Standout NDSU kicker finally playing without pain

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FARGO, N.D. (AP) Every time North Dakota State kicker Adam Keller converts another field goal on his way to a record-setting season, he makes a point of seeking out his orthopedic surgeon on the Bison sideline.

''I shake his hand and tell him thanks,'' Keller said of Dr. Benjamin Noonan, the Sanford Health doctor whose surgery on Keller's ailing hip saved the kicker's senior season and perhaps a shot at the pros.

Keller, the native of Lewisberry, Pennsylvania, who came to NDSU with a full scholarship and high expectations, struggled with injuries from the beginning of his career. He tore a quadriceps muscle in his redshirt year and added groin and hamstring injuries to the mix his freshman season, when the Bison claimed the first of three straight Football Championship Subdivision titles.

''I came to the realization that something was wrong. I shouldn't be getting hurt like this,'' he said.

The next two years he did his job despite never feeling quite right. Last season, every kick hurt, and there were a lot of them. He set school records for extra points made (76) and attempted (78). His final extra point of the season gave NDSU a 35-7 lead over Towson State in the fourth quarter of the FCS title game on Jan. 4.

Three days later, Noonan was operating on him for a torn labrum. Keller knew it was something that could either be a success story or end his kicking career.

''I told him there were good reasons why his hip wasn't moving the way it should and I could fix all that,'' Noonan said. ''But you never say `always' or `never' in medicine. I thought the odds for a favorable outcome were pretty good, but I would never give a guarantee.

''He did every single thing I asked him to and clearly did what he needed to do to get back on the field,'' the surgeon said.

There also was no guarantee that Keller would recover in time for this season. He was basically bed-ridden for six weeks after the surgery. He slowly started to ride the bike and then went through three and a half months of rehabilitation. Then school ended and Keller was on his way to the Dallas area for an internship with a private equity firm.

Keller got his leg into shape on the practice fields at Texas Christian University, where he pretty much went unnoticed. One day the TCU coaches and players walked by while he was kicking and nobody said a word.

''It was kind of like, `That kid is kicking. Good for him,''' Keller said.

It wasn't until two weeks before fall camp when Keller declared himself to be in 100 percent kicking shape and saved Bison coaches from a Plan B. Bison coach Chris Klieman said Keller has bumped up his range to about 50 yards and told his kicker that his 49-yarder against South Dakota last week might have been good from 65.

''He's been unbelievably consistent throughout his career and now he's healthy,'' Klieman said. ''He's playing with a lot of confidence, which for a kicker is really critical.''

Keller needs two more field goals to break his 2012 record of 18 field goals in a season. He is 29 of 29 on PAT kicks and has a streak of 88 straight dating back to the fourth game of 2013. He set a single-game school record this year with five field goals against Montana.

Keller is third among active FCS kickers with 44 career field goals. The opposing kicker this week, South Dakota State's Justin Syrovatka, is second with 46. The Jackrabbits and Bison face off at the Fargodome Saturday in what has become the No. 1 rivalry for the two teams.

''He's good. He has been right up there in percentages with me,'' Keller said of the SDSU kicker. ''You always want to outkick your competition and your league.''