LOVELAND, Colo. — John Poovey looks every bit the high school football coach he is.
A tall man with a slight hitch in his step, perhaps from his own playing days, and a firm handshake, Poovey exudes toughness.
But when asked what it would mean to him to see his former quarterback Collin Klein in New York for the Heisman ceremony next week, Poovey was every bit the softie you might expect a proud father to be on his son’s wedding day.
“I’d be very happy for him and his family, and for K-State,” Poovey said, pausing for a moment as he choked up, “And for Loveland, too.”
Coach Poovey has known Collin all his life and knows as much as anyone what Collin is capable of, on and off the field. He also knows how hard Collin worked to get where he is today — one win away from a Big 12 championship and the Fiesta Bowl, and maybe, just maybe, the Heisman Trophy.
Collin, with a strong football IQ — thanks to work with his father, Doug — and natural leadership abilities, starred for Poovey at Loveland High. He racked up more than 4,000 yards of total offense and 42 touchdowns as a junior and senior.
It was here in Collin’s hometown, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, that Kansas State’s senior quarterback would lay the foundation of a career that would see him become one of the most beloved and recognizable athletes in school history.
This was long before Collin Klein would score 74 total touchdowns and account for more than 6,000 total yards and 20 wins as a two-year starter for the Wildcats.
Propped up by his foundation of family and unwavering faith, it was in Loveland where Klein would begin to grow into the son, brother and husband he is today — now on the eve of senior night at a sold-out Bill Snyder Family Stadium Saturday against the Texas Longhorns.
Though Collin has made scoring touchdowns look easy, long-striding through opposing defenses, there was a time when he was just a little boy learning to play flag football.
Identifying a future Heisman candidate at age 7 would have been difficult, sure, but there was one thing that did stand out way back then.
Those who know Collin and had a front row seat to this youth say he had an uncanny focus about him and a work ethic some athletes more than double his age didn’t have. Family friends, Matt and Peggy Haag, who have known Collin for about 15 years, said there was just something different about Collin from the beginning.
“He had this focus and discipline, even at such a young age,” said Matt, who helped coach Collin’s flag football team. “It was different. You don’t see that out of little kids. He wasn’t perfect and he made mistakes, sure. But that desire to be the best and his focus on what it was that he wanted to accomplish was evident then.”
Collin obviously did kid things. But there was another side of Collin that began to show, too.
“All the kids were downstairs playing and here comes Collin with his gym shorts, ‘Mom, I gotta go out and shoot my baskets,’” Peggy said. “I looked at his mother and she said, ‘Peggy, he made his own schedule, he does this every day. He just decided that he has to shoot his baskets.’
“He left all the kids downstairs because he had to go practice, on his own.”
It’s that discipline that helped shape the man Collin is today.
“His ambition level is different from everyone else’s,” Matt said. “He had a goal, an objective.”
“He was like an adult when he was a kid,” Coach Poovey said.
That intense focus and discipline carried over into everything Collin did — whether it was learning to play the piano and the violin and even the mandolin after that.
“He didn’t just become a great piano player or a great violin player,” said Judy Poovey, who teaches music in Loveland. “His parents taught him from Day 1 that it’s important to have that discipline to sit at that piano stool, the patience to sit there and pay attention and focus. It didn’t happen overnight. He developed those traits.”
The development of those traits is what helped open the door for his leadership abilities to begin to shine through.
“You could see pretty early on that he was something special,” Peggy said.
“Collin was a natural leader, even as a kid,” Matt added. “He never had to say he was the leader. People would just gravitate toward him. He was gifted and people knew it early on.”
Collin was a three-star prospect by Rivals and just a two-star by Scout. He didn’t even crack the top 100 in the country at his own position.
Because Collin was home-schooled, there were some concerns, despite being 6-foot-5 and seemingly having all the tools needed for the next level.
Coach Poovey vividly recalls the meetings he had with recruiters. As they perused the coach’s spreadsheet with his prospects’ vitals, one question always came up.
