Articles

Brett Keisel-Grounded by Greybull

December 24, 2011

He's a long way from Greybull, and he has been for quite some time. But that only refers to physical distance. Emotionally, mentally and spiritually, he's never left.

Greybull, Wyo. is located between the Bighorn National Forest and Yellowstone National Park. It's a town of less than 2,500 people and has one traffic light. Greybull is Brett Keisel's hometown, where he was raised, where he was taught the important things a boy needs to become a man. "It's a different place," said Keisel. It's definitely slower there. It's hard to explain if you've never been there. I love going back and recharging my battery.

By the time he was 10, Brett was assigned a handful of duties on his family's cattle ranch. one of which was learning how to drive the work truck. "I will never forget learning how to drive a stick shift. 3500 Chevrolet, when I was like 10-years old," said Keisel. "Dad put me in the truck and was like, 'Go straight. When it's done, push the clutch in and shut the key off.'"

Nowadays, it's hard to find a teenager who has those types of skills, let alone one who does daily chores. Convincing an adolescent to put down the cell phone or IPad can pass for parenting in some homes, but for Brett, those years of his life were dedicated to family and hard work. "My dad taught us how to work," Keisel said." Growing up on a farm, you need your family's help. It was great work-ethic training."

It wasn't all work; at least that's not how he remembers it now. There always seemed to be time for the outdoors, those hunting and fishing trips with his family, particularly with his father, Lane. The appreciation for hunting and fishing in the Keisel household is passed down from generation-to-generation. It's a way of life, a way for the family to bond, and Lane taught Brett all there is to know about the wild. To this day, Keisel calls the first bow-and-arrow that Lane bought him "one of my favorite gifts growing up."

Lane Keisel taught his son at an early age to respect nature, to learn about and understand his surroundings. Still an avid hunter and fisherman, Brett remembers and lives by those lessons. "The biggest thing I enjoy about hunting is just being outdoors," said Keisel. I love seeing what's on Mother Earth, listening to Mother Earth. Just the atmosphere of that solitude, it's so peaceful."

Peaceful, except for those times when you come across a grizzly bear. Or come face-to-face with a mountain lion. Keisel has done both and lived to tell about it, even though he will admit, "It's one of those things that can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up."

Ben Roethlisberger has been on several of these expeditions with Keisel, and so he knows first-hand what it's like to spend a week with a modern-day Jeremiah Johnson. "We actually rode horses up into the mountains," said Roethlisberger, who once traveled to Wyoming with his father and two uncles to enjoy the Keisel experience. "We camped, hunted and fished for a whole week. We were 10,000 feet up in the mountains. To have that trip was just awesome."

Listen to Roethlisberger and Keisel talk about the outdoors, and you can hear the banter of brothers, of two men who love a lot of the same things, and each other. Roethlisberger tells the story of 'out-fishing' Keisel during that trip to Wyoming, and Keisel finds a way to acknowledge defeat and take credit for the win at the same time.

"Absolutely, he's beaten me," said Keisel, "but you have to understand that Ben is a winner. He's beaten me fair and square, but that's only because I've taken him to the hot-spots."

Answered Roethlisberger, "I don't think people understand how much Brett and I are alike. We both like the same things. That's why we get along so well."

Brett Keisel gets along. That's another one of the lessons he learned in Greybull. No matter what's thrown at you, maintain your cool and fight through the challenge. Getting behind the wheel of the family's work truck. Playing basketball with his older brother, Chad. There was always failure initially, but over time a will, a competiveness took root. And then it blossomed into a force that helped him become a two-time Super Bowl champion.

I feel so lucky to have an older brother to compete with," said Keisel. "It was something that drove me. He and I would compete all the time growing up, in everything."

It started with games against Chad, and soon basketball became Brett's first love. He was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in basketball for the state of Wyoming, and he was a McDonald's All-America nominee. "I was okay. I could play a little bit," said Keisel with a sly smile that says he still could hustle you in a game of H-O-R-S-E. "I still enjoy playing it today with my 3-year-old-son."

Keisel, however, ended up choosing football. After looking at all the college football and basketball rosters, he saw that guys with his size were well-suited for the line of scrimmage on a football field but quite possibly too short to thrive in the three-second lane of a basketball court. Believing he had the requisite athletic ability to play football, Keisel decided to give the sport a serious shot.

After Greybull High School, though, Keisel got a culture shock. The Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah, contained some 30,000 more people than his hometown. The guy who had been a big fish in a small pond suddenly found himself dumped into the Pacific Ocean, and it took some time to adjust.

"We played some good football in high school but it wasn't anything like at the collegiate level, " said Keisel. "That was a big shocker for me when I went to BYU, the difference in competition. When I went to college I got knocked on my can. I was like, 'Wow this is a lot different.'"

Keisel simply did what he always has done. He maintained his cool and fought through the challenge, and the statistics show that Brett Keisel had a solid college career. Still, solid doesn't lend itself to the kind of acclaim that gets you on Mel Kiper's Big Board, and Keisel ended up being the 242nd player picked in the 2002 NFL Draft, the second of two seventh-round choices made by the Pittsburgh Steelers, just 19 picks away from being undrafted.

"I thought I was better than that," said Keisel.

Thought not highly drafted, Keisel didn't need much time to become highly regarded by his new employers.

