In his recovery from a freak injury and a harrowing hospital stay, former Nittany Lion captain Ryan Keiser is buoyed by faith and family as he slowly works his way back to normal.
* * *
They’re working on basketball fundamentals this week at Easterly Parkway Elementary. As soon as the fourth graders file into the all-purpose room, they grab a ball, spread out, and start dribbling. The phys-ed teacher is a young, rangy guy in head-to-toe Penn State blue; he’s not loud, but he commands the room, making the rounds, focused on the kids. Mostly, he looks comfortable, an appearance that belies his inexperience: Ryan Keiser is a 23-year-old student-teacher working toward his state certification. It’s his second week on the job.
As contradictory first impressions go, there’s another that you can’t push out of your mind: No way this guy’s a football player.
You know better, of course. When he lined up for the last time as a starting safety for the Nittany Lions in Ann Arbor last October, Keiser ’14 looked every bit the 6-1, 208 pounds listed on his official bio. Four months later, he’s about 30 pounds lighter. You watch now as he runs the fourth graders through drills, showing them how to slide their feet defensively or bend their knees and follow through when they shoot, and you can see hints of that athleticism. His is an athlete’s frame. There’s just not much meat on it.
When he tells you, in mid-February, that he’s actually gained 10 pounds over the last month or two, you start to grasp just how serious it was.
Keiser downplays all this—what he went through, the extent to which he’s still working his way back—because he’s not a guy who craves the attention that talking about it brings. In his family, his friends and former teammates, and his faith, Keiser has ample support. He isn’t a cautionary tale or some feel-good inspirational story, only a young man who was injured—freakishly, yes, and gravely, even if he’d rather not say so himself—and who is focused now on getting better and moving on with his life. Dwelling on the past does him no good at all.
* * *
It was a Thursday. Ohio State week. Smack in the middle of his senior year. Another practice, another play, another collision. Another split-second moment of violence on the football field, like so many thousands before. “I took a blow to the stomach,” Keiser says now. “I thought I got the wind knocked out of me. But after a while, I realized it wasn’t going away.”
The medical and training staff were there quickly, and Keiser could sense their concern. They wasted little time in sending him to Mount Nittany Hospital, where doctors initially diagnosed a broken rib but couldn’t confirm anything else to explain the lingering pain in his abdomen. He couldn’t sleep that night, and eventually Keiser’s wife, McKenzi, took him back to the ER. Specialists were brought in, and on Friday, the doctors decided to send him to Hershey Medical Center. He can remember the ambulance drive, “but from there I don’t remember much at all.”
“We thought they were just taking him up there for precautionary reasons,” says his mom, Cathy. “Next thing we knew he’s having emergency surgery.”
Of the following days, Keiser knows only what doctors and his family have told him: Emergency surgery to repair a torn bowel, the freak result of that fractured rib suffered on a routine practice play; days under sedation, then additional surgery after complications arose. Days turned into weeks, and eventually, Keiser was down to about 160 pounds—more than 40 pounds lighter than he’d been when he last walked off the field.
“That was hard for me, and it was definitely hard for him,” McKenzi Keiser says. “I was trying to prepare him: ‘You’re skinny, you lost a ton of weight.'”
He was in the hospital for nearly a month in all, finally coming home on Nov. 18—”My wife’s birthday,” he says. Doctors told him not to lift anything heavier than eight pounds. “Even when he came home, we were still worried,” his mom says. “I know you’re not supposed to worry—we always had the faith and belief he was going to heal—but knowing his personality, because he doesn’t complain, we were concerned.”
Keiser was eager to reconnect with his team. He went to team meetings, doing what he could to encourage his teammates, even as they rallied to support him. Mostly, he took it easy, because he had no choice. “I was so low on energy,” he says. “I was really just resting the whole time.”
He set a goal: to walk out for Senior Day, just 11 days after he got out of the hospital. He made it. “I was just happy to be there, to be honest with you,” he says. “I was just happy to be back around the guys.”