“I had a spreadsheet with names, addresses, phone numbers, heights, weights, speed, GPA and class rank,” Poovey said. “I gave that to the recruiters and they started to see the statistics. I tell all my kids they want to know their height, their weight, their speed and then their GPA… but they get to the class rank and it’s blank.
“They ask why there’s no class rank and I tell them it’s because he’s home-schooled, and they said, ‘oh.’ I told them, ‘no, you don’t understand, this kid is different.’”
But it didn’t matter much, as Collin’s hometown school Colorado State didn’t really want him — only showing interest late after he had already committed to K-State. Colorado had no interest. Utah had some, but overall, it was pretty slim-pickings for Loveland’s star player. Even after redshirting at K-State, he was turned into a wide receiver before moving back to quarterback as a sophomore.
Poovey tried to persuade coaches. He told them what Collin was capable of, but few listened or cared enough to offer his quarterback a scholarship.
“I told them he could do what Vince Young did for Texas,” Poovey said. “He can do that, but he’s not quite as athletic as Vince Young, not quite as much ‘oh my gosh.’ But he can do the same things.”
Collin didn’t do many of the things young aspiring athletes do today to get noticed. He didn’t attend summer quarterback camps and didn’t participate in high school combines designed to get the attention of college coaches.
“We didn’t position ourselves the same way as others,” his mother Kelly said. “I think a lot of parents decide, ‘OK, you’re 10-years-old now and our goal is to play college football, so we’re going to do camps every summer.’ We didn’t do those things.
“He was well prepared, but he wasn’t well known.”
Not getting the looks from schools in his own state also slowed the recruiting process.
“From a technical standpoint, it would have helped in the big picture to have a little more local activity because when people outside the state are going, ‘gosh, the in-state guys aren’t even taking him, there’s got to be a problem,’” said his father Doug, who was an assistant coach at Loveland High when Collin and his brother Kyle were in school.
Doug’s roots in football run deep too. He was an assistant coach at Kent State for six years before getting out of the business in 1990 when Collin was 14 months old. He even coached alongside Bob Stoops during the 1988 season before Stoops eventually left for a job under Bill Snyder at K-State.
Doug’s background allowed him to teach the game to his sons. Whether it was playing football in the yard or teaching Collin about defenses and passing routes when the two watched games on TV, everything was a learning experience.
The lessons paid off once Collin started high school, especially when it came to his understanding of the game, which was perhaps more advanced than some. But Collin lacked experience on the field.
“Doug coached him in some quarterback skills, but he wasn’t as refined as some of the others in some skills because he didn’t really play the game until he was in high school — the actual doing-it part,” Poovey said. “The intelligence part of it, though, he understood everything really well and was easy to coach.”
But Collin’s role for Loveland High was unique because he was home-schooled and didn’t attend classes there. Finding the right chemistry or blending in could be difficult for someone who only shows up for practice and games, but not for Collin.
“Being home-schooled, I think the advantage can be, if you have parents who are grounded themselves, have good values and are solid people, since they are around those parents all the time, they are more likely to adopt those traits,” Poovey said.
“He was very accepting of other people, not judgmental. And because he accepted them, they accepted him. He was humble, talented, he had the right values, and people were attracted to that.”
It was the right fit for Collin, much like his time at K-State that has allowed him to showcase abilities other colleges weren’t exactly beating down the door to see.
“It’s one of those things where it’s the right time and the right place,” Poovey said. “I knew his ability. He’s not different now than he was in high school. He’s just better.
“People ask me if I knew he could do this. Well, actually I did. But it had to be the right program, the right coaching staff that knows how to use his talents.”
Saturday will mark Collin’s final home game as a Wildcat and it couldn’t be much bigger for the senior and K-State. With a win, the Wildcats would claim a share of the Big 12 title and clinch the Fiesta Bowl.
For Klein, the game is equally important individually, as he continues to chase the Heisman Trophy. He was the frontrunner for six weeks this season before K-State suffered its first loss of the season at Baylor, knocking the Wildcats from No. 1 and thus ending their national title hunt.
It was a loss his high school coach struggled to watch.
