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Brush with greatness, tragedy

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POSTED August 26, 2014 11:40 p.m.

I had every reason in the world to take in everything that South Florida had to offer.

It was warm. And it was beautiful. And it bustling with nightlife.

In less than 15 minutes I could be sitting in the card room at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, and in just over 30 I could be prowling the clubs of South Beach.

But there I was with Michael Keck – the second-ranked high school defensive end in the country – playing Madden in a hotel banquet room and talking about both the big and small things in life.

I was in Ft. Lauderdale to help run a high school football All-Star Game that was a Who’s Who of future stars – Cam Newton, Dez Bryant, Earl Thomas – and I found myself awash with talented young men that were destined for the National Football League and the millions that came with it.

And for the most part, they acted like it.

But Keck, who hailed from a small Missouri town that claimed the man who shot the man who shot Jesse James as one of its most famous past residents, wasn’t like that.

He had every reason to be. He was twice named to the Missouri All-State team and helped lead his team to three State Championships – the kind of thing that gets you cast in bronze in the kind of town where he came from.

He had turned down offers to play at USC and Alabama and instead chose Mizzou so his grandmother could attend his games, and while the primadonna athletes gave staffers all kinds of problems, he humbly apologized for their actions and reminded us daily that they didn’t speak for the group and they most of them were grateful for being there.

You don’t find humility in 18-year-olds. And you certainly don’t find it in 18-year-olds that have the whole world in the palm of their hand.

And right now I’m glad that I shunned South Florida in January for those small conversations and that friendly banter.

Keck died in October at age 25 after a staph infection exacerbated an existing heart condition. He left behind a young wife and a 3-year-old son. That story by itself is tragic enough.

But it was the exploding of his bright star that is even more heartbreaking.

After two seasons at Mizzou Keck transferred to Missouri State to play outside linebacker, and his career ended when he chose to hang up the pads at the advice of a doctor when he was knocked unconscious during a practice. It was a particularly bad concussion, and just another to hang on the mantle of a ferocious tackler.

The rest of the story is one that’s cropping up all too often on the sports pages.

He had lingering effects.

The plays he couldn’t remember and his inability to count backwards from 20 by 3’s gave way to depression, anger and violence. He drank a lot. And while he was never completely suicidal, he told his wife that he wished he would just die already so he could send his brain to Boston University so that he could get the diagnosis that he already knew was coming.

That’s exactly what she did when he passed away in October, and various media outlets reported the startling results on Monday.

CTE. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Long-term damage from repeated blows to the head.

The assessment of the doctor at Boston University was that Keck’s sample wasn’t unlike one that you’d find in an 80-year-old suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, and it’s one of the worst cases in a young athletes that they’ve come across since Boston University started studying the cases in 2008.

I want to write something about how the high school football season starts this week, and how hundreds of young men in the South County will be strapping up their own helmets and hitting the gridiron in pursuit of glory.

But that’s not the alarmist sentiment that I want to convey.

You meet people in your life that leave a lasting impression.

Sometimes it’s a bus stop and sometimes it’s in a classroom. Sometimes it’s an elder that imparts the wisdom of the years.

And sometimes it’s an 18-year-old kid from Nowhere, Missouri – grounded despite having every possible reason to be higher than the stars that he was undoubtedly destined for.

I don’t know whether I won or lost those games of Madden. I don’t care. I don’t even particularly know that I remember those conversations.

But what I do know is that Michael Keck died too young, and he suffered from a debilitating condition that came as a result of doing the one thing that he had been trained his entire life to do.

If that’s not tragedy, then I don’t know what is.

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