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October 13, 2011

Gunner is latest Kiel to shine at QB

MORE HELMHOLDT: Mail | Notes | Weekend wrap

No pro-style quarterback had earned five-star status since 2009 until Gunner Kiel ended that streak this year with his blend of everything. He possesses the size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), the accuracy, the velocity and the intellect to play the most high-profile position in all of sports.

But more than anything, Gunner Kiel has the name.

While his first name might describe his style or his arm, it's his last name that convinces scouts across the country that this could be America's next great QB.

The Kiel quarterback legacy began in the late 1970s at Columbus East, 45 minutes south of Indianapolis. Gunner's uncle, Blair Kiel, who would go on to start four seasons at Notre Dame and play in the NFL, was the quarterback for Columbus East while Gunner's father, Kip, played wide receiver. Kip took hold of the school's quarterback reigns after his brother left, then handed them off to a third brother when Kip graduated and moved on to Butler University.

That next generation of Kiel quarterbacks took over within the last decade at Columbus East. Gunner's oldest brother, Drew, became the school's starter as a junior in 2005. When Drew graduated and headed off to Illinois State, brother Dusty took the helm of Columbus East's offense. And when Dusty left for Indiana, the QB torch was passed to Gunner, the most heavily recruited of the brothers.

"I still think they are better than me and I have to reach their bar of excellence," Gunner told Rivals.com. "When I watched Drew play in high school, I thought he was the best player in the world. Just growing up around my brothers has been something special."

Growing up around his brothers has certainly helped mold Gunner into the quarterback he is today, according to his father. The relationship between the three brothers is traditional in the sense that Gunner took on the little brother role and looked up to his older siblings. But when the ability to throw a football is added to the mix, the result has been a recipe for gridiron success.

"The relationship has always been close, but the thing about the older two brothers is they did not cut him any slack at all," Kip Kiel said. "I think that is a big part of why Gunner developed the way he did, because obviously his older brothers were there to help him along."

Having older brothers pave the way also helped Gunner get a leg up in the recruiting process. When Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar made his first recruiting call, the Irish assistant noted how he has known about Gunner since the seventh grade, which was when he first came to recruit Drew and saw a young Gunner tossing the football around at practice.

"Half the battle in recruiting is getting your name out, and because of his brothers, they knew about him at an early age," Kip said.

In July, Kiel announced a commitment to Indiana over offers from most of the top football programs in the country. Early in his recruitment, Kiel had reservations about Indiana because it meant he would be competing against his brother, Dusty, for the starting job. Dusty, however, erased that concern for his younger brother and steered him toward Bloomington.

Dusty was second string on the depth chart entering this season, but in recent weeks has assumed the starting job in Bloomington.

"It's awesome to watch him play and see him start," Gunner said. "Whenever I watch him go out on the field, it's special because we are so close. It's unreal seeing my brother out there doing the thing he loves to do."

Soon it will be Gunner's chance to make his mark on the college game, but before that time comes he has the final few games of his high school career to complete. This season has presented several unique opportunities, and more are on the horizon.

Earlier this season Columbus East had an opportunity to play on national television against its rivals, Columbus North. Kiel's final game as a high school star also will be played on national television after he accepted an invitation to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7.

"The Army game is very special and I look forward to playing in it," Kiel said. "Stevie Brown (Columbus East, class of 2006) played in it and I've talked with him about it. He said it is very special representing the Army and the people who support our country."

In the name of Gunner

There is hardly a better name for a strong-armed passer than "Gunner." But the name was not meant to portend future greatness when Kip and Aleta Kiel bestowed it upon their youngest son 18 years ago. The origin, however, does have a connection to the quarterback position.

"Boomer Esiason was very popular with Cincinnati and I just remember him naming his son Gunnar, and thought that was a cool name," Kip said.

Close friends and family, however, do not call him "Gunner." To them, he's simply "G," and that may be the result of the way the five-star quarterback carries himself. The number of stars next to his name or offer letters in his shoebox did not change Gunner in the eyes of those who know him best.

"He is a pretty humble kid," Kip said. "He's not a loud, outspoken kid. He leads by example, and is vocal when he needs to be. There are guys out there who can yell and jack it up pretty good, but if you can't work hard your team's not going to follow you. That's what I am most proud of him at that position - he's pretty humble and he works hard."

Growing up, Gunner knew that his uncle, Blair, had played in the NFL for Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, Green Bay and Atlanta, but it was not a topic often discussed. The family has always been tight and Kip's brothers, along with their children, inevitably would start a game of backyard football during gatherings.

The desire to be a quarterback, though, came from a different place for Gunner. It was not the idea of picking up the flag and bearing it for the next generation. Instead, it was the appeal of standing in front of a group of men and having 10 sets of eyes looking back at him for direction.

"I never wanted to play any other positions besides quarterback because the quarterback is always in control," Gunner said. "They're the tempo-setter, the leader, and that's what I always wanted to be."

The position of quarterback, or even the sport of football, was never pushed upon Gunner by his family. He grew up feeling the support of his parents no matter the challenge he pursued, but if anyone was responsible for lighting the football fuse, it was Aleta Kiel.

"I really wouldn't be a football player without my mom," Gunner said. "She was the first person to put a football in my hands. My mom and dad have been there for us, disciplined us very well throughout our lives. Without them, I definitely wouldn't be the person I am today."

Taking the first step

Kip took it upon himself to pass down to his sons the knowledge of the game early in their lives, but also chose to step out of that role when they transitioned to high school. Columbus East has been led by head coach Bob Gaddis for the past 11 years, and Kip credits him with taking his sons' games to the next level.

"Bob's had a lot of success. Before my kids showed up there he had a lot of success," Kip noted. "I coached them all through middle school, but once they got to high school Coach Gaddis has done a tremendous job with all three of them. He runs a great offense that helps them develop as quarterbacks."

The merger of Kiel and Gaddis' offense has led Columbus East to a 7-1 record this fall. Kiel's numbers are befitting a five-star signal caller - 1,759 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions on 92-of-145 attempts. He has also rushed for 428 yards on the season and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground.

What Kiel seems to understand as well as any high school quarterback prospect, though, is that the numbers on a stat sheet tell only a fraction of the story and do not, in themselves, imply success. The buzzword is "intangibles," and Kiel seems to have those in bunches. But he also has a supporting cast that has helped him reach those goals, and that group involves members within his family and also those at Columbus East.

On Monday nights, Columbus East's wide receivers head over to the Kiel household for a meal and time of bonding as a group. Assistant coach Mike McBride also joins the group each week, and Kip praises McBride for his contributions in Gunner's development. Brother Drew has now graduated from Illinois State and is also around the fields at Columbus East more this fall.

"It's the combination of everybody," Kip said. "Coach Gaddis runs a great offense that is very creative. Mike McBride has been instrumental this year in developing our wide receivers and further developing Gunner. And, obviously, Drew. All of the sudden Drew has been able to make most of the games because he's graduated, so he's helped there too."

Kiel has been blessed with a strong arm and a quarterback's build, but he has also benefitted from learning off the successes and failures of those close to him. With Kiel, not only are the physical tools present, but so is the necessary mental makeup. He has a high ceiling on his potential, but also brings less risk than most because he has grown up around those who have played the position and know what it takes to achieve success.

"Having a football family like I do," he said, "definitely helps a lot."



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