“I couldn’t do it,” said Poovey, who has never been able to attend one of Collin’s games at K-State. “We were over at our daughter’s house and I just couldn’t stay there. I finished watching it, but I came home. I wasn’t good to be around. I wasn’t worth being around at all. I finished watching downstairs by myself.”
As much as that loss hurt the Wildcats’ title chances, perhaps Poovey’s discomfort came from also knowing what it would do to his former quarterback’s Heisman chances, as Collin now trails Texas A&M’s freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Obviously, Doug and Kelly would love to see their son accept the Heisman next week in New York, but they both know how things like this can go.
“It’s so fickle, so elusive, and of course, it’s a huge honor to be mentioned in that sentence, but we honestly don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it because of that,” Doug said.
But one thing Collin’s father does know is that his son is the same player today that he was during the six weeks or so that he was considered the frontrunner.
“He’s no different of a quarterback today than he was a week ago,” Doug said. “He’s no different as a person, as a man, as a leader, as a football player, as a man of Christ than he was three hours before that (Baylor) game.”
Doug also knows the Heisman isn’t won by a single player. It takes a team effort.
“Johnny Football did not beat Alabama by himself,” he said. “Collin has not gone 10-1 and whatever it ends up in his career — which is going to be huge — by himself.”
At the same time, Doug isn’t bashful when asked about his son’s credentials for the coveted award.
“I think the longevity should speak higher than one event,” he said. “That way you can measure the whole person, the track record, the consistency through the ups and the downs.”
Collin met Zachary Probasco when he was in the fourth grade. Zachary was in the fifth grade and also home-schooled.
Instantly, the two hit it off, and have been best of friends ever since meeting at swimming lessons, back when Zachary was actually taller than Collin, and maybe even a better swimmer.
But the friendship these two share goes beyond just a couple guys who grew up together. Zachary might know better than anyone how committed Collin is to following through with goals and staying true to his bone-deep beliefs.
He knows this because, like Collin, Zachary made a promise to himself to not kiss a girl until his wedding day.
“I was blessed to have Collin run that road with me because it was something that we both believe in and I know it’s something he held to until the day he got married,” said Zachary, now 24 and still committed to that promise he made long ago.
Collin was 14, Zachary 15, and both belonged to a group in Loveland called Life Choices that would go into area middle schools and counsel young people about the importance of values, setting goals and practicing abstinence, in the hopes of avoiding teen pregnancy.
“We told the kids that if they’re trying not to have sex before they get married, if that’s your goal, and you draw your line right before that, you’re never going to make it,” Zachary said.
“We got laughed at sometimes, but a lot less when people see the success he’s had. Our generation is looking for people to look up to, they want to be led by people who are called to a higher standard and that’s the way Collin lives his life.”
The decision Collin made to save his first kiss for the altar wasn’t something forced by his parents, or even his church growing up. It was a personal decision, one that some have ridiculed because it might seem unnatural or odd.
“It’s hard to explain that kind of conviction on a national level and a very public level without being able to share that it’s not about anyone else,” Collin’s father, Doug, said. “For Collin, it’s ‘if you kiss, knock yourself out. I don’t have any judgment or issue with that. It’s a personal choice for me.’ And he doesn’t have any judgment. That’s genuine.”
One national writer called Collin a chump on Twitter this fall, saying his decision to abstain from kissing until his wedding this past summer was inhuman.
“There’s this, ‘we’ve got to find something wrong with this person to make us feel better about ourselves,’ thing,” said family friend Matt Haag. “It’s not Collin. It’s their own failures in their own life because they say nobody else could do this. It’s like everyone speeds on the freeway, so therefore I don’t have to obey the laws.
“They need to try to find a chink in his armor to disprove Collin.”
But if there’s anything Collin is, it’s committed, to his family and his faith.
“If Collin makes a decision, it’s done,” his mother Kelly said. “It doesn’t matter how stormy the sea gets, he’s made a decision.
“It was Collin’s choice and nothing we put on him as an expectation.”
That’s the part that sometimes gets lost in Collin’s story. Yes, he’s a very devout Christian. Yes, he could be viewed as old-fashioned. Yes, he has strong values, and yes he maybe does things differently than a lot of others. But Collin’s life choices were exactly that, his life choices.
