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Ex-Cougar Keisel back in Super Bowl, this time as starter

January 29, 2009

Brett Keisel dived to make a tackle, heard his knee pop and figured his season was over.

Two months later, he's back in the Super Bowl, preparing to start Sunday's game at defensive end for the Pittsburgh Steelers and thankful the injury that scared him became only a three-week setback.

It was almost a welcome break.

Between a calf strain that cost him three games early in the season and the knee trouble, Keisel figures the injuries enabled him to avoid "six brutal games of beatings" and remain relatively fresh at the end of a long season.

Not that he was thinking such thoughts on the way to the hospital in November after leaving a home game against Cincinnati, wondering if he was done for the year.

"Just because everyone talks about a popping sensation, and I felt that, it was a concern," he said. "I sat in the MRI machine and said a lot of prayers."

The favorable test results and some rehabilitation sent him back onto the field for the last two games of the regular season, followed by two playoff victories that sent the Steelers back to the Super Bowl. Keisel was mostly a special-teams payer three years ago when Pittsburgh beat Seattle for the championship, then he moved into the starting lineup the following season and has stayed there.

Starting Super Bowl XLIII will complete quite a climb for a player who was born in Provo, grew up mostly on a 1,000-acre ranch in a small town in Wyoming with some 150 students in his high school, had his Brigham Young career interrupted by a forced transfer to Snow College, switched positions and was five picks away from being undrafted until the Steelers took him in 2002.

"The best thing about Brett is he's well grounded," said his father, Lane Keisel.

He did not have much choice. Besides occupying Brett with farming chores of planting crops, irrigating and attending to horses and cattle, his father made sure he did not engage in any showboating antics while starring in football and basketball for tiny Greybull High School. By now, Lane Keisel can tolerate his son's occasional display of exuberance, like his "rowing" simulation after a playoff sack of Philip Rivers, San Diego's quarterback.

Whatever lessons were yet unlearned came in the middle of Keisel's BYU days, when academic issues sent him to Snow. He describes the experience as "the biggest blessing," although it may not have struck him that way at the time.

In Ephraim, Keisel suddenly was buying his own textbooks and football shoes, after having everything covered at BYU. "It really knocked me off my high horse," he said. "It was a big, eye-opening thing for me."

Snow also made his football career, converting him from tight end to defensive end. But compared with longtime Steelers teammate Chris Hoke at BYU, Keisel still was something of an underachiever with the Cougars.

"He's really improved himself," said Tom Ramage, BYU's former defensive line coach. "I think he's always had the talent. He's found himself."

Keisel's self-discovery came just in time for the Steelers, who lost veteran end Kimo von Oelhoffen after their last Super Bowl appearance. Keisel showed he was ready to take over with a two-sack game against Denver in the AFC championship game that year, and moved into the lineup in 2006.

"He had learned the scheme, he had mastered the techniques. All he needed was the playing time," said defensive line coach John Mitchell.

Hoke believes Keisel's value became more apparent during his absences this season, because "when he's been there, he's been a difference-maker for us."

The Steelers hope that's the case Sunday, when Keisel's parents, who now live in the central Utah town of Fairview, will be in the seats at Raymond James Stadium.

"It's almost an overwhelming experience, for your own son to be part of that," said Lane Keisel, remembering his Super Bowl trip three years ago. "I knew where he'd come from and what he'd been through."