Ball State finished its practice the other evening in the stadium-lit darkness and face-numbing cold.
A half-hour later Keith Wenning — his dark watch cap pulled down to his eyes, his winter coat zipped to the neck — sat down on a leathery couch in the lobby of the football complex next to Scheumann Stadium.
Over the quarterback’s shoulder you saw a glass-enclosed trophy case overfilled with the hardware and memorabilia of the program’s past glory. All around him you felt the warmth of a storybook career of a once overlooked kid from Coldwater High School.
As the 9-2 Cardinals get ready to host the Miami RedHawks on Friday afternoon in both teams’ regular-season finale, Wenning is having a season comparable to — and in many cases better than — the biggest quarterback names in the college game.
The 6-foot-3 senior is ninth in the nation in passing yards with 3,488, more than Heisman hopefuls like Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Baylor’s Bryce Petty , Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater.
Wenning’s 28 touchdown passes rank eighth in major-college football and are more than Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, Petty, Mariota and Bridgewater.
He’s thrown six interceptions, less than half as many as Johnny Manziel, even though he’s attempted 65 more passes than the reigning Heisman winner.
At Ball State, where he has thrown for 10,742 career yards and 85 touchdowns, Wenning has broken nearly every quarterback record.
When you consider the Cardinals were the only NCAA Division I school to offer him a scholarship to play quarterback, it seems only natural that today — Thanksgiving Day — might resonate with him.
“I’ve got a lot to be thankful for,” he said with a nod. “First off, my family. And I’m thankful for the opportunity to play football. Not many people get to play under the lights on a D-I field.
“… And I’m thankful for this man.”
With his left index finger, he rolled the black, rubber bracelet with the orange lettering on his right wrist until you saw the name engraved on it:
“Coach Reed…Hebrews 11:6.”
John Reed was the iconic, highly-successful football coach at Coldwater (166 victories in 199 games, five trips to the state title game, two state crowns) a man of high standards for his players, and a person of unwavering faith himself. That explains the Hebrews reference (“But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is…”).
Reed died of esophageal cancer in May 2010, five months after he took his team — led by senior quarterback Keith Wenning — to the state title game.
“When he passed, they made these bracelets and handed them out to his football players and people in the school that were close to him,” Wenning said quietly. “I put mine on and haven’t taken it off since. I sleep with it, shower with it, play my games with it on.
“He believed in me when a lot of people didn’t. We had a really close relationship and we’d sit and talk a lot in his office and at his home. He taught me so much about football and life.”
Reed instructed his players on everything from not over-celebrating on the field and taking their hats off when they entered a building to how to treat their girlfriends.
“He always said, ‘If you’re with a girl, remember she’s someone else’s daughter. Treat her with respect,’ ” Wenning said. “He made us all better people.”
Reed was diagnosed with his cancer just before the playoffs and put off treatment so he could coach his boys all the way through the final. After that, as the disease took a toll, some of his players, and specifically Wenning, would visit him regularly to shovel snow, run errands or just sit and talk.
“It was tough for the boys when John died,” said Cindy Wenning, Keith’s mom. “Speaking for Keith, he still has most of his grandparents and hadn’t seen that part of life yet. It was tough for him.”
Keith said that’s why he wears the bracelet:
“It makes me feel he’s looking down on me and guiding me. I still feel he’s with me all the time.”
A born quarterback
Wenning grew up on his family’s wooded five acres, a mile north of Coldwater on Buschor Road.
He’s the youngest of five kids — his three sisters and his brother all were athletes — and on the Wenning side, Cindy said there are 100 cousins, which makes for lots of backyard sporting activities.
“When I was young I’d ride my bike into town three or four times a day, too,” Wenning said. Often it was for Little League practice, but sometimes there were pilgrimages to the Holy Land, the practice field of the beloved Coldwater Cavaliers.
“The first time Coldwater went to state — 1998, I think — Keith was 7 or 8 years old,” Cindy said. “We took the kids to the game and Keith painted his face and the boys got to hoop-la. The next week at school — I was working cafeteria duty then — I told Coach Reed, ‘I hope you’re here when my youngest son gets up there because I want him to play for you.’ ”
From then on that was the goal.
Cindy said Pam Bennett, Keith’s third-grade teacher and an avid follower of his career now, told her a story this year:
“She said as soon as the recess bell rang, he would be the first one out the door, football in hand, and he’d be yelling, ‘All-time quarterback! All-time quarterback!’ She said nobody wanted to be quarterback so he did it for both teams.”
That chant got deflated when Wenning got to high school. While he had started at quarterback throughout junior high, by his 10th-grade year he had moved up to varsity where he was the little-used backup to his good friend, Cory Klenke, who was a year older.
