*This article appeared in Oct/Nov ’17 issue of Owensboro Living.
After an interview with wide receiver Keelan Cole, one thing became clear – he’s all business.
And that work hard, no-nonsense attitude is precisely what helped him make his way to an NFL roster.
Central High School
Keelan grew up in Louisville, and attended Central High School, where he played baseball, basketball and ran track, in addition to football. In fact, a quick Google search for his high school statistics actually returns results that feature his numbers as a baseball player. But even with the athletic gifts to play four varsity sports, Keelan is quick to point out that football is his first love.
“The contact, the aggressiveness, I just enjoy going out there and hitting people,” Keelan said. That statement may seem surprising coming from someone who is paid to largely avoid getting hit, but Keelan didn’t always play wide receiver. In fact, it wasn’t until his time at Kentucky Wesleyan College that he began playing on the offensive side of the ball at all. “I really mainly played defense,” Keelan said. Every once in a while, I would play receiver to block because I was a hitter, but for the most part, I only played defense. I only played safety. Even in little league, I only played defense.
Kentucky Wesleyan College Panthers
For a football player to change positions, from one side of the ball to the other upon reaching college is impressive in itself. That feat becomes even more impressive when you realize that he would go on to play that position for a living. And considering that most NFL teams only keep six wide receivers on their active rosters, that means Keelan is one of only 192 people to hold that sought-after job.
So a kid from Louisville, who has played safety all his life, comes to Owensboro, converts to wide receiver, and then signs an NFL contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Pretty impressive, right? Did I mention the fact that Keelan walked-on at Kentucky Wesleyan College? That’s right. Coming out of high school, the man now playing in the NFL did not have any college scholarship offers. Certainly, that’s a rare occurrence, but it does put Keelan in good company. In fact, two of the league’s top receivers, Jordy Nelson and Antonio Brown, both walked on to their college teams and changed position to play wide receiver. One key difference is that both Nelson and Brown played at Division I colleges, meaning it was a little easier for them to get noticed by pro scouts.
So what did Keelan do as a Division II wide receiver to stand out amongst the crowd? Well, his first year, he redshirted, meaning he practiced with the team, but didn’t play in games, and preserved a year of college eligibility. And according to Keelan, he took full advantage of that extra time. “I had a senior in front of me my redshirt freshman year, and once he was gone, I knew I was coming in to start anyway. I was the backup, and it was going to be my turn, my time, when he left,” Keelan said. So he spent that redshirt year “just getting better at practice and just trying to learn as much as I could.”
All that practice at his new position paid off during his sophomore season at Wesleyan. It was after that year that Keelan said he knew he had a chance to get the professional scouts’ attention. “I knew if I dominated Division II, I knew I at least had a chance to open some eyes, and then all I had to do was be consistent and continue to dominate, and I knew somebody was at least going to give me a chance.”
And when he says “dominate,” he’s talking about a sophomore campaign where he amassed 1,577 receiving yards, good for best in the NCAA. Keelan followed up that season with a junior season that saw him finish second in NCAA receiving touchdowns with 17. That also set a Wesleyan single-season record.
You don’t become a statistical leader in college football without a serious work ethic. And what’s abundantly apparent when talking to Keelan is his nose-to-the-grindstone mentality. He approaches the game with a no-nonsense attitude, a focused player whose only job is to complete the task in front of him.
With Keelan, there’s no magic to how he got where he is, and it wasn’t through some stroke of luck. Rather, he talks about football and improving his game the same way you’d expect a blue-collar worker with a lunch pail to approach the job site. There’s a job in front of him, Keelan knows how to do it and knows he has the skills to complete it, and he’s going to get the job done.
It’s one thing to be confident in your own abilities, but there are few jobs when there is someone directly opposite from you that’s attempting to prevent you from completing your task. So what are Keelan’s thoughts on going up against world-class defenders every Sunday? Not surprisingly, he applies that same straight-forward mentality when discussing his opponents. When asked who he’s most excited to face off against, his answer is “Really everybody…just because they don’t have that name doesn’t mean they’re not good enough to give you a look. I mean who would’ve expected me to come this far. So I really can’t say I’m excited to play against anybody in particular, I’m just really excited to play.”
But even after leading college football (at all levels, not just Division II) in several statistical categories, and gaining the attention of professional scouts, Keelan didn’t hear his name called during the NFL Draft. If you haven’t figured it out by now, that was of little consequence to Keelan, who kept right on working to show those 32 teams what they had passed up on.
Several teams contacted his agent after the draft, and Keelan was invited to the Jaguars’ rookie camp. Once he hit that stage, there was no denying the talent he possessed. With a huge performance in a preseason game, that included a 97-yard touchdown, a lot more people suddenly knew the name Keelan Cole. Even then, though, for Keelan it was business as usual. In a no-nonsense fashion that didn’t include even a hint of boasting, Keelan explained: “I was excited because my teammates were excited. I’ve done that multiple times, and it was on a different stage, but it was really just execution. That’s my specialty, that’s what I do. I like to go deep, I like to catch balls, and I like to run. So it wasn’t really anything I was personally excited about. I just enjoyed my teammates being happy about it, so that’s what really made me happy about it. And then we won, so that’s what tops it off.”
Keelan now looks to make his mark in the NFL, the same way he set the Division II world on fire at Wesleyan. And though the odds may be stacked against him, he’s been there before. While he may now be on the biggest football stage in the world, my guess is that if you ask Keelan Cole, he’s just doing his job.