November 3, 2009

The curious case of Cody Keith

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PASADENA, Calif. - Like every other high school football coach in this city, Antoine Peterson had heard the buzz about the new quarterback at Maranatha. How the kid had transferred in from North Carolina, had trained with one of the top private quarterback coaches in the country and had impressed the locals with his accuracy and arm strength in summer passing camps. Then there was his apparent willingness to do whatever it takes to get a college scholarship.

Maranatha, after all, was Cody Keith's third high school in three years.

Intrigued by the hype, Peterson headed to Maranatha's season-opener in September. His curiosity grew.

As Keith warmed up with his latest group of teammates, another crew - one with cameras, lights and boom mics - was there recording every moment. Keith is being filmed for a documentary that will chronicle his senior season and quest to play college ball.

"I always knew I wanted to do something big," he said. "I wanted to make my parents proud. I wanted to make my grandparents proud."

The presence of a film crew, which Keith welcomed to follow him, suggests he's a self-absorbed, 18-year-old. But he has connected with his teammates and remains friendly and courteous to everyone he meets. And he and his family are deeply religious.

The presence of Keith's father, who tracks his son more closely than the film crew does, suggests he's the product of an overzealous and overbearing dad. But Greg Keith, who does attend all games and almost all practices, stays in the background and has made no demands of the coaches or his son.

The presence of a private quarterback coach - not to mention the personal speed coach and strength coach that worked with Keith in the offseason - suggests out-of-control spending from a parent convinced it will pay off in the form of a scholarship. But Greg Keith, who has more than enough money to pay for it all thanks to his real estate company in Charlotte, N.C., wonders why anyone would object to a father helping his son in any way he can afford.

There are no simple answers with Cody Keith. Even to the biggest question:

Can he be a star quarterback?

On the night of Maranatha's season opener, Peterson watched Keith complete just 13 of 35 passes and throw three interceptions in a 20-14 loss to Linfield Christian.

Afterward, Peterson still didn't know what to make of the 6-foot-4 senior.

"You can see the potential is there," he said. "He has pretty good mechanics and he's making throws some quarterbacks can't make. I really can't say if he's a (college) quarterback."

One thing is certain: He's been in the spotlight and under scrutiny for years.

******

Graeme Keith calling the publisher of the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer didn't strike anyone as unusual at first. As a wealthy real estate developer, he's had contact with the paper, and as a close friend of Billy Graham, he's served as a spokesman for the Reverend. Then there's the fact that Graeme Keith and the publisher, Ann Caulkins, attend the same church.

But when he reached out for Caulkins last fall, it had nothing to do with business or religion. It was about his grandson, then a high school junior who had just transferred to South Mecklenburg, a public school in the Observer's coverage area.

The newspaper, in a series the year before, had exposed widespread cheating among high school athletes transferring schools in the Charlotte area. Some families had used phony addresses; others had claimed to live in homes and apartments that turned out to be empty.

In one case, the Observer's reporting forced a school to forfeit its football season as the team traveled by bus to a playoff game. That's when the team learned its starting quarterback had been declared ineligible for violating transfer rules. The school: South Mecklenburg.

Six months later, South Mecklenburg welcomed a new quarterback and yet another transfer - Graeme Keith's grandson Cody Keith.

Cody Keith had transferred from Myers Park, a public school where he was a backup as a sophomore. When a handful of parents from the public school called the Observer with allegations of potential cheating, the paper began to dig. At Graeme Keith's urging, Cody's parents agreed to meet with the publisher and editor.

They explained they'd gone to great lengths to comply with the rules - including how they rented out their $2.8 million home while buying a $737,500 house in the attendance zone for South Mecklenburg. It's unclear what impact the meeting had. In December, the Observer ran a front-page story on transfers that featured the Keiths.

The story, however, was about more than just the eligibility of transfers. It detailed how the family had flown Cody to California multiple times to work with Steve Clarkson, a private quarterbacks coach who charges $3,000 for an initial evaluation and $1,000 for four-hour individual sessions.

The story depicted Greg Keith as a meddlesome father and quoted unidentified parents at Myers Park accusing him of trying to influence coaches at the public school with thousands of dollars in donations to the athletic program.

The head football coach and athletic director at Myers Park denied the allegations and defended Keith; the athletic director said Greg Keith was the victim of his wealth, generosity and strong interest in his son's athletic career. The coach at South Mecklenburg said the Keiths had been a model family.

