Four years is the longest Isaac Keener has stayed in one place.
Growing up in a military family, Keener has lived in five states and never considered any place “home” until he came back to Kansas. Ahead of his junior season, Keener moved back to Derby for the first time since his fourth-grade year.
When he got back, he said it was surreal to see friends like fellow senior Dax Benway, who had grown up without Keener around.
Keener came in from Kentucky, where he started to blossom into a promising college football prospect. Derby made him something more, and it landed him in Dodge City on Saturday at the 2019 Kansas Shrine Bowl.
But first, he was folded in half.
In just his fifth game in a Derby uniform, Keener dislocated his ankle and broke his leg.
Playing against Salina Central, Keener went to tackle fellow Shrine Bowl selection Taylon Peters. Two of his teammates came from his sides; his foot got stuck in the ground, and his teammates landed on him.
“My leg folded like an envelope,” he said. “It was the worst pain in my life.”
Hunter Igo, another Derby senior and Shrine Bowl selection, was on the sideline but could see the carnage. He said he remembers watching linebacker Cade Lindsey walk up to Keener, see the injury and run to the end zone to vomit.
Keener said he remembers feeling a pop and then not being able to feel his toes. He remembers coach Brandon Clark hovering above him with his hands on his chest. Clark was telling Keener not to look up.
A day before his birthday, Keener’s season ended before it ever got started. A couple of days before the injury, Clark called his up and coming defensive end to the side.
“He was finally starting to learn what we expected on varsity,” Clark said. “I remember telling him how good he was becoming and how special he was going to be.”
The injury was debilitating. Keener said he had to relearn how to walk.
“I had to remember how to go heel-to-toe and trust my body and my ankle,” he said.
About 12 months later, Keener found himself in Topeka.
After racking up 83 total tackles, 43 solo, 12 sacks and 25 tackles for losses, Keener posed for photos after being named to the Eagle and Topeka Capital-Journal’s Top 11 teams. He had proved himself as one of the best in Kansas.
Keener was one of two Top 11 selections out of Derby along with fellow senior Hunter Igo. Both were selected to the Shrine Bowl roster in Dodge City, and when Keener was asked whether his production came as a surprise based on his injury just months before, Igo walked away shaking his head.
“When I first met him, I knew he would be the player we needed,” Igo said. “I knew he would do everything he could, but after that, it got kind of serious.
“But he wanted to get back that year.”
Keener said his feat didn’t hit him until he was days away from the Class 6A state championship game Nov. 24. He was in his Derby basement with his father, a man who had devoted his life to serving in the U.S. military.
The father and son started talking about Keener’s journey. His brother, Darion, was a standout in Kentucky, earned a Division III scholarship before transferring to Emporia State after the family moved back to Kansas.
But Isaac’s story was different, and his father knew it.
“He told me how much seeing the progress I made and how I never gave up inspired him to be a better person and not think about the negatives in life,” Keener said. “It just gave me the chills.”
Keener said he started to tear up.
After watching his Derby teammates fall short of the 2017 state title to Blue Valley North and All-America quarterback Graham Mertz, Keener came back and helped the Panthers to a 24-16 win over Mertz’s Mustangs in 2018 to capture an undefeated season.
At the Top 11 banquet, Keener said he played on teams that struggled in Kentucky. Upon review, those teams consistently finished with a winning record.
“It’s humbling that his expectations are now Derby expectations,” Clark said. “It says a lot about what our kids do here and what our community does for them.”
Keener is set to join Washburn’s football program in the fall. He had taken visits to Division I programs like Iowa State, but he knew the NFL opportunity that could come along with being an Ichabod.
In the 2019 NFL Draft, former Washburn receiver Corey Ballentine was taken in the sixth round by the New York Giants. Keener also said he wanted to give back to the state that had given him a home.
But first, Keener will finish his Derby career in Dodge City alongside about 60 of the best high school seniors in Kansas. His West squad coach, Hesston’s Tyson Bauerle, took quick notice of Keener.
He is one of four Top 11 selections on the West team along with Igo, Maize quarterback Caleb Grill and Pratt running back Travis Theis. But Keener might disrupt the game more than any of them.
“He’s a monster is what he is,” Bauerle said. “In practice, we’ve had a lot of difficult running his direction. He’s done some really good things, and he does it so fast. We will run a stretch concept, and bam, he’s in the backfield before it’s out of the tackle box. It’s incredible.”
The Shrine Bowl is set to kick off at 7 p.m. Saturday in Dodge City’s Memorial Stadium. Keener said he looks forward to putting on a show after years of obstacles.
“It’s been a ride,” Keener said. “I’ve really liked being in Kansas, and this experience has been really special with some of the guys here.”