1 A hailstorm in Colorado, summer 1993. A mother and her son were riding bicycles along the edge of Horseshoe Lake, in the town of Loveland. They were three miles from home, a mile above sea level, and the mother wished she had not led them so far. But they had only one choice. "Pedal through the pain," she told the boy. And he did. The path was rough, and the hail stung their faces, but three-year-old Collin Klein would not quit. The whole way home she heard him talking to himself. Pedal through the pain, he was saying. Pedal through the pain.
2 Other sayings attributed to Klein include "Gosh," "Golly," "Jeepers," "Oh, heck," and, at least once, when a high school basketball teammate complained about the required running in practice, "Don't get bees in your bonnet."
3 In September, for a segment on ESPN's College GameDay, Scott Van Pelt visited Klein on the Kansas State campus. Klein has scored more rushing touchdowns (46) in the past two seasons than any other quarterback in any two seasons in Football Bowl Subdivision history, and he has done so on an astounding 471 carries, which means he has taken a pounding that is extraordinary for a quarterback. So Van Pelt asked Klein about his toughness, and Klein dodged the question, talking instead about how tough his teammates were. Van Pelt relayed an encouraging text message from Tim Tebow, to whom Klein has been favorably compared, and Klein said, "I respect the heck out of him." As they walked off the field together, Van Pelt said, "For a tough guy, Collin, you have an artistic side, too. If only we could find a stage with a giant piano." So they found one, and Klein played a fine rendition of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" as Van Pelt danced a little jig.
That's what you saw on television. The rest of the story is this. Bill Snyder, the Wildcats' ancient and venerated coach, releases as little information as possible on the injuries of his players. He has his reasons. For one, dark and terrible things happen in the pile on the field, and if the other guys know you're hurting in a particular place, they just might grab you there and make it even worse. Well, Klein had, in fact, been hurt in Kansas State's 52--13 win over Miami on Sept. 8. But he couldn't tell Van Pelt. Sure, he could have responded to the piano request with "No, thanks" or "I don't feel like it." But Collin Klein has always quietly done what was asked of him. And so he banged out the "Maple Leaf Rag" without complaint while his right hand throbbed with the pain of a broken finger.
November 19, 2012
4 Violin, mandolin. He plays those too.
5 Three days later Klein led the Wildcats, then ranked No. 15, into Norman, Okla., where he ran for the go-ahead touchdown in a 24--19 win over the sixth-ranked Sooners. By Nov. 3 the Wildcats were 8--0, ranked second in the BCS standings, and Klein was second in the nation in passing efficiency. That night Kansas State hosted Oklahoma State, a fierce Big 12 rival whose defenders grabbed Klein's face mask and twisted his head and bent his wrist backward to an unnatural angle and finally knocked him out of the game in the third quarter. By then he had racked up 309 yards by air and by ground, and K-State led 38--17, but Bill Snyder Family Stadium went nearly silent when backup quarterback Daniel Sams took over. It was all very mysterious. The TV announcers couldn't make head or tail of it. Because the last time Klein was seen in the game that night, he was not getting sandwiched or blindsided or crushed under a pile or anything like that. On his last play against Oklahoma State, Collin Klein ran for a touchdown.
6 Steak, medium rare; baked potato; Caesar salad. He likes that.
7 When Klein was a boy, his mother and father expected him to shovel the driveway on mornings after it snowed. So he did. Neighbor's driveway, too. Many years later, when he was a junior at K-State, he shared an off-campus house with four other students. In the midst of an excruciating 317-carry season, his faithful center, B.J. Finney, once had to carry him down to his bedroom in the basement after an especially violent game. But none of that had a thing to do with the falling snow. Klein didn't talk about it much, didn't try to gain credit or leverage or anything. He just got up first and started shoveling.
8 Klein's younger brother and teammate, Kyle, a redshirt freshman receiver for the Wildcats, plays at least two instruments himself and is better than Collin on the piano. When they were housemates last year, they started a regular Sunday-night jam session with some other musical friends. More people arrived each week to listen and sing along. What did they sing? "Amazing Grace," and "It Is Well with My Soul," and "Shine, Jesus, Shine." They were having church.
