Alan Dell

Commentary | A friend's death at Georgia Dome spurs Manatee High's Blake Keller to memorable football performance

It was national news when Isaac Grubb fell to his death watching a college football game Friday night at the Georgia Dome.

To Blake Keller, it was personal. His heart was crushed and tears flowed down his cheeks when his mother told him what had happened.

When Keller came to Hawkins Stadium on Sunday for Manatee's football game with Miramar, he wanted to do something special for his close friend.

As one of the Hurricanes' starting defensive linemen, Keller's best chance for a statement would've been a few sacks.

In his eyes, that wouldn't have been enough.

So the 6-foot-2, 222-pound senior did something a national television audience will remember for a lifetime.

Along with his 2½ sacks, Keller blocked two punts and returned the

second one for a touchdown. It helped Manatee break open a close game in the third quarter and send the Canes on to their victory.

It reminds us that despite all the hoopla the Manatee High football program gets, these are just a bunch of kids vulnerable to the pitfalls life can spring on anyone.

It's why Keller is special.

The Manatee defensive lineman played with a broken heart, but you would never know it.

"All I kept thinking was that I had to do something to keep his memory alive," Keller said.

"You have to live life everyday to your full potential because you never know when it will be taken from you. You go hard all the time in his game, and good things will happen."

On his second block, which he picked up and ran for 15 yards for a touchdown, Keller said he hit the ball with his hand -- and it bounced right back to him. Manatee defensive line coach Steve Gulash saw it differently.

"At Saturday's practice, Blake had tears in his eyes," Gulash said. "He told me a good friend of his died. At first, you don't believe it, but then you see it's real. The guys on our unit took those feelings on. They are a close, unique bunch of guys. When he is sad, we are sad.

"I told Blake something would happen today, and you would know your friend was with you. Then he blocks that punt, and the ball bounces right into his chest. You could say it just happened, but you know what? Maybe there was a reason, a sign to Blake that his friend was there, that you don't have to miss him forever."

Though he is one of the key elements of a defensive line considered one of the best in the country, Keller is a humble person. The defensive tackle, who has verbally committed to the University of Central Florida, was even willing to give Grubb the credit for his performance against Miramar.

"Blake took it very hard," said his father, Don Keller. "To try and get closure on it is tough at that age. He is upset. He had Isaac in his thoughts today, and before the game he said he had another guardian angel looking after him. They were good friends. He was my nephew's roommate.

"They live in Tennessee, and we would go up there often when my wife went to visit her parents. They lived across the street."

Gulash said Keller has always been capable of doing what he did against Miramar and that the incident might have driven him beyond any self-imposed limitations, real or imagined.

"This was his first death experience with a close friend, and when the punt was snapped, I got chills. I don't know why, but I felt something was going to happen," Gulash said.

Keller is part of a defensive line that has college coaches salivating. It's where games are won and lost, and the unit kept Manatee in the game in the first half when its offense struggled, managing only two field goals

Mirarmar's high-powered offense was held to six points in the first two quarters and shut out in the second half. Keller had a key sack in the first half stopping the Patriots on a fourth and two.

"We talked before the game and said the whole unit (defensive line) was playing for Blake's friend," Gulash said. "Our goal was to succeed and remember what this guy was about. Blake was sad and still is sad. He had tears in his eyes after the game, but if you don't have emotion you can't play football."