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Great Moments: A Gift of Champions

Bill Livingston
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

(continued from page 1)

When current Michigan State head coach Nick Saban was an assistant at the school in the mid-1980s, he recruited O'Keefe. Kevin was one of the top offensive linemen in northeast Ohio, but in his junior year of high school he had to battle a much more challenging opponent than any defensive player. Just before the 1984 track season--he threw the discus and shot put--he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. He underwent radiation therapy. Doctors also removed his appendix and spleen.

O'Keefe returned to the gridiron that fall, and the college scouts weren't far behind.

"He was a big-time recruit," recalls George Perles, the Spartans' head coach in 1985, when O'Keefe chose Michigan State over Ohio State, Miami of Florida, and Maryland. "I thought there was no doubt he could play in the pros."

After what he had gone through, O'Keefe wasn't scared of third-and-long. After redshirting his first season he lettered in 1986, but he didn't make it to the NFL after that. A hospital bed was his next destination.

Before the 1987 season, O'Keefe's war with cancer flared again. What timing. It was the greatest season Michigan State had had since the days of Bubba Smith and Hugh Duffy Daugherty. It was the season of Andre Rison, Percy Snow and Lorenzo White, who was fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. It was the season in which the Spartans won the Rose Bowl.

Kevin O'Keefe watched the Spartans' 20-17 Rose Bowl victory over Southern Cal from his home in the Cleveland suburbs.

The most scary "c-word" besides cancer is chemotherapy. O'Keefe would vomit for hours after his treatments in a Lansing, Michigan, hospital.

"It was tough to see him that way," Saban recalls. "But he never felt sorry for himself. Instead, he was grateful for all the good things he had. It's hard to be unhappy when you're grateful."

After the season, Michigan State players received Rose Bowl rings, while O'Keefe was given a watch. Because he hadn't been with the team that year, "I never thought I deserved a ring or a watch," O'Keefe says.

"Kevin isn't the type to ask for anything," says John Thompson. "He was happy with the watch."

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