.
"So I guess that's kind of my inspiration; once again, he's a Texas kid and he's a quarterback. So I definitely know it's doable and I know you can have success afterwards.
"But at the end of the day, the great thing about quarterback is we're the most reliant people on the field because there's no way in the world we can do our job just by ourselves," Keeton said. "You have to have receivers to throw to, you have to have the O-line protecting you. So really, more than anything, what they're really relying on me more on is to be in the right position to throw the football and to do everything mentally because, more than anything, the game of quarterback is mental.
"Not only do we have to know the plays, but we have to know who we need to read and all that. So I think that was a very big benefit of me being hurt because I was able to not actually, physically do it, but mentally walk through every play while I was watching."
Being stuck on the sidelines for half of last season and much of spring ball also had other benefits for Keeton, who has maintained great balance between football and the other aspects of his life off the field.
"It gave me a lot of time to reflect on myself versus just focusing on what cover-three is and all that," he said. "So that was definitely a big thing. And I was able to kind of settle down a little bit and just relax and kinda get back to being a normal person for a second."
And Keeton realizes that, having missed half of his junior season, he's still got plenty to prove, and feels strongly that his best days are still ahead of him.
"If you're at the top — say I had an amazing year and all that last year — well, there's not many places to go but down," he said, pointing out that former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny "Mr. Football" Manziel did not have as strong of a sophomore season as he did following his Heisman Trophy-winning season as a freshman. "Once you hit the peak, there's only one way to go.
"So where I'm at right now, I still have a lot of growing to do. And with that, if I continue to grow, then I can help this team grow and I can help this program grow, which means more wins, which means better recruits, and ultimately a better program which could lead to more seasons and more bowl wins and all that.
"So my big goal, at least for this team, is to win a conference championship — I've only been able to win one since I've been here, but it was an incredible feeling," Keeton said. "And I definitely want to relive that. And then, we've been to three bowl games in a row now and won the last two, and I want to keep that going."
Keeton's other goals for 2014 include winning the Aggies' season opener against Tennessee, to win more games than the school-record 11 they won in 2012, to help his team be highly efficient at scoring in the red zone, to continue to push himself to be the best player and leader that he can be and, of course, to stay healthy.
If he does that, it's realistic to think that all of the other goals he and the Aggies have set for themselves could be accomplished by a program that, despite its recent run of success, still has a bit of an underdog mentality and chip on its shoulder.
"I guess what I'm trying to do is kinda write a fairy tale in my head, and hopefully it can come to fruition, I guess," he said. "If you don't set your goals on the highest thing, then it's not going to happen.
"As players, I think we've always been a little underappreciated and underestimated a little bit, but we've always managed to play well. The guys that've come through here like Bobby Wagner (now a star linebacker for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks) is a top-100 draft pick but, from the outside looking in, you're like, 'Well, how'd he come from Utah State?' because a lot of people don't know us as well as they should. But that's how a lot of us came up. We have a lot of good players, but we didn't necessarily get the easiest path to get to where we are.
"That's why we've been able to play in bigger games and play well," Keeton said. "I think it's a mentality that we have. It's kind of like a bulldog; a bulldog can be down two rounds and still come back. And I think that's just the mentality that we have here."
After he leaves Utah State, Keeton hopes to continue his career in the National Football League, where comparisons between him and the Seahawks' Super Bowl winning quarterback, Russell Wilson, are inevitable.
"We're similar in size, about the same weight, have similar backgrounds, we both played baseball, and he's pretty good at improvisation and being smart with the football," Keeton said. "He has always focused on taking care of the football and being smart with the football.
"It's nice to see what he's doing, and then the fact that I'm getting even a slight comparison to him is definitely a great thing. I'm happy to be in the same sentence with him."
But before he begins thinking about a possible future life in the NFL, there's one more year to spend in Logan and Cache Valley, a community that has embraced him since day one.
"It sucks that I'm gonna have to say goodbye to Utah State," Keeton said. "Since coming here, I've been able to expand the lifestyle that I have. ... During summers in Houston, I played baseball and worked out — and that was about it. Now during summers here, we're floating down the river, we go jet skiing, and it has allowed me to expand and not just be a guy who plays football and goes to school. I've gotten the opportunity to meet and know a lot of wonderful people.
"When I first came here and met some of the guys and some of the coaches here, they wanted me to be here. It was like, well, if you have the potential to be one of us, then we're going to accept you. And ever since I've been here, that's how it's been. Whether I was any good or I was the last person on the entire team's depth chart, that's how it would be and that's how it is right now. You can feel just kind of a family-type environment.
" ... They intrigued me," he said. "The coaches cared and they wanted to know how I was, and it wasn't anything fake. And this was before I even knew who Coach (Gary) Andersen was. He was one of the first real head coaches I had. It's been a great fit for me to be here. Ultimately, I don't have a single regret about my decision to be here."
Keeton said living in Logan and going to school at Utah State reminded him of a scene from a movie, "The Fault in Our Stars," that he recently watched.
"They said, 'This girl did not want to be loved widely, but she wanted to be loved deeply.' And I think this is it," he said. "This place might be one of the best descriptions of that.
"We don't have a huge, huge fan base. I know Utah is bigger and BYU is bigger. But the people around here care about the people at this school, and not just about me, and that shows a lot. ... And that's a huge thing. It's an incredible thing to think about from an outside perspective."
Yes, Chuckie Keeton is definitely loved deeply at Utah State. And he feels the same way about the school, the community and the people of Cache Valley — one more major reason that he's much more than "just" an outstanding football player for the Aggies.