9 He is said to give excellent hugs, like a 6'5", 226-pound, very friendly bear.
10 They met in 1983, Kelly and Doug did, at Loveland High in northern Colorado, where she was a math teacher and he was a football coach. She stayed at home after they got married and Collin and Kyle were born. They were relatively new Christians then, fiery in a nondenominational sort of way, and they decided homeschooling was the best way to mold the boys' character. She taught them math, with toast fractions and paper clocks leading up to algebra and trigonometry, and he taught them physical education. Running, sure. Football and basketball, sure. But also stewardship of the land. The Kleins had eight acres, a sort of ranch at the edge of the Rocky Mountains, and there the boys learned about hard work. Watering the cedars and aspens and olive trees. Hanging doors and chopping wood. Using a tractor and railroad ties to build a bridge across a creek. Doug accepted no excuses. Dig that post hole a little deeper. Clean all the mice out of the chicken coop. "Don't tell me how rough the water is," he would say. "Just bring in the ship."
11 It wasn't just men at the Sunday-night sing-alongs in the fall of 2011. A few young women showed up too, including one who had grown up homeschooled, had played two guard for the K-State Wildcats, had endured seven knee surgeries and loved God every bit as much as Collin Klein did. Her name was Shalin Spani. When asked last week to tell the story of her romance with Klein, she said they were "two broken, humble people," completely undeserving of love, grateful recipients of a miracle.
12 This miracle involved a single date at the Olive Garden, followed less than a month later by an engagement ring.
13 Doug played quarterback in high school and later worked as offensive coordinator at Ferris State and quarterbacks coach at Kent State. Thus, to some degree, Collin had an advantage in his development as a quarterback. By age five he understood the difference between a hook and a square-in. But Collin fell behind other boys who were groomed from a young age to do nothing but play quarterback. He was working on the ranch, and learning to play three instruments, and hand-crafting wooden Christmas gifts for his extended family. He was playing on an elite independent basketball team that went 181--34 over five seasons. At Loveland High—he was allowed to play sports there although he was still homeschooled—he was a bigger star in basketball than in football. The Indians rarely threw the ball. And because Klein was homeschooled, his coaches couldn't tell recruiters what his class rank was, which confused some of the college scouts. All that to say this: There was no rush among FBS schools to sign Collin Klein as their future starting quarterback. Kansas State gave him a chance to play football. But the Wildcats put him at wide receiver.
14 When he was 14 years old, Klein promised himself that he would not kiss a girl until his wedding day.
15 He had his first kiss on July 21, 2012, the day he and Shalin were married.
16 On the Tuesday after the Oklahoma State game, with Klein's health still a topic of national speculation, Snyder held a press conference to say very little. "I don't address injuries," the coach said. "Technically, it's against the law to talk about someone's health without their approval." Furthermore, he said, Klein would not be available for interviews. Would he play the following Saturday at Texas Christian, with a chance to help the Wildcats reach 10--0 and solidify his status as the Heisman Trophy front-runner? The nation would have to wait and see.
17 Early on at K-State, Klein wanted to be ready in case the chance to play quarterback came. And so he practiced throwing every day after the regular practice was done, even though he was a wide receiver. And when other quarterbacks were in the game, he stood on the sideline and imagined himself in their shoes. He was reading the defense. He was going through the progressions. He was looking off the safety. And by his junior year he was no longer imagining.
18 Aggieville, near the K-State campus, is home to at least 19 drinking establishments. On various evenings you can get a $4 Long Island Tea at The Goose or a $3 pitcher of Bud Light at the Aggie Lounge or, at Chuggers, a free ride on a purple mechanical bull named Bull Snyder. There is also the So Long Saloon, which claims to sell more Old Milwaukee beer than any other bar in America. This is accomplished by adding a splash of pineapple juice, calling it a Nancy, and offering it for $2 a pint. Collin Klein, 23 years old, has been spotted more than once at the So Long Saloon. What was he doing there? Eating a burger, topped with American cheese, bacon and a fried egg, called the Resist Temptation. What was he drinking? Water, with lemon.
