Before he could call himself a man, Collin Klein had to make a list of goals.
Not just any goals, either — life-long aspirations.
What he wanted to accomplish as a high school athlete, what he desired as a college student, how he would court his future wife, the type of job he would one day pursue. He had to write it all down during a weekend retreat with his father at a cabin near the base of the Rocky Mountains.
Klein was 14 at the time, and he came home from the trip with something he could always turn to when he needed guidance – his personal playbook.
He shared it with his entire family when they met for dinner the following Sunday. Some of his goals were ordinary, such as volunteering and making good grades. Others seemed outlandish, such as waiting until his wedding day for his first kiss and never, ever cursing.
No one knew if Klein would be able to fulfill all those dreams, but his parents were proud of his vision. They concluded the rite of passage by giving him a watch with his favorite scripture on the back, and told him to keep aiming high.
“They were his decisions,” Klein’s father, Doug, says now. “They were his choices, his goals. All we wanted to do was let him know he was old enough to start trying to reach them.”
Klein was ready. Nearly a decade later, that much is obvious.
Today, Klein is married, a college graduate and maybe the best quarterback in Kansas State history. The fifth-year senior just finished piling up close to 3,400 yards and 37 touchdowns while leading the Wildcats to an 11-victory season and a Big 12 championship. Now he is on his way to New York as one of three finalists for college football’s most prestigious award – the Heisman Trophy.
If he wins, Klein will be remembered as the first K-State player to bring home the honor. He will also achieve one of the most far-fetched goals he ever wrote down.
Earlier this week, his mother, Kelly, came across an updated list of ambitions he made as a high school junior. One of the bullet points: Winning the Heisman.
“I had completely forgotten about it,” Klein said this week in Manhattan. “Obviously, it is a piece of history.”
• • •
Klein seems amazed by all that has happened since he left home and stopped updating his playbook. Thinking of all the moving parts that had to fall into place for him to get to here can be mesmerizing.
If not for an assistant on Ron Prince’s coaching staff, Ricky Rahne, being a Colorado native, K-State wouldn’t have recruited him. If not for a losing record in Klein’s first year on campus, Bill Snyder and his coaching staff wouldn’t have been in a position to help him develop.
And without the painful memories of blowout losses and playing receiver as a freshman, Klein might not have pushed himself so hard to make sure the Wildcats would eventually qualify for a BCS bowl.
Remove one part of the equation, and everything might be different. Still, his rise was more than simple chance.
“Some crazy things have happened to lead our team and myself to this point,” Klein said. “There are a lot of reasons for that. There is a lot of hard work, a lot of preparation, that has been put in on so many people’s part. So many people have invested in me when I was going through a hard time or struggling.”
Klein always had faith things would work out. He was lightly recruited in high school – he only heard from K-State, Utah and Colorado State – and spent most of his youth focusing on basketball.
As a deeply religious person, he made choices based on prayer and family input. Years later, there are no regrets.
“He is exactly where he is supposed to be,” Doug Klein says. “He is where God wants him.”
• • •
The south wall of Loveland High’s cafeteria is a shrine to the royalty who have graduated from the school.
High above where teenagers eat hang 11 commemorative plaques honoring prominent alums. Standouts such as Carolina Panthers center Jeff Byers, Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom and professional screenwriter Heather Hach.
One name you won’t find on this wall: Collin Klein.
That may sound strange considering the former Loveland quarterback is one of the best athletes to play for the Indians. The town still adores him. When he graced a recent cover of Sports Illustrated, it was so hard to find a copy in Kansas and Colorado that the magazine had to re-release it.
But longtime Loveland football coach John Poovey says not to expect Klein’s face on the wall anytime soon.
“We don’t emphasize individuals here,” Poovey said. “This was a personal project of one of our former athletic directors. Now that he’s gone, I doubt we will add to it.”
Not even if Klein wins the Heisman Trophy?
Klein never technically attended the school — he played sports for Loveland, but was homeschooled by his mother — but there are compelling reasons for his inclusion.
When Klein became a team captain in both football and basketball, fellow students were so impressed that they asked him to join other after-school clubs, including Student Council.
Picture that, a teenager who wasn’t even a student at the school being asked to help lead it.
“His role at the high school wasn’t any different than in Manhattan,” Kelly Klein said. “He rose to a position of leadership and respect because of his heart. Anytime he got the chance to love and serve, he took that chance. ”
Doesn’t someone like that deserve recognition, especially now that he is being honored on a national stage as one of the top three players in college football?
Some might say yes. But would Klein?
“That’s not who Collin is,” Poovey said. “I’m sure he would be more interested in something that honored one of the teams he played for than anything that honored him.”
• • •
One of the reasons Klein began showing leadership skills at a young age: He was a coach before he was a quarterback.
That’s not the normal route to becoming a successful football player, but Klein didn’t start playing organized football until he reached high school.
Younger brother Kyle has always been his best friend, though. So when Kyle joined a flag football team when he was 8, Collin assumed the role of defensive coordinator while his dad ran the offense.
