Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein knows all this is highly improbable.
“If you would have asked anybody a couple years ago if we’d be sitting here having this conversation today, they probably wouldn’t have believed you,” the Heisman Trophy candidate said, adding with a laugh, “and would have put a lot of money down on it.”
A home-schooled kid from Loveland, Colo., Klein struggled in his first couple years in then-new coach Bill Snyder’s system, even moving down the depth chart at times as he worked at wide receiver and on special teams.
Fast forward a couple years, and Klein was at the mall with his wife, Shalin, shopping for a trip that will culminate in New York, where Collin is a candidate for the Heisman Trophy thanks to his tireless work and that of his fellow Wildcats (11-1).
Sure, it might be considered surprising, but Klein quickly disputes the notion that circumstances simply fell into place.
“There’s definitely a lot to it,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d call them random. Everything happens for a reason, and some crazy things have happened to lead our team and myself to this point. There are a lot of reasons for that. There’s a lot of hard work, a lot of preparation that have been put in on so many people’s part.”
Obviously, Kansas State’s entire team played an enormous role in Klein achieving what he has this year. It is an easy argument to make, however, that he has spearheaded a leadership movement that pushed this team to reach its potential in a way that few others around the country have.
Perhaps one of the most obvious aspects of Klein’s leadership is that he is never satisfied with his own performance, even though he has been tremendously effective, even though he gets boatloads of attention, even though the team has won consistently.
This is his second year at quarterback, and he says he still has plenty to learn, that he would not say he has necessarily mastered the playbook. There is more that can be done, and he’s okay with that. He welcomes that. He’s more than willing to tackle that.
“I still want to know more,” he said. “There’s still new nuances, new things that we can do and stuff. I guess that constant feeling of being comfortable with being uncomfortable and constantly trying to improve is something.”
It certainly is something. It’s something that has propelled the Wildcats to more wins than anyone outside the program ever predicted.
After all, how could any other player justify giving less than everything when the guy who seemingly would have the least to prove is the hardest worker on the team?
The other part of Klein’s leadership, the part those outside the program rarely see, is that the quarterback is almost as tough on his teammates as he is on himself. Unlike many athletes, he avoids swearing, but he knows how to get his point across. Other players respond because Klein has laid the foundation of relationship with each of them.
“You can’t ‘win anybody over,’” Klein said. “You’ve got to care for them and put their needs and their interests above your own, and they sense that, and they know that, and they know if it’s real or not. Folks aren’t – you can’t pull the wool over their eyes. They’re going to know if you’ve got their back or not.”
While Klein might not display emotion using four-letter words, he can still be fiery and powerful when he needs to get through to someone.
“People have taught and shown me you can be passionate and firm and very strong without swearing in someone’s face,” Klein said. “There have come a few times where I’ve had to do that. As long as the caring part is there and the heart for them is there, and it’s been there since you’ve known them, then when the time comes you have some creditability, and they trust you and they know that it’s because I care about, ultimately, you and this team.”
Of course, Klein points out – again – that none of this applies to him alone.
“As a leader, you have to be willing to put yourself out there and hold people accountable,” he said. “I’ve had to do it, but a lot of our teammates have done that, especially this season, from the seniors and all leadership positions, and it’s paid off.”
Another essential element of Klein is his perspective. It stems from his Christian faith, and it gives him peace in what might for otherwise be a rather turbulent and nerve-wracking time: traveling to three cities in three days to accept some awards and find out about others.
For Klein, though, there is more. His goal is bigger than the Heisman, bigger than the national championship, bigger than any of that. It’s this:
“Trying to be the best I can be with what God’s given me, trying to serve this team to the fullest with everything I possibly have and invest in the lives of people, which is the most important thing, and those people are my teammates and the people around here.”
Klein is confident those pursuits are worthy of his time and energy.
“That’s more important and will leave a longer legacy than any award, even as prestigious as the Heisman,” he said, “and with that perspective, and knowing that, that kind of puts it all in order for me.”
His grasp of a bigger picture also prevents him from dwelling on regret and what might have been. The loss to Baylor ruined Kansas State’s championship hopes and possibly Klein’s Heisman chances as well. He’s far from immune to the pain of that loss, but he knows there is more out there.
“It’s going to be a hard one forever,” he said. “It’s something probably none of us will ever forget. The lesson, and the response of our team in being able to bounce back, get back on the horse, finish, finish like we did, was huge and a valuable lesson. Who knows however many times you’re going to have to use it. Life’s not going to be easy, so it’s just about how you bounce back and respond and move forward.”
What does moving forward mean for Klein after graduation? Will he pursue an NFL career? Will he make use of his finance degree? What’s next for a player who has been compared to Tim Tebow and has brought more attention and success to Kansas State than it has enjoyed for so long?
The short answer: He does not know.
The longer answer: He knows the goals he wants to achieve regardless of what profession he enters.
“I want to honor and serve my Lord and Savior,” Klein said. “I want to take care of my family spiritually, financially and physically and serve the people in whatever community I happen to be in at the time. Whatever that looks like, if it’s using my finance degree, or if it’s playing ball, if it’s a mixture of both, who knows. Who knows what it could be. Whatever it looks like, as long as those three things are intact, will be just fine.”