Bob Lutz

KU aide forever changed by crash

While the rest of the Kansas basketball contingent — coaches and players — are in Washington, D.C., today for the funeral of Jayhawks forward Thomas Robinson's mother, one member of the staff will be in another somber place, observing another tender moment.

Kyle Keller, KU's video coordinator since 2008, was an Oklahoma State assistant on Jan. 27, 2001, when a Beechcraft King Air 200 carrying 10 people — two players, four basketball staff members, two men from the broadcast crew and two pilots — crashed in a barren field in western Colorado, killing all aboard.

Keller was on that plane during the trip to Boulder for a game against Colorado. But on the return trip, he was asked to switch planes with OSU walk-on guard Nate Fleming, Keller's cousin, so that he could get back to Stillwater on a faster plane — one of three the team regularly chartered for trips — and begin going over video on the Cowboys' next opponent, Missouri.

Ten years later, the tragedy's aftermath is with Keller every day. And his life is forever changed.

There will be a memorial service today in Stillwater for those whose lives were lost. The people closest to them will be there, and so will many others touched by the tragedy.

Keller wrestled with where to be today: Washington or Stillwater. In the end, the choice was to be with those who consoled him through the most difficult period of his life.

Guilt, remorse, regret — Keller has come to know those emotions.

He has wounds time will never heal, and is still learning to cope with the "Why not me?'' question that has been so pervasive in his life.

Fleming went to Oklahoma State because of Keller's recommendation. He rarely played — he scored only two points during his Cowboys career — but was beloved by players and coaches because of his work ethic and team-first attitude.

"It seems like 10 years, it seems like a lifetime and it seems like yesterday, too,'' Keller said of the crash. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about Nate or Will (Hancock) or Jerad (Weiberg) or any of the others because of the way they've impacted and shaped my life.''

Keller was single at the time, a coach-a-holic. He put in the long hours you'd expect from a young coach trying to establish himself and basketball was his life.

"I didn't have a care in the world,'' Keller said. "I could have lived in the office, slept on the couch.

"Not that I don't work hard now — there's not a coach that doesn't work hard. But I know there are things more important than the game of basketball. For me, it's about teaching these kids I'm involved with every day about doing right from wrong, how they can be productive citizens, to be great sons. To be somebody one day.''

Every time it rains really hard, Keller goes to a dark place.

It was pouring in Oklahoma on the night of the crash, when Keller drove from Stillwater to Edmond to tell his uncle and aunt — Fleming's parents — what had happened.

"There was so much guilt I felt at that time,'' Keller said. "Parents are not supposed to bury their children. That's not supposed to happen.''

In a way, Keller has looked forward to today. He's looked forward to seeing so many familiar faces and telling stories about that 2000-01 team and those who were killed in the crash.

"Is it difficult? Yeah, it's hard,'' Keller said. "But not when you compare it to what those families of those men go through. I just draw on my faith and the support I have. None of my family has ever blamed me, never blamed anything.''

It's not easy for Keller to not blame himself, however. It was his seat, after all, that Fleming, part of his family, was occupying when the plane went down because of electrical failure 40 miles east of Denver.

Just before his plane took off from Boulder, Keller looked through the windows of the King Air and saw the faces of his friends and co-workers.

Eighteen minutes later, contact with the plane's pilots was lost.

Keller wears a pin on his lapel which highlights the number 10 and has an orange ribbon running through it. He's often asked about its significance, something he relishes.

"I love being able to share my testimony and talking to people about how I can try to impact others,'' he said. "I'm not a martyr, but I just hope that because of what happened on that fateful night to those 10 men, that somehow me and a lot of other people, that we can make a difference. It's a great chance for me to talk about those 10 people and keep those memories alive. The rest of my life is purpose-driven.''

Keller is married now. He has two children. He named his son, 20 months old, Kemper Nathan, the middle name in honor of his cousin.

The death of Thomas Robinson's mother late Friday night shook the Kansas basketball team and reminded Keller of the OSU tragedy in the way that the KU "family" came together after the news.

Such things change men forever.

"Our guys are going to be at a funeral (today),'' Keller said. "And I'll be in Stillwater. It's a tough call. I really need to be in two places.''

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