But all was not well.

Keith was starting at quarterback for a team headed to the state semifinals, yet he was given few opportunities to throw the ball. South Mecklenburg's success came from its running game. And when Clarkson flew from California to see how Keith was progressing, he told the Keiths there was no reason to continue the private sessions if their son stayed at South Mecklenburg.

In February, after Keith finished the semester at South Mecklenburg, he transferred to Maranatha, a private Christian school. Dad, mom, Cody and two of his older sisters - Cody is the youngest of five children - moved to Pasadena, six miles from Clarkson.

It was still unclear if Cody Keith was a star quarterback.

******

The ninth-graders stirred and whispered when the new T.A. arrived in the football coach's bible class. The cowboy boots and the Southern twang gave it away. This was the hot-shot quarterback import from North Carolina.

The restlessness persisted, and so one day coach Joel Murphy allowed for a Q&A.

"Did you ride a horse to school?" one student asked.

Keith did not blink.

"I rode the horse on Monday, Wednesday and Friday," he said, "and I rode the tractor on Tuesdays and Thursdays."

Murphy affectionately calls Keith "my hillbilly" or "my hick."

And while Keith always playfully responds, "I'm not a hillbilly or a hick, I'm a Southern gentleman," at times he has embraced the stereotype.

When he saw pigeons flying over the football field, for example, he pulled out an imaginary rifle and fired. When the weather turned warm and students wore flip flops, he continued to wear the cowboy boots. He had a train whistle installed in his truck and let it blow when he took his new teammates on joyrides around the Rose Bowl.

His teammates took him surfing, and Keith gamely paddled against the waves toward the break.

"This ain't the South. It looks like you're trying to duck hunt," one player cracked, although Keith looked more like a duck, paddling mightily but making little headway.

They admired his determination - he finally got up on the surfboard, for a half a second by his own count - and his demeanor. He laughed easily, especially at himself. Allaying fears of a potential rift, he quickly grew close to Danny Beckwith, one of the team's most popular players - who just happened to be the projected starting quarterback before Keith arrived.

Beckwith discovered the truth: It was hard not to like Cody Keith.

Or his work ethic.

In the spring, when the softball team was practicing on one end of the football field, it couldn't help but notice Keith working at the other end. That he was out there with Clarkson or a private speed coach didn't matter; he was putting in the time.

The softball players weren't the only ones who noticed. A filmmaker based in North Carolina saw similar appeal.

His company wanted to follow a high school quarterback through his senior season in what the filmmaker pitched as the football version of "Hoop Dreams." He'd learned about Keith and his quest for a college scholarship, and the filmmaker decided he was the perfect fit.

Cody's parents, still feeling burned by the story in the Charlotte Observer, flatly objected.

The filmmaker, Brendan Kirsch, did not relent. On eight occasions, he flew to California in attempt to convince the Keiths he would chronicle their son's senior season in a positive light.

"Dad, you're always telling me to be a good witness to the Lord," Cody told his father one night. "I think this is the perfect way to show our Christian values."

After prayer, the Keiths agreed to participate in a documentary tentatively titled "The Hopeful."

It was still unclear if Cody Keith was a star quarterback.

******

Greg Keith insists there is more to his life - and his family - than Cody Keith's football career. And he will tell you the move to California was only partly due to Cody's drive to play college ball.

The move, he says, helped the family be closer to the two daughters - one had decided to transfer from Wake Forest to Southern Cal; the other began work as an events planner in the area.

"We're a Christian family that's very close knit," Greg Keith told the Pasadena Star-News in one of the rare interviews the family has given since moving to California. "We're a family trying to raise our kids the best we can."

But know this: When Cody Keith gets down about football, he doesn't turn to Clarkson, his speed coach or even Clyde Christiansen, an assistant with the Indianapolis Colts that Greg Keith arranged to work out his son - just so the practice could be on a DVD about his son for potential college suitors.

When times get tough, Cody Keith turns to his dad - and did so after his horrendous opening game.

The morning after the three-interception fiasco, he walked into his father's study. Greg Keith, on the phone, looked up saw his son's anguish.

"I'm going to have to call you back," Greg Keith said.

Cody Keith slumped in a chair.

"I feel like I let my team down," he said. "I feel like I let you and mom down."

The words rattled Greg Keith.

"Hold it, Cody," he said. "You need to understand something. I love you for who you are, not for what you do. And it makes no difference to me whether you play football or not. You're still my son, and I'm proud of you for the type of young man you are."

