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Campbell Hall coach Dennis Keyes has found an identity outside of football on the canvas

Eric Sondheimer
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Sitting at his desk in the football office at North Hollywood Campbell Hall High, Dennis Keyes carefully uses an X-Acto knife to peel wood from his charcoal pencil, then sandpaper to create the perfect point for drawing. He pulls out a sheet of blank white sketch paper — 18 inches by 24 inches— is pulled out.

Holding the pencil with his thumb, index finger and middle finger, Keyes draws a circle for the head. Then comes a line for the shoulder and another for the neck. With each brush, Keyes brings to life his vision of Spider-Man.

“Spider-Man likes to bend himself in all kinds of weird, different poses,” he says. “We’ll bring an arm out here like he’s shooting his web.”

People who remember Keyes as the City Section player of the year at Lake Balboa Birmingham High in 2002, or as a starting free safety at UCLA for three years, or from his brief career in the NFL. probably never knew he also had a passion for drawing.

Now 31 and the father of three, he hopes to finish a master’s in fine art from the Academy of Art University.

It all started when he was 5 and came down the stairs from his bedroom in his family’s home after hearing music.

“There’s my dad standing on a chair against the wall and he’s drawing Spider-Man on the wall,” Keyes said. “It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I was like, ‘I want to do that.’”

So began the competition between son and father. By high school, Keyes was drawing all over the walls in his bedroom. He had a drawing of the Incredible Hulk fighting Leonardo from the Ninja Turtles and Captain America taking on Wolverine.

His mother long ago gave up telling him not to draw on the walls, since Dennis would always say, “How come I can’t do it if Dad can do it?”

“I let the kids decorate their rooms,” Dennis Sr. said of his five children. “Dennis drew faces of superheroes on the walls. I guess he was practicing behind closed doors. I didn’t know he had gotten that good. Every wall in his bedroom was covered.”

Keyes rarely showed off his drawings in high school or college.

“When I started focusing on a career path, I chose football,” he said. “That was what I was excelling at. I never really liked art classes. I hated having to draw oranges. It took a back seat, but I’ve always had a thing for drawing. When I had an itch, I’d draw randomly on things. Most of the time, it’s walls, which my wife hates.”

Except it was his wife, Krystan, who encouraged him to go back to school and study art when his NFL days were finished. She “bullied” him, as Keyes put it, into putting together a portfolio to be accepted into art school.

He went back to school in 2013 to study art (he already had a bachelor’s in history from UCLA) but took a break after a year because of his commitment to coaching at Campbell Hall and the responsibilities of helping to take care of his children, ages 9, 3 and 1.

He still found time to paint a mural of a pony in his daughter’s room, and his sons are almost certain to get superheroes painted on their walls once his wife gives permission.

“They [Campbell Hall] wanted me to teach art, but I’m still not comfortable to do so,” Keyes said. “I’m definitely going to finish school. It’s important to finish what you start.”

As football coach, Keyes has helped bring stability and success to a Campbell Hall program that cut short its varsity season in 2013 after not having enough players. Keyes was hired in 2014. Last season, the Vikings went 7-3.

In his office, there are two drawings from his daughter. “Best Dad” one says. There’s a photo of Keyes wearing his No. 11 UCLA uniform and a photo from the 2006 USC-UCLA game. And, of course, on the wall next to his desk is his sketch of a Viking, the school mascot. Even the walls at Campbell Hall are a canvas for Keyes’ charcoal pencil.

“For me, it’s always been a struggle figuring out my identity outside of football,” he said. “Since I was little, everybody just assumed I was going to be a football player. I loved the game. I still love it. That’s why I coach it. But it was important for me to try to find my own identity outside of that. One thing I could always fall back on was drawing and art.

“For me to continue to build upon that is important because it’s not only an example for my kids but kids I coach and in the community: that there’s more to you than just being an athlete. Sports isn’t everything. It’s not the end of the road. It’s one avenue to get where you want to be. But at some point, for everybody, it’s over. What else are you going to do?

“It took me a little longer than I would have liked to figure it out and find a different path. I hope when my kids leave this school, they have an understanding that there needs to be a plan other than sports.”

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Follow Eric Sondheimer on Twitter @latsondheimer

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