A year or so ago, someone asked an unusual question of Kansas State's new quarterback: What kind of girl do you want to date? Given Collin Klein's outspoken Christian faith, it was in essence a kinder, gentler version of a question once famously posed to Tim Tebow when he was at Florida. OK, it was much kinder and gentler. But like Tebow, Klein handled it pretty well:
"Someone just like my mom," he said "--but younger."
The response was pure, All-American perfection. Mom, apple pie and a dash of nice comedic timing. And we'll get to this, but if Klein wasn't an All-America last season -- he was overshadowed in the Big 12 by several quarterbacks with gaudy passing stats -- there's at least a very good argument that he was the most valuable player in the league, and maybe in college football. Perhaps no player meant more to his team. Now, he returns for his senior season determined to bring even more value.
But this brings us back to his family values, and to the next wholesome layer: Klein has found a girl like mom. He and Shalin Spani were married July 21, after a whirlwind courtship. "I'm amazingly blessed," he said. "I couldn't have had it go any better." (Their honeymoon had to be postponed so Klein could participate in the Big 12's media days.) So when Kansas State coach Bill Snyder calls Klein "a tremendous family man," it's more than hyperbole. Likewise, when Klein answers questions about faith, family and football and sounds very much like his coach, it's more than parroting the party line.
"The landscape is a little different, obviously," Klein said. "My mentality has not changed. ... I'm just enjoying the journey. We'll see what happens."
Klein's importance for Kansas State last season is not hard to quantify. Originally recruited as a quarterback under the Ron Prince regime, he moved to receiver, and then back to quarterback. Installed last season as the starter, he led the Wildcats to surprising success. The Big 12's preseason media poll had them picked to finish eighth; instead they won 10 games and played in the Cotton Bowl, with eight victories coming by seven or fewer points.
Klein, a 6-foot-5, 226-pounder, accounted for 69.8 percent of Kansas State's total offense (3,059 total yards: 1,141 rushing, 1,918 passing) and 85 percent of the Wildcats' offensive touchdowns. His 317 carries were 67 more than the next-highest total in the Big 12. He had 10 more carries than Wisconsin running back Monteé Ball and 34 more than Alabama's Trent Richardson. His 27 rushing touchdowns set an FBS record for quarterbacks. He had five against Texas A&M, including the winning score in the fourth overtime.
Klein completed only 57 percent of his passes, with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions; Kansas State ranked last in the Big 12 in passing. But let's see: a big, powerful runner; throwing is a work in progress; unorthodox but very effective; sometimes seems to will his team to victories; propelled off the field by a foundation of faith, and unafraid to share it ("My relationship with my Lord and savior Jesus Christ is No. 1," he said). Dare we say it? The comparison to Tebow seems apt. "I'm honored to be mentioned in the same sentence," Klein said. And of his success in 2011: "It was a time of amazing growth, both on and off the field. It was exciting, fun, very challenging and very stretching, physically, mentally and emotionally."
Klein talks like that a lot, like he's not 22 but 42. While we're making comparisons, it could be the Wildcats' coach rather than the quarterback who's talking about commitment, and working diligently, and improving, and so on. "I'll take that as a compliment," Klein said. "I hope he's rubbed off on me." No doubt Snyder has, but Klein arrived in Manhattan, Kan., with an all too uncommon mindset -- a serious, goal-oriented focus -- that was part innate, part learned behavior. Along with his younger brother Kyle (a freshman receiver at Kansas State), he was homeschooled (again, like Tebow) in Loveland, Colo. Klein plays the piano, the violin and the mandolin. He played basketball and then football well enough that it never really mattered that he wasn't in class with his teammates.
It didn't hurt that he probably outworked them all, in all of his pursuits. When he was 10, Collin had a successful lawn-mowing business. He kept meticulous records of expenses and income. "He approached it very seriously," said Doug Klein, Collin's father, who adds: "He is very intentional about what he does. There's not a lot of wasted space. He's very intentional about his path."
Thus, it was a pretty good marriage of philosophies when Snyder returned in 2009 to try to rebuild the program he'd built. The coach passed out laminated cards with his 16 goals for success (commitment, unselfishness, unity, improve, be tough, self-discipline, great effort, enthusiasm, eliminate mistakes, never give up, expect to win, no self-limitations, don't accept losing, consistency, leadership, responsibility). Klein immediately memorized them, and can easily recite them in order. The quarterback is convinced Goal No. 12, "no self-limitations," is a primary reason for the Wildcats' success in 2011 and their prospects for 2012. Though 17 starters return for 2012, Kansas State was tagged to finish sixth by league media. But we saw what happened last season. "The more I've thought about it, that's pretty deep," said Klein of Goal No. 12. "(Snyder) doesn't want us listening to people say how good you are or how bad you are."
In character and temperament, Klein might be Snyder's perfect prototype. But he knows Kansas State's success this season might be limited by how well he passes, which is why he has made getting better a point of emphasis. Though he won't discuss specifics of his efforts, he participated in the Manning Passing Academy as a counselor, and said he picked up a few tips. "It falls into the model of constant improvement," Klein said. "I love that about the offseason. There's time to step back and look at what you want to work on."
There was also time to find love during the offseason. Collin and Shalin, a former Kansas State basketball player and the daughter of former Wildcats and NFL great Gary Spani, had known each other for a while. But they didn't become romantically involved until last winter, after the Wildcats' season ended in the Cotton Bowl -- and only after Collin asked Gary Spani for permission to date his daughter. By mid-February, they were engaged. Last month, at Noland Road Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., they were married.
Is Collin's new bride just like his mom, only younger? "She's her own person," said Doug Klein, who is perhaps uniquely positioned to know. "They have some of the same characteristics. She has a wonderful competitive spirit and a huge faith, as well."
The newlyweds spent a few days in Cancun before football practice started. A month into their new life, the honeymoon is still going. "It's probably too early to tell," Klein said. "But there's so much common ground there, starting with our faith but (also) our priorities athletically. She's amazingly supportive. She understands, because she's been there, the preparation time and what it takes to be good."
Kansas State fans probably shouldn't worry about misplaced priorities. "I'm the same guy," Klein said. "All my priorities are exactly the same." It's faith, family and football, in that order. Oh, and somehow academics, too. Klein graduated last December with two degrees in finance. This December, he's scheduled to finish a minor in leadership, which seems about right.
"I'm just trying to be the best Collin Klein I can possibly be," Klein said, "and then to give back with the ability the Lord has given me. It's a new challenge. The priorities haven't changed, but the landscape is different."