19 Has Collin Klein ever done anything wrong? Of course. Everyone has.
20 He was seven or eight, hanging around a school while his dad played pickup basketball, and the fire alarm went off. There was a big to-do. Firefighters showed up. And Collin took Doug's hand and pulled him aside. "Dad," he confessed, "I pulled it."
21 They analyze game film together. It was Shalin's idea. She knows football, given that her father, Gary Spani, played linebacker at K-State and for the Kansas City Chiefs. Date Night? Shalin and Collin have Film Night, perhaps twice a week at the Wildcats' facility. "It's not a chore for him now," she says, "because he can be like, 'Hey, Shalin, you wanna come along?' It's not a, 'Honey, I'm goin' to watch film, I'll be back in two hours.' You know what I mean? We make it something where it's fun for him because he can actually teach me, but in his mind he's relearning, if that makes sense. So like if it's a play, and he's telling me where Lockett's gonna be and where Harper's gonna be and where Tramaine's gonna be, you know, in his mind he's just studying more."
22 It was Wednesday night, 72 hours before the TCU game, and Shalin could not say what she knew about the current health of her husband. But she could speak generally about being the wife of a man who regularly and willingly faces his own destruction. "I don't like it," she said, "11 guys trying to take my husband's head off every—no. It's not cool. I'm praying the whole game. I'm like, Lord Jesus, please.
"I don't worry, necessarily. I just hate that 11 guys are trying to kill him. All of them, if I met them in a dark alley—"
23 There is a kind of comfort in obedience, in the certainty that to do right you need only do what you're told—by your father, your coach or God, or perhaps all three. This is how Collin Klein lives, in constant prayer, searching for the will of God. He believes that God has put him on the football field—indeed, that God directs every play he makes. Which leads to a hard question. The day after the Oklahoma State game Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports reported that Klein had been pulled from the game because of a possible concussion. Citing only an unnamed source, Wetzel wrote that after his final touchdown, "Klein was evaluated on the bench by Kansas State trainers and ... could not recall the details of the drive, including the fact that he scored. His helmet was immediately taken away, and he did not return to the game."
And so, the question: Why would God want Collin Klein to break himself on the wheel of football? But Collin Klein does not seem to be asking this question.
24 He was 12, and it was dark, and he was with his father at the base of a hill they called Death Hill. Had to get the pickup truck and the tractor to the top before they knocked off work and called it a night. It was a private road, so Collin didn't need a license, but it was also 2½ miles at a 6% grade with a rock face on one side and a 150-foot cliff on the other. Doug drove the tractor and told Collin to follow in the truck. "Stay in the tracks," he said. Collin obeyed without question, and they made it up Death Hill alive.
25 If he enters the NFL draft, Klein might go in the fifth round. Perhaps even the third. If he wins the Heisman, which Heisman winner will he resemble? For every Robert Griffin III there is a Jason White and a Danny Wuerffel and a Gino Torretta. For every Cam Newton there is a Troy Smith and a Chris Weinke and an Andre Ware. Ask Klein who he is, and this is what he says: "I'm just a nobody."
26 The TCU game: Yes, he played. Threw an interception in the first quarter and got knocked around pretty good, then he was completing a 62-yarder and bouncing off tacklers like a pinball and running for a TD, then another. He and K-State ran right past the wreck of Alabama, right on to No. 1.
27 They arrive at the apartment building and get out of the car. No words are necessary. Just a look. There are two staircases. She takes one, and he takes the other. Neither person can bear to lose. They have three-point contests that go for hours. They ride bicycles over the high plains of Colorado. Pedal through the pain. They are hyperventilating. They are laughing. They will meet at the front door. They are two broken, humble people racing up the stairs toward home.
Klein has always quietly done what was asked of him. Now, that means ignoring the pain that comes with nearly 500 carries in two seasons.
"Don't tell me how rough the water is," Klein's dad would say. "Just bring in the ship."
Zac Ellis breaks down the trophy chase with the Heisman Watch, and Andy Staples surveys the college football landscape with his Power Rankings, at SI.com/cfb