LOVELAND, Colo. — Before he could call himself a man, Collin Klein had to make a list of goals.
By KELLIS ROBINETT
The Kansas City Star
Not just any goals, either life-long aspirations.
What he wanted to accomplish as a high school athlete, how he would court his future wife, the type of job he would one day pursue. He had to write it all down during a weekend retreat with his father at a cabin near the base of the Rocky Mountains.
Collin was 14, and he came home from the trip with something he could always turn to his personal playbook.
He shared it with his family when they met for dinner the following Sunday. Some of his goals were ordinary, such as volunteering and making good grades. Others seemed severe, such as waiting until his wedding day for his first kiss and never, ever cursing.
His parents, impressed by his vision, gave Collin a watch with his favorite scripture on the back and told him to keep aiming high.
They were his decisions, his father, Doug, says now. They were his choices, his goals. All we wanted to do was let him know he was old enough to start trying to reach them.
Collin was ready. Nearly a decade later, that much is obvious.
Today, he is married, a college graduate and perhaps the best quarterback in Kansas State history. Klein, a fifth-year senior, just finished piling up close to 3,400 yards and 37 touchdowns while leading the Wildcats to an 11-victory season and a Big 12 championship. Now he is on his way to New York as one of three finalists for college footballs most prestigious award the Heisman Trophy.
If he wins, Klein will be the first K-State player to bring home the honor. He will also achieve one of the most far-fetched goals he ever wrote down.
Earlier this week, his mother, Kelly, came across an updated list of ambitions Collin made as a high school junior. One of the bullet points: Winning the Heisman.
I had completely forgotten about it, Klein said. Obviously, it is a piece of history.
He seems amazed by all that has happened since he left home for Manhattan, Kan., where he now lives with his wife, Shalin, a former K-State basketball player and a daughter of former Chiefs linebacker Gary Spani.
Klein almost chose to play basketball in college and started his K-State career as a wide receiver. And if not for a coaching change after Kleins first year on campus, Bill Snyder might not have gotten the chance to mold him into one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
Some crazy things have happened to lead our team and myself to this point, Klein said. There are a lot of reasons for that. There is a lot of hard work, a lot of preparation, that has been put in on so many peoples part. So many people have invested in me when I was going through a hard time or struggling.
As a deeply religious person, he made choices based on prayer and family input. Years later, there are no regrets.
He is exactly where he is supposed to be, Doug Klein says. He is where God wants him.
The south wall of Loveland Highs cafeteria is a shrine to prominent alums.
High above where teenagers eat hang 11 commemorative plaques honoring graduates such as Carolina Panthers center Jeff Byers, Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom and professional screenwriter Heather Hach.
One name you wont find on this wall: Collin Klein.
That may sound strange considering Klein is one of the best athletes to play for the Loveland Indians. The town still adores him. When he graced a recent cover of Sports Illustrated, it was so hard to find a copy in Kansas and Colorado that the magazine had to re-release it.
But longtime Loveland football coach John Poovey says not to expect Kleins face on the wall anytime soon. Poovey says the wall was a pet project of a former athletic director. Plus there is another reason.
Thats not who Collin is, Poovey said. Im sure he would be more interested in something that honored one of the teams he played for than anything that honored him.
Klein never technically attended the school he played sports for Loveland, but was homeschooled by his mother but there are compelling reasons for his inclusion.
When Klein became a team captain in both football and basketball, fellow students were so impressed that they asked him to join other after-school clubs, including student council.
Picture that, a teenager who wasnt even a student at the school being asked to help lead it.
His role at the high school wasnt any different than in Manhattan, Kelly Klein said. He rose to a position of leadership and respect because of his heart. Anytime he got the chance to love and serve, he took that chance.
One of the reasons Klein began showing leadership skills at a young age: He was a coach before he was a quarterback.
Klein didnt start playing organized football until he reached high school. He took to basketball instead.
But when his younger brother Kyle joined a flag football team when he was 8, Collin assumed the role of defensive coordinator while his dad ran the offense.
He got the kids lined up in the right places, said Doug Klein, a former high school and college coach. We werent scored on until the final game.
Doug was the quarterbacks coach at Loveland once Collin started playing football and watched as his son earned the trust of his teammates, many of whom he hadnt met and shared little in common.
Most cursed and had girlfriends. Some werent religious. A few drank alcohol underage.
But Collin quickly felt at home in the locker room by being himself. He had met new friends before while playing for a traveling basketball team and at music recitals, where he played the piano, violin and mandolin.
You cant win anyone over, Klein said. You have got to put their needs and interests above your own.
Within a few weeks, nearly everyone on the team had been to his house. By the time he was a junior, his family held weekly football parties that started with pizza and ping-pong Klein is skilled at that, too and ended with video screenings of future opponents.
Everyone listened to him in the huddle, said Loveland offensive coordinator Jim DuBois, who compared Collins football smarts to Peyton Mannings. He was so respected and well-liked that I could see him being a senator someday.
Klein used the same strategy when he got to K-State, and tried to eat at least one meal with every player on the team. He still does, regularly moving around the K-State cafeteria mingling with walk-ons and freshmen.
He also shows a lighter side with teammates. Though Klein is well known for not getting into trouble his parents cant think of a time when they had to punish him he will embrace mischief under the right circumstances.