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That next Friday, with Peterson (the La Salle coach), fully aware of Maranatha's shaky pass protection, LaSalle unleashed an all-out assault on Keith. He completed just 11 of 26 passes and threw one interception and one touchdown in a 21-14 loss. Maranatha, expected to play deep into the playoffs for the third year in a row, dropped to 0-2.

A few days later, Keith received a handwritten letter. It was from the school's softball coach, David Hillier, whose team had shared the football field with the new quarterback that previous spring.

"I'm going to go out on a limb and guess this isn't the start you had envisioned for your senior year?" Hillier wrote. "Please know that your reputation and character were established long before these past two games. Your hard work all spring and summer did not go unnoticed. ... I personally witnessed the countless hours of sweat and hard work you were putting in while most of your future teammates were off pursuing other things."

Soon, he was improving on the football field, too. Maranatha won its next two games but Keith was more solid than spectacular.

It was still unclear if Cody Keith was a star quarterback.

******

He is The Hopeful. Or is it the transfer? Or perhaps, the rich guy's kid?

Or maybe he's just another high schooler playing quarterback - one who may unfairly get the blame or the credit from those in the stands, depending on how that week's game is going.

As he trotted to the sidelines - and the cameras - after a failed possession in one game, a fan yelled: "Get the cameras off of him, he's just a kid." Other parents nodded in agreement.

When Murphy yelled at a receiver for running a bad route on a failed fourth-down play in another game, one fan yelled: "It's not his fault. If you can't pass the ball, keep it on the ground."

But Keith can pass the ball. Better than most. He proved it against Brentwood in front of a homecoming crowd.

On a third-and-5 play, Keith dropped back but ignored the open receiver just over the first-down marker. Instead, his eyes drifted downfield to Beckwith as Beckwith sprinted down the left sideline in tight man-to-man coverage while the pocket began to collapse.

Rolling to his left, Keith launched a pass, and a tight spiral sailed through the night air.

It cleared the cornerback by less than a foot. It arrived as if guided by laser. Beckwith caught the ball in stride and tumbled out of bounds for a 43-yard pickup.

Greg Keith, watching alone from his customary spot on the roof of the school administrative building, called Clarkson.

"I saw it," Clarkson said while answering, knowing full well who was on the other line. "Great pass."

Two plays later, Maranatha scored a touchdown on the way to a 27-7 victory.

Greg Keith couldn't wait to greet his son after the game: "That was an NFL throw," he said.

Greg Keith swelled with pride.

"That's a quarterback right there," he said.

Cody has a coveted profile in the Rivals.com recruiting database, meaning he is a top high school athlete. And a story last spring - one where Clarkson said "he has excellent football savvy and the 'it' factor" - said Cody was a QB on the rise who could surprise.

But he is not among the 74 pro-style quarterbacks given a 3-star ranking or better. And even Clarkson now says it's unlikely he will earn a scholarship to a major college program this season.

"I think he's going to need to continue to show his growth," Clarkson said. "... If he's looking for a high D-1 scholarship, it's probably not going to happen. But there's somebody out there for him, for sure. It just depends on how he chooses to get there."

Despite clear improvement seven games into the season, Cody Keith has produced marginal statistics: 79-of-165 passing for 1,013 yards with seven touchdowns and six interceptions.

Greg Keith said the family is open to Cody polishing his skills next year at a prep school - which would be his fourth school in four years - to continue his pursuit of a scholarship. And even then, there are no guarantees.

But in those giddy moments after Maranatha's victory on that Homecoming night, as he posed for photos, hugged his girlfriend and the film crew packed up its equipment, Cody Keith didn't look like a star quarterback, a struggling quarterback or even a marginal quarterback.

He just looked like a happy kid.

Cody Keith's game-by-game statistics
DateOpponentStatsResult
9/5Linfield Christian 13-for-35 151 yards 1 TD 3 INT L 14-20
9/11La Salle11-for-26 131 yards 1 TD 1 INTL 14-21
9/25Bakersfield Christian 10-for-28 148 yards 1 TDW 28-2
10/3Calvery Chapel 5-for-10 105 yardsW 38-8
10/9Kilpatrick13-for-23 127 yards 1 INTW 22-6
10/16Brentwood 10-for-13 93 yards 1 TDW 27-7
10/23Montclair Prep8-for-16 108 yards 1 TDW 35-16

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