Linden’s Dante Keller tackles the odds

Published 11:31 pm Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Which scenario is more unlikely? In just its second season under head coach Andro Williams, the Linden High School football program surges to a perfect 10-0 regular season, the No. 3 ranking in 1A and a legitimate opportunity to make noise on its quest for Birmingham. Or, a 5-foot-9-inch, 165-pound high school senior who had never played football in his life helps to anchor the defensive line of said surging Linden team.

In the Patriots’ locker room, neither was considered far-fetched.

Williams smiles as he reminisces about his first encounter with Dante Keller. During the summer following his sophomore year, Keller was working at a restaurant in Linden. Williams stopped by one day and Keller offered his services to the football program.

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The transplanted Sweet Water defensive coordinator had yet to enlist anyone to handle the duties of keeping statistics or filming the games.

After some thought, he gave Keller the opportunity to fill the role of “stat man.”

“I’ve known him now for a little over a year,” Williams said of Keller. “He’s the kind of kid that looks to please.”

Williams said Keller quickly turned heads with his approach to his new role. He donned a shirt and tie to Friday night games.

“If you’ve got a professional job, why not dress like a professional,” Keller rhetorically asked. In his estimation, the responsibility handed to him mandated dressing for the part.

“He came out here and, man, he was the biggest help I ever had,” Williams said of Keller’s days recording statistics.

But near the end of Linden’s 2007 playoff run, Keller wanted to pursue a role in the program other than one on the sidelines.

“I had decided in my mind I was going to come out an play myself,” Keller said.

The news apparently came as a bit of a surprise to Williams.

“When he first told me that, I thought ‘Dang. He ain’t gonna make it and I hope I don’t lose him as a stat man,'” Williams said.

When Keller came out to spring practice earlier this year, he attacked his new obstacle with the same fervor with which he had balanced his academics, his job and his role as the team’s statistical overseer.

“I wasn’t only taking stats, I was watching for what to do on the field,” Keller said. “I don’t like to do anything half-stepping.”

“I saw him in the spring and we didn’t have but 10 days,” Williams said. “So you couldn’t evaluate him a whole lot.”

Williams initially suggested Keller play wide receiver. Keller, just as he is with so many other aspects of his life, was eager to oblige.

But there was still yet one hurdle the now incoming senior had to clear before being able to fully take his shot at fulfilling his dream of donning the Patriots’ jersey.

“My mom wouldn’t let me play,” Keller said.

During the spring semester of his sophomore year, Keller had taken his first shot at gridiron glory.

“I wasn’t supposed to be playing then, but it was something I wanted to do,” Keller said. “I paid for it in the end.”

Keller’s spring workouts that year were cut short when he broke his arm while trying to tackle Linden fullback Maurice Tate.

When he decided to try again earlier this year, he was met with great opposition from his mother, who ultimately relented with some encouraging from Keller’s older cousin who once played at Linden High.

“Now you can’t beat her there. I hear her over everybody in the crowd,” Keller said of his mother’s support.

Once he was cleared to play by his mother, Keller encountered other tasks to conquer that had not shown up in his stat book.

“This year is my first time ever lifting weights,” Keller said. “I couldn’t bench press 95 pounds.”

Keller’s early lack of prowess in the weight room led to considerable amounts of ridicule from his new teammates.

“I’m just going to get it done and not talk about it,” Keller said of his approach to conquering his weight room shortcomings. With his own distinct brand of determination, Keller upped his bench press by 80 pounds over the course of the summer.

“I don’t like to lose at anything I do. I want to be the best at everything I do,” Keller said.

“He’s the kind of guy that is going to do the extra,” Williams said. “He’s the kind of guy you want in a program.”

And, much to Williams’ delight, Keller’s trademark work ethic soon became apparent on the field.

“I was caught by total surprise by what I saw on this field,” Williams said of Keller’s accomplishments during summer practice.

After suffering a depletion along his defensive line, Williams approached Keller with a new challenge. He asked the diminutive rookie to play nose guard.

“I didn’t see it coming. I really didn’t,” Keller said. While he was inexperienced at the position, Keller’s desire to help the team prevailed and he consented.

“I can play just about any position on the field because I know where everyone is supposed to be,” Keller said.

Keller admittedly did not know what to expect upon his move to the defensive line, but embraced the shift accordingly.

“I played nose guard and I repped at (offensive) guard a little bit and I liked it,” Keller said. “I wouldn’t rather play any other position.”

But there was still one more step for Keller in his transformation. By summer’s end, Williams shifted Keller to the defensive line’s quick tackle position.

“He’s probably one of my best offensive and defensive linemen at this point,” Williams said.

Through the regular season, Keller compiled 34 tackles, 11 of which went for a loss. He also forced three fumbles, recovered one loose ball and sacked eight passers.

“Football is more than football to me. It teaches you responsibility,” Keller said. “It’s basically about character and respect.”

According to Williams, that approach is prevalent in everything Keller does.

“He plays the game just like he is if he’s keeping stats or if he’s in the classroom,” Williams said. “There ain’t many out there like him. I’m blessed to be able to coach him.”

“You’re looking at somebody who (had) never played football a day in his life,” Keller said of the unlikelihood of him finding success on the field. “But I’m just going to work hard and I’m going to do what I need to do to get where I need to be.”

That mentality was evident Thursday night, Oct. 23 when the Patriots closed out region play against Autaugaville. Keller was driven out of the play and pancaked by a much larger offensive lineman. But his refusal to give up on the play led to a scenario in which he pushed himself back on his feet and chased down the AHS quarterback from behind. That play was one of his three sacks in the contest.

“”I’ve got to be the one to make the play. That’s what everybody has to have in their mind,” Keller said. “I hate to lose. So I believe in hustling.”

Maybe Keller hates to lose because, thus far in his fledgling football career, he has yet to do so.

“It motivates e for someone to say we’re not going to be good,” Keller said. “It makes me want to play harder.”