When Klein lived in K-States athletic dorms as a freshman, he prank-called teammates. Before that, he got a kick out of rearranging Christmas decorations on neighboring lawns. But Klein is very careful about who he pranks. Only close friends. Nothing that will hurt or embarrass anyone.
Doug Klein recalled a time when some of Collins high school teammates poured soda in a players shoes before practice. Collin was appalled.
People look at him and think because he was home-schooled he didnt have social skills. Thats not true, Poovey said. He grew up respecting everybody. If you show respect for people and youre understanding and show compassion you are going to get along with most people, and he did. Honestly, how could you not like Collin Klein?
Christmas time is approaching, and that means a decorated evergreen is in the middle of the Kleins living room.
All the ornaments have special meaning, but Kleins mother points out two. They were made to honor Collin and his brother for their contributions to the K-State football team. For Kyle, a freshman receiver, hangs a tiny red T-shirt, because he redshirted last season. For Collin hangs a Band-Aid, because he famously played through injuries as a junior and established himself as one of the toughest players in the nation.
As Kelly Klein looks at that ornament, she thinks back to all the hard hits her oldest son has endured.
Funny thing is, she says, Band-Aids were the least of his issues. People focused on the bloody elbows, but didnt see the other stuff.
Indeed, Klein went weeks without practicing last season because of injuries. He fought through severely bruised ribs, a separated shoulder and a dinged-up ankle. There were times he admitted he didnt know if he could make it through warm-ups.
He has been healthier this year, though he broke a finger against Miami and left the Oklahoma State game in the third quarter after taking several hard hits.
It was hard for him to fight through all that pain, and equally hard for his parents to watch.
He had to dig to the depth of his character, Kelly Klein said. He was determined to give his best, regardless of personal cost.
Klein says he relies on his faith. His parents say he has a unique way of viewing injuries as challenges. Poovey thinks Klein is so mentally tough that he can simply block out pain.
Or it could be that he unknowingly played seven games on a broken foot in high school.
During his junior year, he sat out because of an incorrectly diagnosed high-ankle sprain. Loveland lost twice without Klein and almost fell out of the playoff hunt. When he returned, the team rallied to earn its districts final playoff spot and knocked off the No. 1-ranked team the following week.
It was the start of a playoff run that didnt end until the Indians were in the championship game. Klein rushed for 200-plus yards and scored four touchdowns in a semifinal victory over Greeley West.
Klein told his parents something was wrong afterward. But he was determined to play in the state title game, and he guided the Indians to a halftime lead before Loveland lost.
Two days later Klein was in the hospital, receiving treatment for a properly diagnosed broken foot.
He played hurt before he got to Kansas State, Poovey said. Thing is, you couldnt tell he was in pain. Every time we needed him to make a play, he stepped up. He was always solid.
Still, that loss was hard on Klein. It was the closest he came to a state championship.
Six years later, he experienced similar heartbreak at K-State. The Wildcats were the No. 1 team in the Bowl Championship Series standings and sat two victories shy of playing for a national championship. All they had to do was beat Baylor, which had a losing record at the time, and Texas to clinch a trip to Miami.
But it wasnt to be.
Baylor jumped out to a big lead and didnt let up. The Wildcats were playing catch up, and that meant Klein had to attempt 50 passes more than double his average to try and get back in the game.
The Bears pressured Klein and hit him hard. He ended up having one of his worst games, throwing three interceptions. The performance sent him tumbling from the top of the Heisman race. It also eliminated K-State from national championship consideration.
When it was over, Kleins voice cracked as he tried to explain what went wrong.
Its going to be a hard one forever, Klein says now.
His mother missed that game, but his father was there, ready to console him. They embraced underneath the stadium and talked about moving on.
Doug Klein left the talk shaken. He had never seen his son more exhausted. One time, after losing a high school basketball game, he recalls Collin taking off on an 8 1/2-mile run to clear his head. Not this time.
He barely got to the bus, Doug Klein said. He wasnt hurt, but he was as mentally and physically fatigued as Ive ever seen him.
Klein and the Wildcats rebounded two weeks later with a victory over Texas that clinched the programs first Big 12 championship since 2003 and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl, where K-State will play Oregon on Jan. 3 in Glendale, Ariz.
He redeemed himself in the process, too. Klein played so well against the Longhorns that he was ensured an invitation to the Heisman ceremony. It could be a close race, but most national experts give an edge to fellow finalists Johnny Manziel, a freshman quarterback at Texas A&M, and Manti Teo, a senior linebacker at Notre Dame.
No matter what happens, his family couldnt be prouder.
It wasnt easy, but Collin isnt about easy, said Kyle Klein, who lived with Collin in Manhattan before his brother got married this summer. Ive seen him fight through incredible adversity here, which showed me more about him than I ever knew at home. But its a good thing. I havent learned anything about him that I wish I hadnt.
Klein has come a long way since he made his first list of goals.
It has been a journey, he said. It is one that I definitely could not have scripted this way. Again, the Lord did have a plan, and I am just so blessed and fortunate to have this opportunity with this team and these people here and be a part of this family.
To reach Kellis Robinett, send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/KellisRobinett.