Don’t feel bad for Chuckie Keeton.
To some, he’s a bit of a tragic figure in the college football world, blessed with Kaepernickian abilities, but burdened with a series of injuries.
When you type his name into Google, the first suggested word that pops up: injury.
“I get that people kind of feel that way, but they’re thinking too short-term,” Keeton said. “My knees have basically been rebuilt, my legs are stronger than ever. Being here so long, all this knowledge I’ve gained, I’m excited to display it again.”
On Tuesday in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Keeton closes out his college career, which began as a freshman starter in 2011, when Jameis Winston was a senior in high school.
It is fitting that Keeton will wrap up his Utah State career at Albertsons Stadium, the only place he has played in a bowl game, playing one drive in 2011 against Ohio and starting in 2012 against Toledo. He did not play in the Aggies’ 2013 and 2014 bowls because of season-ending knee injuries.
“I kind of had a flashback,” Keeton said Sunday. “It was my last practice, and it’s the first place I played in a bowl game, so I had to think about all the teammates I’ve had, everything that’s happened since. I didn’t really think about that adversity, just was excited to represent Utah State and play with these guys again.”
Despite playing just 15 games the past three years, Utah State’s senior quarterback will go down as perhaps the Aggies’ best. Keeton is No. 1 in school history with 61 touchdown passes, No. 1 among quarterbacks with 1,416 rushing yards and No. 2 in passing yards (7,279) and completions (658).
“I haven’t really seen anything like what that kid’s gone through with the injuries,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “He’s been a great player, but a better person. The way he’s continued to come back is a testament to his character, and it shows people on the outside what we’ve always known.”
The perseverance always was there, Keeton just had to find it. He said he is “a pretty big thinker” who sometimes would let worries creep into his mind when he was younger, but now tries to keep what he calls “tunnel vision.”
“I have to be a positive light for the team even during some of the tougher times we’ve had,” he said. “The big thing is them seeing me continue to push. I think that’s what really helped me out this year. Everyone looks at me getting hurt as a bad thing.”
The Aggies have been right there with Keeton after he tore his ACL and MCL in his left knee in 2013, and again in 2014, then the sprained MCL in his right knee Sept. 19.
“No one has any idea how tough it is to go through what he has,” senior receiver Brandon Swindall said. “He blocked it all out, he’s still been a leader. He never showed it, but I knew it was hard on him. He’s a competitor. We both were hurt last year, and we kept saying how badly we wanted to practice. Nobody ever gets excited for practice, but you miss it when you can’t be out there.”
For all the misfortune that has followed Keeton, his past few weeks have been a happy ending to a tumultuous tenure.
Keeton’s MCL sprain this year kept him out six games, but he returned last month. In his first major action since the injury, he stepped in for sophomore Kent Myers in the first quarter Nov. 21 against Nevada. He helped pull the Aggies out of a 20-point deficit for a 31-27 win and clinch a bowl berth in the process.
“It was pretty incredible, being able to help out in such an important game,” Keeton said.
Said Swindall: “Just amazing, a lot of guys just kind of were like, ‘Our quarterback is back.’ ”
The knees that have often tried to corral Keeton’s potential are eager to show one more time all the reasons why he has started five straight openers for the Aggies. Another chance to dazzle the blue and white faithful, a chance to show the pros he still has it, and another chance to win.
“It’s been so tough, but so rewarding,” Keeton said. “Being able to finish it all with a win would be really special.”
FAMOUS IDAHO POTATO BOWL: UTAH STATE VS. AKRON
▪ When: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday
▪ Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf), Boise
▪ TV: ESPN
▪ Records: Utah State (6-6, 5-3 Mountain West); Akron (7-5, 5-3 Mid-American)
▪ Coaches: Utah State, Matt Wells (25-15, third year); Akron, Terry Bowden (18-30, fourth year; 158-92-2, 22nd year overall)
▪ Series: First meeting
▪ Vegas line: Utah State by 6 1/2
▪ Tickets: $20-$90, at ticketmaster.com; $24 for FitOne Family Field Day (pre-game NFL combine-type event at 10:30 a.m., lunch and game ticket)
▪ Monday fan event: Famous Idaho Potato Bowl Mash Bash at The Village in Meridian will be open to fans from 5 to 8 p.m.
▪ Tuesday kickoff weather: High in the upper 30s, with slight chance of rain/snow mixture.