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A Game Comeback : Kellen Overcame Pain, Doubt to Play a Final Season at CSUN

The pain had all but been forgotten, the memory of a lost season wiped away by time. Bryan Kellen broke from the huddle for the third play of Cal State Northridge’s spring football game knowing only that a pass play had been called for him.

And then, a reminder.

“Hey, Bryan, this is your play,” whispered a teammate.

Indeed it was, the same play that nine months earlier had ended the wide receiver’s season before it ever really started.

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It was a crossing pattern to the Z back, the flanker in CSUN’s offensive scheme.

The last time Kellen had run the route--during a scrimmage before the 1987 season--the ball had been overthrown. He dove for it, and a linebacker rammed him in mid-air. The ball and Kellen both fell to the ground. Teammates picked up the ball.

Trainers picked up Kellen.

Kellen felt his leg snap while he was still airborne. It wasn’t painful at first, only numb. Then he tried to walk.

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“That’s when I knew,” Kellen said. “I could feel it wiggling around in there.”

An examination on the sideline gave Kellen hope. The trainer said he might be out 10 days.

Then the team surgeon was called in, and he took less than five minutes to decide the receiver would be sidelined considerably longer. Say, 10 months.

The medial collateral ligament in Kellen’s right knee was torn and there was a slight tear in the anterior cruciate.

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Kellen’s season was over. So, perhaps, was his career.

“I had seen a lot of people go down with injuries and not come back,” Kellen said. “I was afraid if I had a season off I might lose my love for football.”

But if anything, Kellen became more dedicated, though his resolve was tested almost daily during therapy.

There he would sit, his leg hanging off the edge of the training table, eyes fixed on the knee, with all his muscles straining. Had he been lifting weights with equal intensity, Kellen would have been able to see immediate results. As it was, it seemed as if he would never make progress.

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“You don’t look like you’re doing anything, like you’re just sitting on the bench,” Kellen said. “The whole time you’re just staring at your knee, trying to make it go down, and it’s not going anywhere.

“You straighten, press a little, straighten again and you feel the scar tissue starting to separate. You let it sit there, press a little bit, then straighten it out some more. It was tedious, and it was constant pain.”

Kellen’s progress was measured in millimeters. “It would take weeks to notice a change,” he said. “That was the toughest part. I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.”

Why Kellen put in so much work for only one more season of football is a question even he has trouble answering.

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There are no NFL or even CFL aspirations for Kellen, a fifth-year senior from San Jose. “I’ve been turned away from a lot of parties because I don’t even look very much like a football player,” said Kellen, who stands 5 feet, 10 inches and weighs 170 pounds.

“This is the year I’ve looked forward to since I was a little kid,” said Kellen, who will start at flanker for CSUN in its opener tonight at home against Cal State Hayward. “When I got hurt just the idea of playing again was enough to keep me going. I’m just looking forward to going out, getting some grass stains on my uniform and helping out.”

He will be counted on to do considerably more than that.

“I wouldn’t say we are happy he was hurt,” Coach Bob Burt said, “but we feel very fortunate that we have him this season. Without him, we wouldn’t have much experience.”

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Kellen, who redshirted last season, became CSUN’s top returning receiver last month when Keith Wright was declared academically ineligible. Wright caught 27 passes last season, including 10 for touchdowns.

“You can’t replace someone like Keith, and I’m sure the coaches don’t expect me to,” Kellen said, “but even without him we have more good receivers than ever.”

Had that been the situation two seasons ago, Kellen might never have caught on with the Matadors. He was a free safety until less than two weeks before the 1986 opener.

He was also listed third on the depth chart.

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“We figured, ‘Why waste the guy,’ ” said Mark Lovett, a CSUN assistant who was then in charge of the receivers. “He had some speed, good hands and was versatile. It was one of the best moves we made all season.”

The experiment was not an immediate success, however. Through five games, Kellen had more drops than he had receptions and his confidence also was plummeting.

“I was having good practices and I think that was the only thing keeping me in the starting lineup,” Kellen said. “I was depressed. I didn’t feel like I was helping the team out at all.”

Kellen turned to the coaches, looking for any kind of encouragement that would help his sagging self-esteem.

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Well, they said, you’re blocking pretty well, and doing a fine job running in the plays.

“You know, some guys, you tell them a play on the sideline and by the time they reach the huddle they forget the play,” Lovett said. “With Bryan, at the very least we knew we had a guy with brains.”

A ringing endorsement if ever one was heard.

Kellen wasn’t the only receiver struggling, however. “We just weren’t throwing the ball,” Lovett said. “They couldn’t get into any kind of flow. And if they dropped a pass, that was it.”

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That all changed in the sixth game of the season against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Trailing, 20-14, with the ball at its own 20 and 2:06 remaining, CSUN finally took to the air in earnest. Kellen, who had one reception the previous five games, made two crucial catches on the Matadors’ final drive. He made a 13-yard grab over the middle for a first down, then caught a 6-yard touchdown pass with 14 seconds left that tied the score and set up the game-winning extra-point.

He finished with four catches, including two for touchdowns.

The excitement of scoring the final touchdown was equaled only by the adrenaline rush he felt bringing in the play.

“I was standing next to coach and he says, ‘OK, make sure you go in and tell him he has to throw the ball to you,’ ” Kellen said. It was the shot of confidence the down-and-out receiver needed.”

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The play put Kellen’s career as a receiver on fast forward.

“That game was the trigger for him,” Lovett said. “That’s when he became a receiver. Up to that point he was just running routes.”

Two games later, against Santa Clara, Kellen made two receptions for 63 yards--both for touchdowns.

Kellen fully expects to make similar catches this season. The knee is healthy, he says, and so is his mental outlook.

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Said Burt: “In some cases you might worry about a kid shying, but in Bryan’s case you wouldn’t because of his character. He’s a gamer and a winner. When you get him in a competitive situation, look out.”

Such was the circumstance three months ago when Kellen heard that teammate’s whisper. So he lined up, cut the pattern crisply, and caught the pass.

Rules change: Extra-point attempts could prove interesting this season because of a rules change instituted by the NCAA. Story, Page 20.


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