Blake Keller’s passion for football was gone.
The former Manatee High star was playing as a true freshman at the University of Central Florida when he decided he had enough.
So Keller walked away from the sport he grew up wanting to play professionally.
“I wasn’t happy,” said Keller, a defensive lineman. “I just didn’t know (if) I wanted to do that for the next four years of my life.”
But Keller’s career wasn’t done.
He said he started to miss football once he left UCF.
That became Marshall’s gain. The Thundering Herd gave him a chance, and now Keller is capping his college career Saturday when Marshall faces Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl.
Keller, who is also graduating with two degrees — one in marketing and the other in management — is playing his last football game.
“It’s just one of those things that you have to come to reality and realize that your career is coming to an end,” Keller, a redshirt senior, said from New Mexico. “It’s definitely sad, but I don’t regret anything and I’d do everything the same.”
The family environment, Keller said, is what reignited his passion for football.
Going from Bradenton to a similar town in Huntington, W.Va., didn’t hurt his transition, either.
“Everybody knows Manatee football in Bradenton and up in Huntington, everything is Marshall football,” said Keller, who helped Manatee win a state title in 2011 and reach the state semifinals in 2010 and 2012. “You have super-loyal fans that can recognize you outside the stadium. And it’s really cool to be part of the community, and try to help out the community any way you can. It’s a great town.”
Part of Keller helping the Huntington community came last Saturday when he participated in a kids toy drive for the fourth straight year. Keller and the rest of the Marshall football players collected toys for less fortunate kids.
“Anytime we get a chance to do something like the toy drive or visit a hospital or something like that, I like to do that,” Keller said. “And just kind of give back to the community that gave so much to me.”
Now he’s preparing for Saturday’s last hurrah, and he’ll have his family there to watch. His parents, Don and Linda, along with grandmother Carolyn and brother Ryan, plan to be in attendance.
Keller said his parents have seen four or five of his games this year.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do this without my parents and they’ve been there for me through everything,” Keller said.
The everything part isn’t just when Keller decided to leave UCF and throw his football future into disarray. Rather, it came when life threw a curveball in August when Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Keller said he called his mom all the time to talk to her.
“It was a real reality check that, that kind of thing can happen to your family,” Keller said. “When we found out that my mom got diagnosed with it, we just kind of came closer as a family. It made me play harder and work harder for her.”
That hard work paid off when he was named Marshall’s defensive gridiron gladiator award recipient recently.
“That award goes to the guy that shows up every day and gives great effort,” Keller said. “That’s what I pride myself in.”
Keller enters Saturday’s finale with 33 tackles, 2 1/2 for a loss, one sack, one pass breakup and one forced fumble this season.
But while Keller said it hasn’t hit him that Saturday marks his last game, he’s enjoying all the last moments with his teammates and wouldn’t trade his time at Marshall for anything.
“It’s been the best experience of my life,” Keller said. “Marshall’s given me everything that I could ever want.”