August 27, 2007

Once a Rocket

Under a different set of circumstances, Dustin Keller might have been on the other end of Saturday's matchup between Purdue and Toledo.

Had the Boilermakers' fifth-year senior tight end not drawn an 11th-hour scholarship offer from Purdue in the winter of 2003, Keller would have stuck to the verbal commitment he'd previously made to the Rockets, who recruited him heavily while the local Big Ten school continued to deliberate over the then-Lafayette Jefferson High School multi-sport star.

Purdue's offer came on Jan. 26 of that year, just days before signing day. Of those who'd sign that year, only center Robbie Powell drew a later invite to West Lafayette.

For Keller, born of a family loaded with ties, spanning generations, to the university on the other side of the Wabash River, it became a nerve-wracking wait.

"It definitely did get a little frustrating, because through the entire process I was talking to Purdue back and forth, but it was getting close to the signing date," Keller said. "I had an offer from Toledo and took a visit there. Everything was cool, and it was nice atmosphere. I really did want to go there, but …"

Keller made a commitment to the Rockets after spending time on his visit with head coach Tom Amstutz and assistant coach Doug Downing. In a twist of irony, it was Downing, a former Boilermaker quarterback and a Jeff graduate himself, serving as Keller's lead recruiter for Toledo.

"It was nerve-wracking to have to call Toledo and tell them I was de-committing," Keller said, "when they'd been so cool through the entire process, but it was just something I had to do.

"It was hard telling (Downing) I wasn't coming," Keller said, "but he understood. He went (to Purdue), so he knows."

Keller had to make that phone call on a Sunday afternoon, after being asked by then-recruiting coordinator Greg Olson to come over to the football offices for an impromptu meeting.

At that time, Coach Joe Tiller explained to Keller and his mother, Maureen, about recruiting being an "inexact science" and that he'd finally been given the thumbs-up.

"I kind of had to take it," Keller said.

Maureen Keller said that not only did the offer give her son the chance to play at his dream school, but also helped keep her family closely knit geographically.

Keller has four brothers - two older, two younger - and each of them either attended or currently attend Purdue. Had Dustin moved far away, she says she'd have had to make difficult decisions about which events to attend.

"We had utmost respect for Coach Downing and Coach Amstutz," Maureen Keller said. "I think Dustin would have done well there, but we'll always be grateful that Coach Tiller gave him that opportunity because it's turned out to be such a blessing for our family and for Dustin.

"He never wanted to leave. He's always been kind of a homebody. We have such a great community here and he's had so much support."

A record-setting high school wide receiver and track champion, Keller was recruited as a receiver by Toledo, where if he'd redshirted, he'd be playing against the Boilermakers on Saturday.

Instead, he's lining up at tight end, where he moved following his redshirt season in West Lafayette, with spectacular results, as the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder whose own mother even calls him a "freak" - "lovingly of course," Maureen Keller said - is probably one of the most dangerous pass-receiving threats among tight ends nationally.

That said, Keller can now look fondly back at a time while he sat around nervously waiting to find out whether he'd get the chance he'd been waiting on, even while some around him advised him to forget Purdue and reward Toledo for seriously recruiting him the longest.

"I was kind of familiar with the process, so I knew I was lower on (Purdue's) recruiting board," Keller said. "I knew I wasn't one of their top priorities, but that's where I wanted to be. And I knew if I'd ever get the chance, I'd prove myself."


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