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Kehrli Won’t Let Strokes Strike Him Out : Football: Quarterback from Corona del Mar had bright future at Louisville, but serious injury forced him to switch to baseball.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Todd Kehrli was mesmerized by the pitch.

Louisville football coach Howard Schnellenberger sat in the living room three years ago and removed his Super Bowl ring and his national championship ring, setting them on the coffee table. The message was simple: Come with me , son , and you could wear these someday.

Kehrli, a quarterback from Corona del Mar High School, was sold.

“Coach Schnellenberger had the reputation as being a great quarterback coach,” Kehrli said. “I thought I would go there and be his quarterback. Good things would happen.”

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Kehrli thinks about Louisville from time to time and wonders, just who will be Schnellenberger’s quarterback this season? Marty Lowe? Jason Payne? His two friends are competing for the spot this summer. But Kehrli doesn’t linger on the question too long. He has to get back to the business at hand, rejuvenating a baseball career at Orange Coast College.

Good things didn’t happen to Kehrli at Louisville, not in the end. At one time, he was on track to be Schnellenberger’s quarterback, or at least audition for the role. Then a freak accident in practice changed his course.

Kehrli was hit in the neck by a teammate at the end of a play, pinching an artery and causing a blood clot. He suffered two strokes in two days and was in the hospital for nine days. He nearly died, then was nearly blind. It was clear there were no rings in his future, not from football.

“I’m never going to get over football,” Kehrli said. “It was something I lived for, the crowds, the pressure, the game itself. It’s so exhilarating. That’s gone now, so I have to stay busy.”

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Kehrli, a 6-foot-4, 219-pound first baseman, hasn’t played a baseball game since 1992, his senior year at Corona del Mar. Still, he called OCC baseball Coach John Altobelli as soon as he returned from Louisville last September and enrolled for the spring semester.

Altobelli was happy to have anyone tryout. But it didn’t take him long to realize Kehrli was a little different than the usual wanna-be.

“He started hitting balls onto Fairview Road,” Altobelli said. “We haven’t had someone do that here in a long time. I just got a new scoreboard and now I have to put up a net or Todd might start knocking holes in it.”

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Such power would have helped the Pirates last season. But Kehrli suffered a relapse. He developed blurred vision and doctors discovered another blood clot, though not as severe as the previous ones.

Still, he was put on medication and could not play.

But Kehrli is not the type to let setbacks slow him down, no matter how big. After all, this is a guy who as a kid pitched an entire game with a broken wrist.

“I had a blind spot, so baseball was a problem at first,” Kehrli said. “Curveballs would come out of nowhere and fly balls would drop from the sky. But it’s fine now. I’ve adjusted.”

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Mentally as well as physically.

“Todd has been amazing,” said Sterling Kehrli, his mother. “He’s taken this, ‘Life goes on,’ attitude. And fortunately, he’s had something like baseball to fall back on.”

Not that Kehrli hasn’t thought about what might have been.

“I don’t think about Louisville that much,” he said. “Once in a while, maybe. I did buy a college football magazine, just to see who was going to be the starter. But it’s not like last year. I was at a sports bar every week to watch the game. Now, I’m looking ahead a little more.”

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It’s better than looking back.

Kehrli’s football career was hardly a thing of beauty, even before he got to Louisville. Oh, he had talent, that was obvious, but his career was always being interrupted.

He played only seven games as a junior after he cut the little finger on his throwing hand during a cookout. He played only six games his senior year after he suffered a dislocated elbow.

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But, when he did play, he was good. Kehrli helped the Sea Kings win the Southern Section Division VI title as a sophomore. His career numbers were good--3,415 yards passing and 23 touchdowns--and his size appealing.

“Todd had everything we look for in a quarterback,” said Gary Nord, Louisville offensive coordinator. “We not only look for kids who have ability, we look for kids who are willing to pay the price to get to the NFL.”

That sounded good to Kehrli. He also knew Schnellenberger was responsible for about $62 million in NFL quarterbacks, from Jim Kelly to Browning Nagle.

“Under Coach Schnellenberger’s system, I figured I could have a lot of success,” Kehrli said.

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Nothing happened the first two years to change that opinion, on either side. Kehrli was going to be the team’s No. 2 quarterback last season, behind senior Jeff Brohm. He was being groomed.

“Todd had the strongest arm of any quarterback we’ve had here, including Nagle,” Nord said. “He was our future.”

The future turned bleak last September.

It was the final scrimmage before the Cardinals’ opener against San Jose State. Kehrli went back to pass and was sacked. As he started to get up, a teammate speared him from the side.

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“I felt a sensation in my shoulder and thought it was a stinger,” Kehrli said. “When I got back to the dorm, I lay down and everything started spinning. I stumbled to the bathroom and threw up blood.”

Kehrli was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, but doctors said it was only food poisoning.

The next day, Kehrli was swimming and began to feel queasy. An ambulance was called and Kehrli passed out on the way to the hospital. It was four days before doctors were able to diagnose the problem.

Kehrli had suffered two strokes. The hit had pinched the artery in his neck, causing blood clots. When he regained consciousness, he was blind.

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By that time, his mother had arrived.

“He’s always had a high threshold of pain,” his mother said. “One year in high school, he kept playing basketball with a broken leg. Finally, the bone snapped. So, when he told me in the hospital that he wasn’t feeling well, I knew something was wrong.”

The blood clots were discovered and he was put on medication. Doctors told him he probably would never play football again. Kehrli clung to the “probably” until two months ago.

Doctors then advised him never to play again.

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“It’s a million-to-one shot that he would ever get hurt like that again,” said Bruce Kehrli, his father. “But it was a million-to-one shot the first time, too. Todd didn’t want to take the risk.”

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Kehrli hadn’t swung a bat since leaving high school, but he was hardly a novice. He was a four-year starter in high school and hit .425 as a senior.

If not for football, he might have chosen baseball as a career from the start.

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“Some kids just have athletic ability,” Sterling Kehrli said. “Todd’s always excelled at everything he did. He could have been a good tennis player, too.”

Kehrli had decided to play baseball after returning home. He left Louisville immediately after being released from the hospital.

“I just didn’t feel comfortable there any more,” he said. “I could have gone to school, but what if I had another stroke? I wanted to be home.”

Kehrli has had few problems since returning home. Doctors have even told him he should have no further blood clots from the injury.

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But getting back to his athletic peak took some work. His left arm and eyesight were affected by the strokes. He went through rehabilitation, using everything from weights to coloring books, to regain mobility in his arm.

His eyesight also has improved.

Regaining his baseball skills has taken some work.

“Everything Todd hits is a rocket,” Altobelli said. “Right now, he’s a football kid, just muscling everything. He has to polish up those skills. When he does, he’s going to be pretty exciting.”

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And that’s a pitch Kehrli likes to hear.

“Football was my love, now that’s gone,” Kehrli said “I have to do something.”

And who knows, there might be a ring in it for him someday.


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