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Keisel's dreams, hard work takes him to Superbowl

February 2, 2006

"To be able to play in the biggest game in the world – everyone is watching you – is a dream come true. It still feels like I’m in a dream," said Greybull’s Brett Keisel, four years into his professional football contract and heading to the Super Bowl with his Pittsburgh Steeler teammates.

"This has been an unbelievable ride."

Brett can’t remember how old he was when he first dreamed of becoming a professional football player, but what ever age it was, that’s when his work ethic was formed and no one could have worked harder to reach the level he has.

"I can remember when I was 10-12 years old, playing basketball in the front yard of our house down by the river (Big Horn) in the winter. It might be 10 p.m. at night, and I’d be dribbling the ball in the snow."

It was all part of that inherent drive to get better, to be the best he could be.

"I have always wanted to get better, always wanted to be one of the best, and to do that you have to put in the work," Brett said in a Jan. 24 telephone interview.

His parents, former Greybull residents Lane and Connie Smith Keisel knew their son’s early aspirations, but did they actually think he would ever reach these heights?

"No," Lane said slowly. "No one does. But on the other hand, when he was 12-13 years old, we knew we had something special. He would go out and play (basketball) with Chad (Brett’s older brother). At that time Chad was bigger and stronger and he’d beat Brett every time. Brett would get mad, come in the house and say ‘I’m never playing him again,’ but in 10-15 minutes he’d be back out there," Lane remembers.

It was the old competitive instinct coming to the fore. "We had no idea where it would lead," Lane recalled.

Greybull Middle School science teacher Eddie Johnson was one of Brett’s middle school coaches, and he can recall Brett as "big, very athletic and very coordinated. In basketball Brett was the one person that everybody we played double-teamed, even at the middle school level.

I can remember in the championship game against Rocky, they double and triple-teamed him just so he couldn’t rebound and shoot both. Basically he was the one person they intended to stop, even though we had other very good athletes on the team. At that level he was just so big and physical. He was never afraid to mix it up with someone else." As he moved up to the high school ranks, Brett played defensive end and offensive tight end. Johnson, who moved up to coach at the high school level, recalls "We always had one play that was going to happen at one time in every game when Brett would either throw the ball or run it. He was still very physical (and by that time much bigger). In practices sometimes, we had to tell him to back off a little bit. He was the type of player, whether it was a game or practice, he went as hard as he could."

Opponents knew better than to go directly at him. He was so formidable a presence that if opponents saw Brett lined up on one side of the line, "they were going the other way," Johnson laughed.

"As a senior he was moved to middle linebacker on defense so other teams couldn’t run away from him. He was always blessed with good speed – he could run. He had a football sense about him, he always knew where the ball was going to be." (This "nose for the ball" was apparent in Pittsburgh’s play off game at Denver when Brett got two sacks on Bronco quarterback Jake Plummer to thwart any Denver comeback hopes.)

Brett finished his high school career earning four letters in football, four in basketball, two in track; he was a four-time all-conference selection and earned all-state honors as a tight end and linebacker. His senior year Brett was named USA Today Wyoming Player of the Year and in addition earned Sportslink Player of the Year and Conference Player of the Year honors in his final year of high school competition.

Looking back on his high school and college years, Brett recalls that before every game his father would grab him and say, "Eye of the Tiger. Eye of the Tiger."

To Brett it had a special meeting. "I took that as the tiger is a dominant species and that was how I tried to approach the game, mentally. (It meant to me) that I would either beat or get beaten. That is how I approached every game (beat or get beaten) from high school to where I am now."

Lane said the phrase was lifted from Sylvester Stalone film "Rocky. It was the phrase his trainer used. If you look in the eye of the tiger there is something there – something that is unfathomable, something wild. It because our catch phrase," Lane explained.

On this note, Brett signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Wyoming. However, when then Coach Joe Tiller left the program, Brett changed programs also, and headed to Utah and a scholarship at Brigham Young University.

It proved to be a good move. Brett got more exposure in a program "that was a little more recognized then. It probably got him a little more ‘notoriety,’" Johnson said.

Brett finished his career at BYU with 66 tackles, 39 of those solos, nine quarterback sacks, and 19 stops behind the line of scrimmage. In 2001 he received All-mountain West Conference honorable mention honors, and went on to have a banner senior year as a starter and played in every game at defensive end.

College behind him, Brett attended several professional training camps, and then came the draft. Brett held his breath. Would he or would he not be drafted? Was he good enough? Were his dreams to end right there?

The draft went on – and on – and on, and still Brett waited. Finally, in the seventh round Brett heard his name called. He had been selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers. [It was almost at the end. I was the 242nd pick and there are only 247," Brett explained four years after the fact.

Going into the organization as an underdog, Brett had a lot to prove.

But those thoughts were pushed aside, at least for the moment, when he walked into the Steeler locker room for the first time. "I can remember the first time I walked into the locker room and it blew me away to look over and see Jerome Bettis’ locker.

Just like right now, I felt like I was dreaming. ‘This can’t be real,’" he said, with a little awe still in his voice after four years.

In his initial season as a Steeler (2002) Brett came on strong as a special-teams player. Brett was inactive for the first nine games, but on Nov. 17 he saw his first action as a profession, although he did not play. It wasn’t until Dec. 15 against Carolina that Brett made his presence known by making some big plays on special teams, including recovering a fumble on a muffed punt that led to a Steeler score, and he was also credited with three solo tackles.

