Motown Cowboy

February 2, 2006

Jared Gantenbein was beaming. The Wright seventh-grader was unable, perhaps unwilling, to hide his delight last week in the aftermath of the Denver Broncos' 34-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game.

Gantenbein was in the minority in Wright. He is a diehard Steelers fan living in a Broncos world, his allegiance to the black and gold tied to a lifelong friendship with Pittsburgh defensive end and former Greybull High School standout Brett Keisel. But come Super Bowl Sunday, Gantenbein will have company on the Steelers bandwagon, as fans in Greybull and throughout Wyoming root for a favorite son to do them proud.

Long before preparing for the Super Bowl, Brett Keisel baby-sat Jared Gantenbein while finishing up a decorated high school career.

"We'd play on his tire swing in the yard, play games and stuff like that," Gantenbein, then a preschooler, recalled.

Despite their age difference, a friendship was forged and the two kept in touch, even after Keisel went on to play football at Brigham Young and Gantenbein moved to Riverton and later to Wright. Gantenbein, who owns a Ben Roethlisberger jersey and treasures several signed pictures from Keisel, didn't hesitate when asked his favorite memory of his famous friend. "He'd let me drive his car. He'd put me on his lap, give it gas and let me steer it from the dirt road all the way out to his house."

In his fourth pro season Keisel has helped steer 'The Bus,' Pittsburgh's popular and respected running back Jerome Bettis, back to his boyhood home of Detroit for the Super Bowl and a date with Seattle. Sunday's game will be the swan song of Bettis' 13-year NFL career. Backing up starter Aaron Smith, Keisel, 27, occupies the left side of the Steelers defensive line that allowed an NFL-best 3.4 yards per carry during the regular season. He saved his best individual performance for the playoffs. Against the Broncos, Keisel had four solo tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble late in the fourth quarter that clinched an improbable third straight postseason road victory and a spot on football's grandest stage.

For those who know the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Keisel, the story of his journey from a high school of 170 students to being one of 106 players who will step onto the turf at Ford Field Sunday seems every bit as fairytale-like as Bettis'.

"I can't believe this is really happening," Brett's mom and Greybull native Connie Keisel said.

Connie and her husband Lane Keisel were among the 15 family members and friends in the stands at Denver's Invesco Field for the AFC Championship Game. Their cheers following Brett's second sack may have been felt some 500 miles away in Greybull, the town of 1,800 at the base of the Big Horn Mountains in northern Wyoming, where they moved in 1988 to help take care of Connie's father.

"We just thought, 'Oh my gosh, that was Brett, he did it again!' What a game for him to shine in," Connie Keisel said.

"It's pretty hard to believe," said Lane Keisel, a retired firefighter from Orem, Utah. "It was total exhilaration. You always hope that your son is going to do well, but to see him perform like that is something else."

The couple, who raised seven children and now reside in Fairview, Utah, watched Brett shine as a track, basketball and football star for the Buffaloes from 1993-97. A four-time all-conference selection as a tight end and linebacker, Keisel was named Wyoming's Football Player of the Year by USA Today and was a Star-Tribune Super 25 selection after his senior season.

Keisel gave thought to playing college football in Laramie, but given his family's affiliation with the Mormon Church and the strength of the Brigham Young program relative to Wyoming's at the time, he opted to become a Cougar.

After Keisel earned All-Mountain West Conference honorable mention as a senior, the Steelers selected him in the seventh round of the 2002 NFL Draft. He established himself as a member of the special teams unit as a rookie and began earning extensive time on the defensive line in 2004 after missing the entire 2003 season because of a shoulder surgery.

Phil Juillard, Keisel's football coach during his junior and senior years at Greybull, knew he was dealing with a rare talent. "My feeling when I coached Brett was that he'd be playing on Sundays at some point. He was a great athlete, had quick feet, size and everything. He was very coachable and he always helped the young kids."

Juillard, who has coached for 43 years, remembers Keisel as a leader by example and as one of the toughest and most intense players he ever coached. He recalled one season in which Keisel, a tight end and linebacker in high school, played with a broken hand. "I'm always proud of him when he's the first one down on punts and kickoffs and in on the tackles. I'm always looking for '99.'"

Pat Neely, Keisel's former basketball coach at Greybull, spoke proudly about his former pupil's character, competitive spirit and sheer athletic talent, describing the standing ovation Cody's student body gave Keisel after a tomahawk dunk. Neely, who now coaches basketball at Wright, also remembers Keisel as someone who "always had time for kids."

"I guess he's like your own son," Juillard said. "Brett's sort of special to me because he did make the pros. He's proved all the doubters wrong."

Keisel's popularity in Greybull, where windows were painted black and gold and community members gathered for a photo to send to Brett last week, doesn't surprise Juillard in the least. He's seen it before, such as when Tom Wilkinson, the Greybull graduate who played quarterback at the University of Wyoming, was a star in the Canadian Football League in the 1970s.

"When you get a kid like that that's doing well, the whole community, the whole area up here takes pride in him," Juillard said. "It's a local pride thing and it's not just Greybull. It's Cody and Worland?really the whole state."

The calls come in bunches, some from people Connie and Lane Keisel haven't heard from in years asking for tickets or memorabilia, but most just to say congratulations.

"Crazy" is how Lane Keisel described it.

"Greybull just loves him so much," Connie Keisel said. "He has a lot of great fans there and he's really putting the little Greybull town on the map."

Even though he was both born and attended college in Utah, Keisel will always be from Wyoming. He married his high school sweetheart, Sarah, who played basketball and ran track at Greybull and now works as a child therapist in Pittsburgh. In the offseason he returns to his hometown to get in shape before training camp.

While Brett Keisel couldn't be reached for this story, Lane Keisel tried to describe Brett's mindset after talking to him last week.

"He's thrilled and excited and very busy," Keisel said. "He doesn't really believe it, but at the same time this is where he was headed all along."

Humbled by the attention, Lane Keisel also had a message for Brett's fans in the Cowboy State.

"Tell the state of Wyoming that we're happy to be a part of them."

A caravan of 12 Keisel family members, including Brett's six brothers and sisters and a handful from Sarah's side, will leave for Detroit on Thursday morning.

Back in Greybull, a proud community will watch Sunday's game with great interest, cheering for a big play from one of its own. Phil Juillard will be looking, as always, for '99.

Jared Gantenbein, whose classmates no longer tease him about the Broncos' superiority, will watch with his family in Wright. He is confident the Steelers will prevail, pointing out that, in addition to Keisel, they have history on their side. "Seattle's never been to a Super Bowl before," he says.

And Pat Neely will revel in the excitement of watching the player he once coached who made it big time but never lost his small-town charm.

"You can't forget your roots and I think that's the biggest thing that sticks out about Brett," Neely said. "He hasn't forgotten where he's from and who his friends are."