“If there’s one thing that has been misconstrued it’s this idea that he was brought up in this tyrannical, puritan home,” Matt said. “It’s not that at all. It was just, ‘here’s a goal and how do I get there?’
“Collin wants success in every part of his life and designed ways to get there.”
“He was very disciplined, but it was not so much an imposed discipline,” Matt’s wife Peggy said. “It was self-imposed.”
Collin didn’t date much in high school. He never really had a girlfriend. He was focused on other things, his education, his faith, his family and athletics.
There was a time and a place for that, and it simply wasn’t the right time.
That all changed when he met Shalin Spani at K-State. The daughter of former K-State All-American linebacker Gary Spani, Shalin shared similar values and beliefs, was also home-schooled and understood the grind of being a student-athlete.
“There are a lot of similarities,” Collin’s mother Kelly said. “She’s the oldest, Collin is the oldest and I think they have a sense of responsibility that comes from that position in the family. Shalin’s background with her schooling and her faith are very similar to the experiences Collin had. And she’s been a student-athlete, so she can understand the grind and the strain.”
The two were so smitten with each other that less than one month after their first and only date — a dinner at the Olive Garden — the two were engaged. Six months later they were married.
Again, this decision was met with some doubt. After all, who gets married after one date? Again, it may not be the norm, but it was something Collin believed in, was committed to and knew was right. Shalin was the perfect girl for him. The feeling was mutual.
“They just knew,” Matt said. “And I think people were looking at this like, ‘this is insane.’ Well, that’s true for many other people, but you’re not dealing with the average person here. These two people are very disciplined, they know what’s expected and they’re willing to make those commitments to each other.”
Even Collin’s longtime friend Zachary had his doubts. It’s natural.
“He called me and we were talking about some of our friends that had gotten engaged recently,” said Zachary, who was a groomsman for Collin. “But he was kind of quiet, so I asked if everything was OK. He said, ‘yeah, but I have something I need to tell you.’ Then he said he was engaged.
“It takes a lot to make me speechless… Again, even I was somewhat skeptical, even after he told me the story.”
The skepticism was short-lived.
“After I talked to Shalin for 20 minutes I was sold,” Zachary said, recalling the first time he met Collin’s future wife on a trip to Loveland a couple weeks after they were engaged. “I was blown away, the level of maturity, the sincerity. You can tell when someone is sincere and genuine and there are a few people I’ve talked to who can fit into that list, and she’s one of them.
“Out of the all success he’s had this year, the winning, the Heisman stuff, easily the best thing he’s done this year is meet and marry Shalin.”
Collin first introduced his parents to Shalin at church in Manhattan last October, just a few months before the two would be engaged.
His father Doug knew then, from meeting Shalin for the first time, that this was someone he should remember.
He was right.
“As long as the fundamentals and pieces are in place, six months is just as good as two years, to me,” Doug said. “If there were red flags, we would have spoken up. But there weren’t any. She’s a wonderful young person and they’re committed to each other in every way.”
Saturday night will mark one of the final stages in Collin’s life as K-State quarterback when he and the rest of the senior class are honored before the start of the Wildcats’ regular season finale against Texas, beginning at 7 p.m.
There’s no denying Collin’s place in K-State history, as the once under-recruited star from Loveland ranks in the top 10 in 10 different categories, both for his passing and his rushing.
This week Klein will go on an awards tour, starting in Orlando where he’s a finalist for the Davey O’Brien and Walter Camp Awards. Then, just maybe, he will end up in New York on Saturday for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
Either way, Collin’s days at K-State are numbered, ultimately culminating with the bowl game.
His father Doug says that’s OK, because Collin’s time at K-State, like his life before moving to Manhattan, is just another chapter in his son’s life.
“Collin as a football player doesn’t define him and it never has and it never will,” Doug said. “So, it does put it all in perspective. I mean, yeah, it’s special, what he’s accomplished, but there’s another stage. He isn’t done yet. This is just a chapter. There are more chapters to be written.”