Brett was placed on the injured reserve list for the entire 2003 season after undergoing shoulder surgery. It didn’t slow him down in 2004 when he began moving up in the ranks, playing better, stronger and faster all the time.

This year, Keisel has twice been named the Steeler’s co-winner of the hard hit award, and was also named the "stud defensive player of the game" by Pittsburgh’s sportswriter Adam Schein.

In the Hard Hat award article written Jan. 24, following the Steeler win over the Broncos, the sports writer said, " . . . backup DE and special teamer Brett Keisel had a gritty effort in the win. He provided good relief to Smith and twice stormed into the Bronco backfield to hit or disrupt Plummer. On one play he simply bulled and shoved LT Matt Lepsis back into the quarterback, something no one else on the right side of the defense was able to do, and then pulled him down with one hand for the sack. Keisel also chipped in with some tough coverage on special teams. "

Now Brett is headed to Detroit – and he is going to have a strong dose of hometown and family there to cheer him on. Fans in the stands will include his parents, Lane and Connie, now living in Utah, his brothers, Chad and Chris, his sisters Kalli, Cody and Peggy, his wife, the former Sarah Johnson (1998 GHS grad), her parents, Steve and Pat Johnson and her brother Cody. They’ll probably be decked out in black and yellow, and perhaps they’ll even be waving those "terrible towels."

Still the same old Brett He might be a professional football player. He’s getting more press all the time. He’s making himself known as a formidable opponent, but at heart, he remains the Brett Keisel he was when he was growing up in Greybull.

Brett said it’s not hard to stay "the same Brett. I try to stay grounded. Sarah my beautiful wife helps me. She brings me down to earth. And I have always tried to not get too high with the highs or too low with the lows. I try to stay in the middle. Be myself. The guys get a kick out of me – I wear the same clothes I did then. I’m just a country boy."

Mom Connie who said her son’s success is "amazing. Such a thrill," said simply that Brett had worked so hard to get himself to this point. She describes him growing up as "a typical teenager, so involved with his friends. His class was so close, hunt out together, and they have kept that relationship. But he has matured. He has a different thinking process now. He thinks about the future – not just about today. I give Sarah a lot of the credit. She evens out everything and has helped him so much. She is quiet, likes to stay in the background, and he’s always been the center of attention. It’s hard to live that kind of life. Sarah keeps him grounded."

If anything, his recent success has "drawn him closer to his family. He is so sweet to me, and more sensitive to me as his mom," Connie said with a lilt.

Lane agrees that his son has not so much changed as he has matured. "I’ve always told him (all of my kids) to be a good person before you’re anything else. Everything else is just window dressing. And I have always counseled them to never bring dishonor on the family name."

He’s proud to say they have all been true to those beliefs, and "what makes me the most happy is that all my kids, including Brett, like each other."

Jamie Keisel (Chad’s wife) said that in the years she has known Brett, "when I think about it he has changed for the better. He focuses more on family and cherishes family time. When Brett and Sarah come home, they always make time for our kids (Gabe, Zach and Abby)."

Brett’s birthday present to Gabe was tickets to the playoff game in Denver for Gabe, his brother and his parents. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them all.

And when a newsman from Casper came to town for an interview on Brett, they interviewed young Gabe. "He got so emotional," Jamie said, retelling how Gabe told the reporter, ‘He takes me fishing, camping, and we ride horses. I miss ‘Uncle Muskie’ so bad." (Muskie was a nickname tagged on Brett years ago by his mother). "I think the cool thing is that he is still ‘just Brett.’

Being a professional athlete Brett said one of the biggest blessings that comes with his job "is being able to meet people from everywhere in this nation, people from all different backgrounds, different ways of being raised, different beliefs. To associate yourself and be around guys like Jerome Bettis, who’ll be in the Hall of Fame some day. Just making friends with my teammates."

Brett is in his final year of a four-year contract, and it is inevitable that he is thinking about what happens next.

"I’d love to remain a Steeler," he confided. "I really have grown to love this city, to love this organization I play for, love my teammates, my coaches, and my life out here. I just feel so blessed to be out here, to be a part of all this magic. I don’t want to go anywhere. But on the other hand I realize this is a business. Hopefully I won’t have to go anywhere, but I understand that that is a possibility. I think that I have proven to the Steeler organization that I can be an asset to the team. I think I’ve proven that I can play in this league, make plays to help us win. Hopefully this comes out and next year I could possibly be a starter. I want to start, I want to play, I want to have dreams of going to the Pro Bowl."

If Brett dreams it, it just might come true. Look where he is now.

But off the field, away from the glitz and fame, Brett remains a "down to earth, hometown boy.

I know that Greybull has always been there for me. I absolutely love coming home, that’s where I go in the summer and train for (next year’s camp). I love everything about home, getting away from the city, coming home to where things are slower, people wave at you going down the road.

I miss that. I’ll always be a Buff." All thoughts of the future, all thoughts of a contract, all thoughts of coming home to Greybull, or anything else, is put aside for now. The Super Bowl just three short days away, and Brett is living his dream, just hoping no one pinches him and wakes him up before Sunday’s game of all games.