His father, a former high school and college coach, wasn’t sure how Collin would do. Turned out there was no need to worry.
“He got the kids lined up in the right places,” Doug Klein said. “We weren’t scored on until the final game.”
His mother proudly tells that story as an example of his football IQ.
“He is one of the smartest players you will ever meet,” she says. “He can beat anyone at a football video game.”
He isn’t too bad in the huddle, either.
Loveland offensive coordinator Jim DuBois likes to tell a story about the first time he got in an on-field argument with Klein. He told Klein to run the read-option, a run-based attack that gives quarterbacks the freedom to keep the ball or hand it off after reading the defense.
DuBois thought Klein was making the wrong reads, and told him to pay closer attention. But Klein politely told DuBois he was incorrect. They decided to settle things afterward. Sure enough, video replays proved player was right and coach was wrong.
From there, DuBois had total confidence in Klein.
“He is one of the best football minds that I ever ran up against,” DuBois said. “He would actually make a lot better reads than I would from the sidelines. He was like Peyton Manning on the field. If we would have had the smarts, we would have had a system where he had more control and could call all the plays.”
• • •
Klein has always been best friends with his little brother. They shared toys, birthday presents and interests. They learned music together and became teammates on the football field. They spent so much time together that they were practically twins.
But they were separated by two years, and that meant they had to be apart when Klein left for college.
Kyle, a receiver, followed him to K-State and they got to know each other all over again. They chose to live together in an off-campus house with center B.J. Finney, and remained best friends. But things were different – in a good way.
“When he stepped on the field, he was a little bit more serious,” Kyle Klein said. “He knew that was his time to work.”
Collin Klein moved out of their house when he married former K-State basketball player Shalin Spani over the summer, but they still talk all the time away from practice. They play video games and tell each other everything.
The last time they had a few days off, they decided to meet their father in Colorado and hunt gophers from sun-up till sundown.
Few know Collin better than Kyle.
So, was he ever surprised by the success he had as a college quarterback?
“No, because I know how hard he works at it,” Kyle said. “It wasn't easy, but Collin isn't about easy. I've seen him fight through incredible adversity here, which showed me more about him than I ever knew at home. But it's a good thing. I haven't learned anything about him that I wish I hadn't.”
• • •
Klein was an instant hit with the Loveland coaching staff.
His father was the quarterbacks coach, and, coming from a home-school environment where he spent most of his time around adults, he knew how to speak with an older crowd. The bigger challenge was winning over his new teammates, many of whom he hadn’t met and shared little in common.
Most cursed and had girlfriends. Some weren’t religious. A few drank alcohol underage. That’s not Klein.
But he quickly felt at home in the locker room by being himself. He used what he learned from playing for a traveling basketball team and meeting new friends at musical recitals, where he played the piano, violin and mandolin. Looking back, he had nothing to worry about.
“A lot of the structure and vision from my parents was the same way,” Klein said. “You can’t win anyone over. You have got to put their needs and interests above your own.”
Within a few weeks, nearly everyone on the team had been to his house. By the time he was a junior, his family hosted weekly football parties that started with pizza and ping-pong – Klein is skilled at that, too – and ended with video screenings of future opponents.
It didn’t matter where he went to school during the day. He was a key part of the team.
“Everyone listened to him in the huddle,” DuBois said. “He was so respected and well-liked that I could see him being a senator someday.”
He used the same strategy when he got to K-State, and tried to eat at least one meal with every player on the team. He still does, regularly moving around the K-State cafeteria mingling with walk-ons and freshmen.
“People look at him and think because he was home-schooled he didn’t have social skills. That’s not true,” Poovey said. “He grew up respecting everybody. If you show respect for people and you’re understanding and show compassion you are going to get along with most people, and he did. Honestly, how could you not like Collin Klein?”
• • •
If you ever answer to the phone and hear a man, speaking in an accent, ask if you would like to participate in a customer service survey, there is a remote chance Klein is pulling a prank.
Though Klein is well known for not getting into trouble – his parents can’t think of a time when they had to punish him – he will embrace mischief under the right circumstances.
When he lived in K-State’s athletic dorms as a freshman, he prank-called teammates. Before that, he got a kick out of rearranging Christmas decorations on neighboring lawns.
Some might call him a practical joker. But Klein wouldn’t. He is very careful about who he pranks. Only close friends. Nothing that will hurt or embarrass anyone.
“He’s got a great sense of humor,” Klein’s father said. “But if it’s at the expense of someone else, he won’t do it. One time, some of his teammates poured soda in a kid’s shoes before practice and he was just appalled.”
• • •
Christmas time is approaching, and that means a decorated evergreen is in the middle of the Kleins’ living room.
All the ornaments have special meaning, but Klein’s mother points out two. They were made to honor Collin and his brother for their contributions to K-State. For Kyle hangs a tiny red T-shirt, because he redshirted last season. For Collin hangs a Band-Aid, because he famously played through injuries as a junior and established himself as one of the toughest players in the nation.
