On October 7, 2017, my wife and I started painting our family room. It was a clear autumn afternoon in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Our alma mater Iowa State University was playing the Oklahoma Sooners. We turned on the TV and started working. It was mostly for background noise. We really didn’t expect our team to do very well. The last year our team had beaten Oklahoma was 1990.
To add insult to injury, we learned that our starting quarterback had been excused from the team earlier in the week. We were facing mighty Oklahoma with a backup quarterback. It looked like another grim day for Cyclone football.
His name is Kyle Kempt. At the time, he was a fifth-year senior. He was called a journeyman because he had brief stints on two other college football teams (one of them a lowly community college in Hutchison, Kansas) before walking on at Iowa State. Kempt saw no action on those prior teams, and in a year and a half at Iowa State, he had only two pass attempts. He was an outcast, a misfit. If he couldn’t even make the starting squad at a community college, how could we expect him to lead our team against Oklahoma?
But there he was on October 7, 2017, warming up on the field at Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma. His first collegiate start ever.
Things looked pretty bleak for the Cyclones. Oklahoma was ranked #3 in the nation. They were led by Baker Mayfield, arguably the most prolific and highly regarded quarterback that year. Mayfield was a strong contender for the coveted Heisman Trophy. The Sooners already had an impressive win over #2 Ohio State at Columbus. They were riding a 14-game winning streak. They were looking to repeat their Big 12 conference championship of 2016 and had aspirations of a national championship. Oklahoma had beaten Iowa State 18 straight times. ISU was a 31-point underdog going into this game.
If the Sooners had an Achilles heal, it was their defense. They had given up 41 points to Baylor two weeks before. If a talented quarterback was given some time in the pocket and a couple of targets to choose from, he might be able to pick apart the Sooner defense and make the game interesting. That was a big “if”. And all we had was Kyle Kempt.
Oklahoma raced to a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter. Michele and I carried on with our painting, not surprised at the score, the usual feeling of disappointment settling in. But then, right before the half, Kempt found wide receiver Hakeem Butler on a long pass deep in Sooner territory. Iowa State got a field goal out of the deal and went into the locker room only down 24-13. They had made a decent showing, which is often all we hope for. Just don’t get blown out again.
In the second half, things got really interesting. Kempt was brilliant. He surgically found receivers left and right, driving the Cyclones 75 yards in 10 plays leading to a touchdown. After a Mayfield touchdown, Kempt led ISU on two more productive drives that resulted in a pair of field goals, and then found Marchie Murdock for a 28-yard TD late in the third period. Meanwhile, Oklahoma was struggling. Baker Mayfield fumbled in the red zone, and later, the Sooners missed a field goal. Heading into the fourth quarter, the game was tied, 24-24. The game had passed from being a foregone conclusion to an actual contest, a highlight reel on ESPN. We started paying attention, that faint glimmer of hope sparking in our hearts. Cautiously, however. We’ve been here before. Memories of countless shattered dreams and might-have-beens from the past.
Early in the fourth quarter, Kempt found Trevor Ryen on a swing pass and Ryen swept past OU defenders for a 57-yard TD. I hopped off my ladder. What the heck just happened?!?! We were leading in the fourth quarter! At Oklahoma! The 86,000-plus fans in Memorial Stadium were in a state of shock.
Mayfield drove the Sooners to a touchdown. Once again, it was all tied up at 31-31 with 7:18 left.
I can only imagine the amount of pressure a visiting quarterback might feel when his team is tied in the fourth quarter to the #3 team in the nation, and it’s up to him to lead his team to victory. I’m sure even an experienced quarterback would tense up in this situation. But as I watched the closeups of Kyle Kempt’s face, I didn’t see a nervous, freaked-out expression. I saw coolness, poise, almost a little bit of confidence. That’s a tribute to Kempt, as well as the coaches who had prepared him for this game. According to the John Wooden Pyramid of Success, poise is defined as “just being yourself…being at ease in any situation…not trying to be something you’re not.” I saw in Kyle Kempt’s eyes a lot of poise that day. He didn’t need to be a superstar, didn’t need to be Baker Mayfield. He just needed to do his job. Find the open guy and get it to him.