“In the state title game — we upset Cardinal Mooney — and he did get a couple of big passes,” Cindy said. “One of our players went down at halftime and Coach Reed said, ‘We have that trick play — that halfback pass — you think you’ll be able to do it?’ And Keith said, ‘Absolutely.’
“The first one was for a touchdown to his first cousin Ryan Geier. Another time he threw one 40 or 50 yards to Tony Harlamert, who got it down to the two or three yard line, I believe. That got him a little exposure, but the next year Cory was still the quarterback – any why not, we’d just won the state title? – so Keith played linebacker and receiver mostly.”
In fact, his defensive play was impressive enough that Air Force offered a scholarship as a linebacker.
“I’m sure he had the itch to play quarterback, but he never said anything,” Cindy said. “He just wanted to help the team.”
But that didn’t help him get recruited as a quarterback.
“The way recruiting goes today, especially at that position, if you don’t have great junior tape and get to a million camps between your junior and senior year, you can kind of fall under the radar,” said Rich Skrosky, Ball State’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who was at Elon at the time.
That’s when Reed began to lobby then-Ball State head coach Stan Parrish and his staff on Wenning’s behalf.
“I’ll be honest, his high school coach was a great friend to our program,” said Joey Lynch, then, as now, the Ball State recruiting coordinator. “We had a couple of Coldwater kids in our program at the time and we all thought the world of John Reed. He was someone we trusted.
“He kept telling us, ‘Just wait until Keith has the opportunity. His senior year he’ll be our (Coldwater) quarterback and I promise you he’s a Division I quarterback.’ He told us the kid had a chance to be special.
“But there was no film on him so he promised he’d get Keith to our quarterback camp (before that senior season.) And when he got here, we had some other Division I quarterback prospects in, but he kinda stole the show.”
Ball State still chose to take a wait-and-see approach as Wenning began his senior season.
Halfway through that campaign — which would end with 3,699 passing yards, 40 TD passes, a 13-2 record and a trip to the state title game — Ball State offered Wenning a scholarship .
“If it wasn’t for John Reed,” Lynch said with a smile, “we never would have taken Keith Wenning.”
Although Wenning ended up the Cardinals’ starting quarterback three games into his freshman season, the year was tough. Ball State went 4-8 and Parrish and most of his assistants were fired.
When new head coach Pete Lembo and his staff came in, they told many of the players, including Wenning, to get in better shape.
“The very first conversation I had with him was ‘You’re fat,’ ” Skrosky said with a grin. “I don’t think that went over to well with Mom — and we can all laugh about it now — but he was around 240 pounds and soft in the midsection.”
The Ball State coaches say rather than take offense, Wenning fully embraced the challenge. He spent extra time in the weight room, dieted and changed his eating habits.
“From that point on Keith became a picky eater,” Cindy said. “It was all chicken, fish and steamed vegetables.”
Skrosky said the results were stunning: “He’s changed his body. He’s 222 to 225 – and that’s thanks to him and Coach (David) Feeley, our strength coach. If you watch Keith throw now, a lot of the velocity he gets come from his midsection.”
Wenning doubled his passing production as a sophomore – from 1,376 yards to 2,786 – and then threw for 3,095 yards and 24 TDs last season and already has 3,488 and 28 TDs this year. In the process Ball State has gone from 6-6 to 9-4 and now is 9-2.
Over the summer Wenning went to San Diego to work out with renowned trainer Todd Durkin. He was joined in his sessions by a trio of NFL quarterbacks – Drew Brees, Alex Smith and Carson Palmer – all of whom shared insights with him.
This season Wenning has become a more vocal leader and now Ball State, should it defeat 0-11 Miami, will have just its second 10-win season in the past 36 years. After that it will head to its second straight bowl game.
As the year has progressed Wenning has gotten an ardent following. Some 200 folks from Coldwater have been coming to many of the games. One of his professors writes after every game and Bennett, the third grade teacher – sends a letter and a packet of clippings to the Wenning house each week.
“She lives in the Muncie area and she cuts out all the newspaper stories she can find,” Cindy said. “She has done that his entire four years and I’ve put them all scrapbooks. Keith hasn’t seen them yet, but one day he’ll be able to sit back and read all about his career.”
That could be a while though.
Pro scouts have become regulars at Ball State games and Skrosky said “although it’s for other people to decide – not me – I certainly think he’s capable of playing at the next level. He has all the traits you need and he has the right attitude.”
A lot of that, Ball State coaches said, goes back to his Coldwater roots.
“When he left I told him not to forget where he came from,” Cindy said.
And that would be hard to do. Coldwater is only 56 miles away and the small town, blue-collar, work ethic travelled with him to Muncie.
And most of all there is that reminder on his right wrist.
“Coach Reed is the reason I’m here,” Wenning said. “He did so much for me and I still think of him every day.”
Especially this day.