As Kelly Klein looks at that ornament, she thinks back to all the hard hits her oldest son has endured.
“Funny thing is,” she says, “Band-Aids were the least of his issues. People focused on the bloody elbows, but didn’t see the other stuff.”
Indeed, Klein was so injured last season that he went weeks without practicing. He fought through severely bruised ribs, a separated shoulder and a dinged-up ankle. There were times he admitted he didn’t know if he could make it through warm-ups.
He has been healthier this year, though he broke a finger against Miami and left the Oklahoma State game in the third quarter after taking several hard hits.
It was hard for him to fight through all that pain, and equally hard for his parents to watch.
“He had to dig to the depth of his character,” Kelly Klein said. “He was determined to give his best, regardless of personal cost.”
“He did it for his team,” Doug said. “They were counting on him. He knew they were counting on him. He wasn’t about to give up.”
How was he able to do it? There are several theories. Klein says he relies on his faith. His parents say he has a unique way of viewing injuries as challenges. Poovey thinks he is so mentally tough that he can simply block out pain.
Or, it could be that he unknowingly played seven games on a broken foot in high school, and learned from the experience.
It was his junior year, and he had to miss games with what was incorrectly diagnosed as a high-ankle sprain following an X-ray. Loveland lost twice while he was away and almost fell out of the playoff hunt, but when he returned the team rallied to earn its district’s final playoff spot and knocked off the No. 1-ranked team the following week.
It was the start of a playoff run that didn’t end until the Indians were in the championship game. They got there thanks to Klein rushing for 200-plus yards and scoring four touchdowns in a semifinal victory over Greeley West.
“He pretty well manhandled them,” said DuBois, the offensive coordinator. “We ended up winning a close game, and he was the reason why. He did everything.”
But Klein told his parents something was wrong afterward. He was in pain all the time. No way was he playing through a sprain. They suggested a MRI, and he agreed. But he asked to wait until after the season. He was determined to play in the state title game, and guided his team to a halftime lead before falling short late.
Two days later he was in the hospital, receiving treatment for a properly diagnosed broken foot.
“He played hurt before he got to Kansas State,” Poovey said. “Thing is, you couldn’t tell he was in pain. Every time we needed him to make a play, he stepped up. He was always solid.”
• • •
Still, that loss was hard on Klein. It was the closest he came to a state championship.
Six years later, he experienced similar heartbreak at K-State. The Wildcats were the No. 1 team in the BCS standings and sat two victories shy of playing for a national championship. All they had to do was beat Baylor, which had a losing record at the time, and Texas to clinch a trip to Miami.
But it wasn’t to be.
Injuries combined with a rapidly improving Baylor team, which finished 7-5, got the best of K-State. The Bears jumped out to a big lead and didn’t let up. The Wildcats were playing catch up, and that meant Klein had to attempt 50 passes – more than double his average — to try and get back in the game.
It also meant Baylor’s front seven could go after Klein with everything it had. The Bears pressured him and hit him hard. He ended up having one of his worst games, throwing three interceptions. The performance sent him tumbling from the top of the Heisman race. It also eliminated K-State from national championship consideration.
When it was over, Klein’s voice cracked as he tried to explain what went wrong.
“It’s going to be a hard one forever,” Klein says now.
His mother missed that game, but his father was there, ready to console him. They embraced underneath the stadium and talked about moving on. Father was glad to help his son through a tough moment, but he left the talk shaken.
He had never seen his son more exhausted. One time, after losing a high school basketball game, he recalls Klein taking off on an 8 1/2-mile run to clear his head. But in Waco he had trouble walking.
“He barely got to the bus,” Doug Klein said. “He wasn’t hurt, but he was as mentally and physically fatigued as I’ve ever seen him.”
• • •
Klein, along with the entire K-State community, has moved on from that loss. The Wildcats rebounded two weeks later with a victory over Texas that clinched the program’s first Big 12 championship since 2003. Oregon is next in the Fiesta Bowl.
Klein redeemed himself in the process, too. He played so well against the Longhorns that he was ensured an invitation to the Heisman ceremony. Though most national experts aren’t giving him much of a chance to win, fellow finalists Johnny Manziel, a freshman quarterback at Texas A&M, and Manti Te’o, a senior linebacker at Notre Dame, are non-traditional finalists. It could be a close race.
No matter what happens, his family couldn’t be prouder.
“I almost don’t have words for it,” Klein’s father said. “It’s just surreal. You don’t ever think about the Heisman, even though I know how capable he is as a football player.”
The entire Loveland community will be rooting for him to win. So will many others in Kansas.
He’s come a long way since he made his first list of goals.
“It has been a journey,” Klein said. “It is one that I definitely could not have scripted this way. Again, the Lord did have a plan, and I am just so blessed and fortunate to have this opportunity with this team and these people here and be a part of this family.”