Kempt drove the Cyclones down the field to the Oklahoma 25 yard-line, consuming nearly 5 minutes. Then, with 2:19 left in the game, Kempt lofted a pass to Allen Lazard on the left edge of the end zone. The pass was exactly where it needed to be, and Lazard did what he does best and snagged it out of the air. Touchdown! The Cyclones led 38-31 late in the fourth quarter. The ESPN commentators went nuts. The two painters in the Schillinger living room went nuts. Could this be real?!?! Are we really seeing this?
The Sooners had one last chance to tie it up. But thanks to the heroics of the ISU defense, Mayfield couldn’t get it done. Iowa State got the ball on downs and Kempt took a knee to run off the clock. Game over.
Kempt’s statistics were incredible. He had completed 20 out of 27 passes for 368 yards, besting Mayfield’s 323 yards. He had thrown three TD passes to Mayfield’s two. More importantly, Kempt had no interceptions. He had led his team on multiple, extended drives for points. He was precise. He was cool. He was superb.
Kempt’s performance made a deep impression on me, and on many others as well. Not long after the game, Kempt received a hand-written letter from Carol Stoops, wife of Bob Stoops, the former Oklahoma coach who retired four months before that Cyclones’ upset. “I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t cool,” Kempt said. “She reached out and congratulated me on the victory, and on my journey. It was really cool.”
It is understatements like that that make me love Kyle Kempt. Here’s a guy who had every right to tout his vindication, to his former teams, to his current team, heck–to the nation! Yet, he remained simple, courteous…in a word, humble.
Recently, Cyclone Coach Matt Campbell spoke of Kempt. You might think 2018 was a disappointing season for Kyle. Though he was slated to be the starter, he played sparingly. ISU’s first game against South Dakota State was cancelled in the first quarter due to lightning. Kempt was injured the next week against Iowa. Once again, Kempt returned to the sidelines, back out of the limelight. You would think there wouldn’t be much to say about him. But Coach Campbell had plenty to say. In fact, his praise of Kempt filled most of the November 26, 2018 article written by Gazette correspondent Ben Visser. Here are a couple of exerpts from that article, Campbell’s words of praise for Kyle Kempt:
“I’ve said this and I’ll continue to say this, I really think the character and actions of what Kyle Kempt has stood for–it doesn’t happen in our profession. It doesn’t happen with 18-22-year-olds, but it happened here.”
“What he did from Oklahoma a year ago to the character that he’s shown through this stretch–I don’t know if you can ever match it.”
“What he did this year was more powerful than what he did last year because it’s humility, it’s character, it’s when everybody expects you to do one thing, you do the other thing and he stood up and did the right thing. It’s really hard to do that. For forever, he’ll go down as one of the greatest young men I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach.”
“What Kyle Kempt is doing, hopefully young student-atheletes outside of our realm can look at that someday and say, ‘Man, I hope I can be like that guy when I grow up.”
I’m not exactly sure what Kyle did to deserve such rapturous praise from his coach, how his contribution could have been “more powerful than last year”. I mean, come on–he beat Oklahoma! But it is not hard to imagine Kyle Kempt making the most of his situation, just like he did on October 7, 2017. In televised Cyclone football games, any shots of Kyle Kempt were of him on the sideline, talking with the new quarterback, giving advice, going over the plans, speaking words of encouragement. Kempt embodies the work ethic Coach Campbell has always preached. Study. Discipline. Look out for each other. Help one another. Kempt must live and breath that stuff for his coach to speak so highly of him.
Admittedly, I sometimes forget Kyle’s name, just as I do with so many of ISU’s good players through the years. I’ll be like–oh yeah, remember that backup quarterback who stepped in and beat Oklahoma…what was his name again? I don’t think Kyle cares if I remember his name or not. But one thing I will never forget–I will never forget that OU game, and the calm, cool, look of poise in Kyle Kempt’s eyes. The featured image for this post is my amateur painting of Kyle that day in Norman. It’s my little tribute to the misfit quarterback who did the impossible.
God bless you, Kyle Kempt.