Keiser says his wife was “amazing” throughout the process, and McKenzi acknowledges that she “basically retrained him back into his normal routine.” Slowly, he started regaining weight, and energy. “It was probably the end of December when he really started getting back to normal,” she says. “He looked really good at the bowl game; that’s when I noticed him starting to gain a little bit of weight back.”
Still, it’s coming slowly. “Some people don’t recognize me when they see me,” Keiser says. “John Urschel was back in town recently, and he looked at me and said, ‘Woah, I didn’t realize that was you.'”
Moments like these drive Keiser now. “I think it’s motivation to get him going,” McKenzi says. “He wants to work hard to get back to where he was.”
Back to where he was. Knowing where he was, and where he came from, Keiser had already travelled an awfully long way.
* * *
He was one of those kids who was always playing something. Baseball, basketball, football, hockey, whatever was in season. And he was good: all-everything at Selinsgrove High School, the two-way star of his school’s first ever state championship football team, and a standout on the diamond who hit nearly .500 and dazzled in center field in his senior year. He turned down lesser offers in both sports to walk on at Penn State, eventually earning a scholarship, substantial playing time, a key role as a holder on special teams—and finally, coming into his final season, the full-time starting safety job.
“He had this dream of playing at Penn State,” Cathy Keiser says, “and I remember in high school, telling him, ‘Ryan, you need a second choice here.’ We knew how hard it was even to be a recruited walk-on, which he was. But he always had that mindset: He sets goals, and he just works extremely hard.”
His college career over now, Keiser has new goals, and new options. One is following in the footsteps of his mother, a phys-ed teacher and field hockey coach for three decades in Selinsgrove. “Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a phys-ed teacher,” he says. “I saw my mom do it, I love sports, and I love working with kids.” You can see it now, in the Easterly Parkway Elementary gym, the ease with which he guides and interacts with the class.
Kirk Hoover ’06 watches Keiser run the class, observing as his student-teacher ably keeps the kids moving and the class on schedule. Hoover’s been a phys-ed teacher in the State College district for nearly eight years, and he says Keiser is better prepared than any student-teacher he’s had. “He could’ve done this as a freshman,” Hoover says. Keiser is modest—”I’m learning a lot from Kirk, and I still have a ton to learn,” he says—but if he chooses to go into teaching, he’ll be an asset wherever he lands.
That’s not the only calling Keiser hears. He’s been involved with Victory Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry group, and is committed to working with them in a formal role beginning this summer. And then there’s the NFL.
Yes, the NFL.
“I’m going to train for Pro Day next year,” he says. “I don’t know what my chances are, but it’s more about just giving it a shot.” He plans to work with team trainer Tim Bream—whose previous gig was with the Chicago Bears—and strength and conditioning coach Deege Galt to put together a plan to get in peak condition by next winter. McKenzi admits she’d be nervous to see her husband back out on the football field, but says that ultimately, “I would love to see it happen.”
And what does his mother think? “As a mom, of course, I’m like ‘Ryan…'” Cathy Keiser says. “But after what I saw him just go through, and now thinking he can get back in shape and do this, well, why not try?”
It’s the longest of shots, but then, the odds weren’t much better that a former walk-on would end up starting on one of the best defenses in the nation.
For now, Keiser and his wife are appreciating their relatively quiet life together in State College. They live in grad student housing on campus, and McKenzi works at a local daycare. Keiser splits his time student teaching between two local elementary schools, and later this spring he’ll serve a stint at State College High School before completing his certification.
Back in the gym at Easterly Parkway, the fourth graders are sitting lined up in a row as Keiser shows them the basic elements of a set shot. He explains the moving parts—bend your knees, elbow out front, follow through—then fires up a shot from free-throw distance. It rims out.
There’s a hint of a murmur from the kids, that moment when their teacher—not just a teacher, but a Penn State football player—misses his shot. But before the ball has even bounced off the gym floor, Keiser is teaching again.
“I missed,” he says, “but I still feel pretty good about it, because I followed through.”
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