Senior College Football Columnist

Klein a legit Heisman contender, carrying K-State on broad, bruised shoulders


MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Collin Klein seems oblivious.

There are conference and national championship races raging outside the Vanier Football Complex. The Kansas State quarterback's name is high on most Heisman lists. Civilization (Kansas City?) is a whole two hours away. The Wildcats are ranked fourth and the outside world wants to know what makes them run. It's because Klein -- 23, married and delightfully naïve at times -- basically won't stop running.

"You guys have some good questions," Klein said, heaving another sigh of exasperation.

That outside world is closing in now, wanting to know. It would be fine with everyone within Vanier's walls if this story went underreported. But we do want to know how many blows Klein, this aw-shucks home-schooled kid from Loveland, Colo., can take before he collapses in a heap. Check the scars, scabs and bandages after 19 career starts. Conventional weapons do not work against him.

We want to know why defenses are positively on alert and can't do anything about Klein's signature quarterback draw. We want to know how a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder doesn't get his head knocked off running so upright.

"It's funny, something that comes to my head is a quote by General Patton," Klein said this week. "'You don't win wars dying for your country.'"

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Collin Klein comes close.

During a three-game stretch last season he played with a bruised sternum, a bruised rib, a separated right (throwing) shoulder and bursitis in his right ankle. That was him in 2011 dragging his bloody body across the Sun Life Stadium turf to beat Miami while dragging K-State back into the national consciousness.

The injuries are only now becoming public because Klein has chosen to speak of them. Coach Bill Snyder would rather dance Gangnam Style than give up inside information. Klein's most admirable football quality might be his ability to deflect a compliment -- and take a hit.

"Did he tell you about Texas A&M?" asked his father Doug, a mortgage banker who gave up a college coaching career about the time Collin was born.

That would be last year's game in Manhattan, where Klein told K-State assistant Dana Dimel during warmups that it didn't look good. The body blows were having a cumulative effect. Thirty-five carries, 103 yards and five touchdowns later, the Wildcats won 53-50 in four overtimes.

"Coach Dimel said it was staggering how that happened," Doug Klein said.

We want to know why Collin and his brother Kyle, a Wildcats receiver, were able to buy their own house here as students. We want to know why the first kiss between Collin and his now-wife came on the altar three months ago.

"That's a little bit of a story," Collin Klein said.

Primarily, we want to know not only what makes him run but why. Klein is largely oblivious to what he is achieving. K-State has set up a nifty CKMVP web mailer that details his accomplishments halfway through the senior's final season.

 His 37 rushing touchdowns since 2011 are more than any other quarterback.

 Only four quarterbacks from BCS conferences have ever rushed for 20 touchdowns and thrown for 10 in a season -- Cam Newton, Eric Crouch, Tim Tebow and Klein. Only Klein hasn't won the Heisman.

 After accounting for 67 percent of the Wildcats' yards in 2011, Klein is up to 73 percent this season.

Despite all that, he didn't understand a question this week about going through an NFL Draft evaluation after his junior year, a year in which he came within 82 passing yards of throwing for 2,000 and rushing for 1,000.

Klein didn't go through the eval -- an NCAA-legal and painless process for a player to find out his approximate draft position -- apparently because he didn't know about it.

"I may be all wrong, but he could be an NFL H-back or tight end," said Wildcats play-by-play voice Wyatt Thompson, who has witnessed all of Klein's career snaps as a receiver, special teams player, backup quarterback and star. "Most of the time he's going north and south. I think he's one of the toughest kids I've ever been around. He must be a hell of a lot stronger than people think."

Therein lies the riddle wrapped in a Heisman race topped off by a conference showdown Saturday at West Virginia. The top Heisman contenders -- at least in the HeismanPundit poll -- are Klein and West Virginia's Geno Smith. They couldn't be more different. Smith has completed 77 more passes than Klein has thrown. But Klein has more rushing attempts (98) than Smith has rushing yards (71).

Smith (6-3, 220) might be the better athlete, but is actually smaller than Klein.

"It doesn't look like it but he is covering ground," K-State backup quarterback Daniel Sams said of his teammate. "I'd get out of the way."

That is the unsolved mystery of Collin Klein. How he was the No. 3 rushing quarterback in the country last season (one of only two at BCS schools). How only Montee Ball has more career rushing touchdowns among active players.

And just when you dismiss Klein as a thrower, he makes a quantum leap to become a 67 percent passer. This past summer he was invited to the prestigious Manning Passing Academy.

"He doesn't look like a guy who is going to beat you to the corner or between the tackles," Thompson said. "He's kind of unorthodox in his running style. When he gets to the edge, his strides are longer than you think.

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"If you really watch him closely, he will take the snap and start forward. He will literally wait for something to happen."