"This guy has so much athleticism," said John Mitchell, then and now the Steelers D-Line coach. "He's a guy who could have played at a major college basketball program if he wanted to. He could run. He could have been a track athlete."

Keisel almost immediately became a game changer as a member of the Steelers special teams.

"He was a demon," remembered Mitchell. "Here's a guy who's 6-foot-6, close to 300 pounds, flying down the field and taking the heads off people. That's where he got his chance. Then when some guys left, Brett stepped in, and he never looked back. He's such an intelligent player. He's one of the best technique players I've ever coached."

By the start of the 2006 season, Keisel was ready, and the team allowed veteran DE Kimo von Oelhoffen to leave as a free agent. Brett Keisel was a starting DE in the NFL, for the defending Super Bowl champions. But it's something that almost never happened.

When Keisel was a rookie in the summer of 2002, he came to a crossroads. Even though he was in the middle of his first NFL training camp, he was questioning what he wanted to do with his life. He didn't know if he should continue his pursuit of an NFL career or return to Wyoming to herd cattle.

"That was the time where I really had to sit and focus," said Keisel. "I prayed a lot during that time. I just got a calming sensation that everything was going to be all right. I just had to go out and play. That was a great moment."

For him, and the Steelers. Now in his 10th professional season, Keisel has had quite the career, a much better one, a much more decorated one than he had in college. He has one two Super Bowls and has become the anchor on the defensive line. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season but was unable to play for the best of all possible reasons-he had a bigger game to play instead, Super Bowl XLV. And even with all of that, Mitchell looks at the 33-year-old man and still sees a player on the rise.

"He has a lot of good football ahead of him," said Mitchell. "He's going to play for a long time. He's just scratching the surface. I don't think he realizes how good he is and how good he can get."

His teammates agree. That locker room is full of competitive professionals, and they will acknowledge-sometimes grudgingly-that Keisel is one of the best all-around athletes among them.

Said Aaron Smith:"There's no doubt in my mind that he's the most athletic. The way he can run, move and the things he can do-there's no more of a complete athlete than him on this team."

Added Ziggy Hood:"There isn't anyone he can't run down. That shows a lot about his character. We never think we don't have a chance to make a play, because there's always positive energy coming from him."

And rookie Cam Heyward:"He's a beast. Sometimes he's the most athletic player on the field, for either team. He's a great leader. He always wants to be better in practice."

That's quite high praise for a man who was contemplating whether to return to Wyo. to wrestle cattle or continue to pursue a career in football and wrestle offensive linemen. But according to Keisel, his decision to stick with football is No. 2 to the one he made to marry his high school sweetheart.

Brett Keisel first met Sarah Johnson in the fourth grade. They started dating at Greybull High School. They dated when Brett went to BYU. They dated when Brett was drafted by the Steelers. And they got married soon after. Even since, through thick and thin, to this day, Brett and Sarah Keisel are a team.

"She's everything to me," said Keisel. She' so genuine. She knows me, and she knows what I need. She knows how to push me sometimes but she knows when to back off sometimes. She keeps me grounded, which is something I need. She's definitely my rock.

The Keisels have two children, Jacob and Grace, and while he considers being a father one of his greatest blessings, Brett admits that doing it while playing in the NFL is just plain hard sometimes.

"It can be tough," said Keisel. "Our kids are a log of work. I respect my wife so much for the patience she has with them. You have to find a routine that works for you, and that's what I've done."

Brett even credits Sarah with giving him the idea to grow his now famous beard. She originally gave him permission to grow his hair out because he was going bald, and then Brett believed his hair needed a complement, so he stopped having. Keisel has had a beard throughout his career, but for some reason, last year the beard captured the imagination of Steelers Nation.

At the end of the season, Keisel shaved his beard for charity, and the evening raised $40,000 for Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Pleasantly stunned by the support of Steelers fans in the community, Keisel is hoping to do another shearing at the end of this season. And that's another area in which Brett and Sarah Keisel are a team-in their support of giving back to the community.

They serve as honoray co-chairs of the Champions for Children event benefiting the Homeless Children's Education Fund. They've developed great relationships with some of the children they've met through community outreach. Helping the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Homeless Children's Education Fund and Animal Friends of Pittsburgh have become regular causes for the Keisels,and they are proud to be able to help.

It should come as no surprise that when asked, Keisel said the greatest compliment he could receive would to be known as a good person, anothr of those life lessons he learned from his dad, and it has shown. Just last month, Keisel was named the Steelers' Walter Payton Man of the Year, an awardgiven annually to a player for his success on the field and in the community.

"We have a man who stands up in front of us here every day, and he says, 'It's a great day to be alive'", explained Keiselof the way defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau begins each and every work day. "Seeing what type of character these people have, that's really stuck with me. And it's something I try to do every day."

From the serenity of Greybull, to the hustle-and-bustle of life as a professional football player and everywhere in between, Brett Keisel has remained true to himself. He hasn't forgotten his roots. He never has allowed success to dicate who he is as a person. Instead, he chooses to keep life simple.

"For the most part, I'm still that kid from Wyoming. I enjoy doing all the things I did when I was growing up back there. I still love going back there. I'll always try to keep that kid from Greybull inside me"--Brett Keisel.