UNIVERSITY PARK — Ryan Keiser’s been called a lot of things in his athletic career.
At Selinsgrove High School, he was described as the Seals’ star by fans who watched their games. To his coaches, he was called a consummate teammate in football, basketball and baseball.
When Keiser graduated and left to continue his athletic career at Penn State, he obtained a new label — walk-on. He was an unheralded prospect when compared to most of the players he joined the Nittany Lions football team with who came with snazzy press kits, attention-grabbing stars on their recruiting resumes and promising introductory bios in the team media guide.
Keiser was an underdog. But he was a worker.
Never miss a local story.
Now, he’s a captain — one of seven for the Nittany Lions — in his final season wearing the simple blue and white uniforms he grew up dreaming of wearing.
The news that Keiser was voted as a captain came as no surprise to his high school football coach Dave Hess, much like the news that his former standout earned a scholarship after staring as a special teams dynamo a few summers ago.
“He’s just a wonderful young man,” Hess said. “Every time I talk to him, it’s all positive stuff. He always has a smile on his face and he’s so humble. He’s an amazing person.”
Keiser doesn’t hesitate when asked to reflect on his career despite the fact that it’s one that’s weathered the darkest period in program history, with the Jerry Sandusky scandal that resulted in unprecedented sanctions leveled against the team and led to a steady stream of shakeups on the coaching staff. The chaos included the firing of Joe Paterno and later the legendary coach’s death. A few months down the road, teammates and good friends left amid tumultuous circumstances.
Keiser, like many Penn State players, endured. It helped that he already had the mindset that he could, and would, no matter the asking price.
It’s the main reason, Hess believes, why few coaches made realistic pushes to recruit him, despite his resume that boasted PA Football News All-State First-Team honors for two seasons, a Pennsylvania Sports Writers All-State First-Team selection, an appearance in the Big 33 game and a PIAA championship win.
“I really think that Ryan had his heart set on Penn State and the word kind of got out there that he was going to go to Penn State regardless,” Hess said. “That’s what was coming to me from other schools at that point. They were saying, ‘We hear Ryan has got a preferred walk-on (spot) at Penn State. Is there any chance that we can get him?’ And of course I said maybe you ought to give him a call and see what he thinks. But I think honestly a lot of recruiters knew that he was sold on Penn State and he wanted to be a Nittany Lion from the start.
“It’s such an amazing story because he stuck to his guns.”
Even now, after another winter of uncertainty and a new coaching staff to adjust to, Keiser seems incapable of a negative thought. He simply grins wide, moves his hands up to his unshaven chin to give it a thoughtful scratch and applies his trademark positive spin.
“I tell you, it’s definitely been enjoyable,” Keiser says. “And we still have a lot to go. So I’m just going to do the best I can every day and try and get better and have the best senior season that I can have.”
Now in his fifth year with the program, Keiser has not only earned a scholarship in addition to a starting spot on the defense, he’s earned a new label.
“Ryan Keiser is the proverbial coach on the field and is an underrated athlete,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “There’s a guy who made a lot of plays (last season).”
Keiser’s impact was felt in games he played and games he missed. Although the Penn State secondary was routinely gouged last season, Keiser was able to provide much needed experience while Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was used primarily as a linebacker.
Keiser tied with Jordan Lucas for the team lead in interceptions with three, making two to clinch wins against Illinois and Wisconsin. He played his best game against Kent State, registering four tackles, three pass breakups and his first interception and sack in his career. But he also suffered a broken left hand against the Golden Flashes, and the injury limited him over the next three games.
He didn’t play against Indiana, and Penn State’s secondary fell apart in his absence. The Nittany Lions gave up 336 passing yards and 486 yards overall in a 44-24 loss. Keiser returned for the Michigan game and played against Ohio State, but was limited in both contests.
Keiser didn’t play his usual amount of defensive snaps until the Illinois game. In the three-game span before that, Penn State gave up 854 passing yards and eight touchdowns. The Nittany Lions gave up 10 passing touchdowns in the rest of their games combined.
Meanwhile, Keiser’s broken left hand required him to wear a bulky cast and prevented him from holding on field goal attempts, a job he had handled since 2012. Without Keiser holding, Sam Ficken — who started the season hitting seven of eight tries — made just seven of 15 kicks.
“Every kicker has their own preference,” Ficken said. “For something that is supposed to be so consistent to kind of change on you, it was a little challenging. People definitely undervalue the role of the holder. Keiser’s exceptional at that. If (NFL teams) drafted that, I think he’d be the first one off the board.”
Now recovered from his broken hand, Keiser used it to slap high-fives with Penn State fans who gathered along Curtin Road to watch the team practice its new entrance to Beaver Stadium on Aug. 19. Along with senior running back Zach Zwinak, Keiser was the first player in line and fans were greeted by his smile.
No matter what happens in his last season, Penn State fans are sure to see it plenty this season.
“It’s crazy to think about the last year is here,” Keiser said. “And we’ve got a long way to go. But we’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a great run, being through all we’ve been through and coming together as players just making great friends throughout the way, it’s been a great run.”
And for his teammates, he’ll leave Penn State with a lasting label which fellow senior Adrian Amos — who has started the most games of any Penn State player — has bestowed on Keiser out of respect.
“Keiser will always be the old guy,” Amos said.