That's an obvious similarity to Tebow. There is another big one. Klein's faith is out front, along with his chin that has led the way during 492 career runs. In a Kansas State-produced story that appeared in a game program, Klein said he was told by the Lord he would marry K-State women's basketball player Shalin Spani. The daughter of former KSU football great Gary Spani said she heard "a voice in my head" independently that told her she would marry Klein.

They became engaged before they formally had a first date. That first kiss came on the altar July 21, fulfilling a promise Klein made to himself at age 14. His first kiss would not come until then.

"Yes," Spani was quoted saying about their courtship, "it's unusual."

The Wildcats continue to follow Klein like puppies, trailing in his wake. Getting the spit kicked out of you is enough football cred, but there is more.

"Watching how the team draws to him, it changed me, major," Sams said. "He doesn't even have to say stuff. Whenever everybody sees him get his notebook [for a meeting] all the quarterbacks grab them and follow him. It's like, 'OK, it's time.'"

The pain threshold is something Doug Klein noticed when his son was in the fourth or fifth grade. Collin developed knee problems and foot problems because he was growing so fast. The only solution was ice baths followed by a foot massage.

"Those ice baths are painful," Doug Klein said. "He would do that for however long you told him to do it. It was staggering. I was in awe. My point is, that toughness goes back to then."

Sams may have seen a break in the armor after the 2011 Miami game. Klein accounted for 389 yards and three touchdowns. The defense held near the goal line in a 28-24 win that pushed the Wildcats into the rankings for the first time in four years.

"After the game I was kind of sore, I said to him, 'I see what you go through,'" Sams said. "He tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Man, it's not even the beginning of it.'

"It's amazing to me how no one would know after the game he was playing with [bruised] ribs. I didn't even know. It's amazing the things he continues to do while he's injured."

It wasn't until the ninth grade that Klein played organized football. Toughness? He actually played on a broken ankle for two games at one point during a run to the state championship game. The first camp he attended was Kansas State's after committing. The only other schools to recruit Klein were Utah and Colorado State. Colorado, under Dan Hawkins, never showed any interest.

Instead, former K-State coach Ron Prince got wind and dispatched assistant James Franklin -- now the coach at Vanderbilt -- for a look.

"Our philosophy with quarterbacks is, it's one thing to recruit an unbelievable player who jumps off the film," Franklin said. "I take a lot of pride in recruiting him. ... I knew this kid was going to impact our program. He's a winner."

A winner who had to prove himself all over again when Snyder took over for a second time in 2010. Klein says he was recruited as a pro-style quarterback. Prince had just developed Josh Freeman, a first-round draft choice of Tampa Bay. At that point, Klein was a receiver playing some special teams but still participating in quarterback meetings.

"I really don't ever remember having the sense that this was going to be our guy," Thompson said. "He was just kind of there."

While languishing on the roster, transferring was never an option.

"I had known in my heart and had such a peace this is where the Lord wanted me to be," Klein said.

In that sense, at least writers know they aren't going to be embarrassed writing a feature on a guy one day and writing an arrest report the next. If Klein is not genuine, there is no, well, God.

Which leads us to an interesting absence of body ink. It wouldn't be a thing unless Klein chooses to explain his tattoo-free spiritually: "I try to honor God with the body he gave me."

The exact moment that body became CKMVP, this wrecking ball/leader/force isn't quite sure. He has started the past two seasons during a new K-State renaissance under Snyder. It became hard to categorize his style -- especially with otherworldly Robert Griffin III stealing the Heisman attention last season. Fun fact: K-State beat Baylor and the Heisman winner last year with Klein accounting for three touchdowns.

"He has patience [as a runner] but he has patience in life," Snyder said. "It's not an easy value."

Klein remains blithely unaware of the stir he has caused. The Wildcats are 6-0 for the second straight season, the difference this year being they've already beaten Oklahoma. A win over the Mountaineers would give them victories over a pair of teams ranked in the top 15 and a decided advantage in the conference race.

Their leader with a finance degree already has a real-world advantage. Collin and Kyle were able to purchase a five-bedroom house here simply by smart saving.

"They're just good with their own money," Doug Klein said.

Sams believes he has seen a hint of what lies beneath all these layers of the true Collin Klein. It came in an offseason intramural basketball game. Klein came in for an ordinary layup then changed his mind.

"He jumped up with two [hands] and cocked it back with one," Sams said of the monster jam. "It was nasty."

The ball and intramural shame rained down upon linebacker Jarell Childs standing underneath. During the offseason, the idea of basketball is to stay in shape and stay healthy, not make a statement. Collin Klein flushed oblivious too.

"None of us really take it serious," Sams said, "but I think that dunk was serious."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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