The newly renovated Vikings Stadium at Palo Alto High School seats 2,348 people.
Just 1,000 yards away — head out through the student parking lot, turn onto Churchill, take care not to get run over by a car as you cross El Camino Real — Stanford Stadium holds 51,424 on a good day.
But a difference of 49,000 fans is just the tip of the iceberg. At Stanford Stadium, the lights are brighter, the burden heavier, the scrutiny tougher and the stakes higher than they have ever been before.
When he arrives on The Farm as a member of the Stanford football program for the first time this summer, incoming freshman Keller Chryst will have a tall task ahead of him. Not only will he have to live up to the lofty expectations associated with being one of the top quarterback prospects in his class, it will largely be the responsibility of him and his recruiting class to not only maintain the status quo of success that has been built within the program over the last several years, but to bring the program to new heights and continue the upward trend of Stanford football to a College Football Playoff berth — and beyond.
Despite all of the hype that has surrounded Chryst throughout his high school years and the commitment process and his status as the heir apparent to the Stanford quarterbacking post, he has remained shrouded in a fair amount of mystery to this point.
In their times at Stanford, each of the Cardinal’s recent starting quarterbacks built a legacy on The Farm. Tavita Pritchard cemented his status in Cardinal lore with the monumental upset of then-No. 1 USC at the Coliseum in 2007. Andrew Luck was, well, Andrew Luck, as he and his beloved neckbeard took the nation by storm and earned back-to-back Heisman Trophy finalist honors with berths in the Sun, Orange and Fiesta bowls as the Cardinal returned to national prominence. Josh Nunes set the stage for the Cardinal’s Pac-12 Championship and Rose Bowl berth in 2012 and Kevin Hogan finished what Nunes started by toppling Oregon twice and leading the team to a pair of conference titles and Rose Bowl appearances.
So in looking ahead to Chryst’s future among that line of notable Stanford quarterbacks, the question arises: Who exactly is Keller Chryst, and how did he get here?
When your father is an NFL coach, it’s almost impossible to grow up as a little boy without football being a significant part of your upbringing. For Chryst, however, the familial ties to the game of football go much, much deeper than that.
His grandfather, George Chryst, was the patriarch of Chryst males’ involvement in football as a profession, as he served for 30 years as the athletic director and head football coach starting in 1979 at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Following George’s lead, football essentially became the family business for the Chryst clan.
George’s three sons — Geep, Paul and Rick — have all been involved in football for their entire lives, with all three playing collegiate football before parting ways and all taking on prominent roles within both the NFL and the NCAA. Geep, Keller’s father, is the current quarterbacks coach for the San Francisco 49ers after having earned various coaching positions all around the league, while Paul is the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh and Rick served as commissioner of the Mid-American Conference until 2009.
While Geep’s coaching experience has paid dividends in the development of Keller’s football career by exposing him to different professional athletes and facilities around the nation, the extent to which Geep as a coach has shaped Keller’s football experience has largely stopped there.
“It’s not as much [of a conflict between the coach and father identities] as many people think,” Chryst said. “Lots of people think he’s giving me information the whole time, that he’s feeding me in the whole time, but he’s around as more of a dad than he is as a coach.”
“He keeps that separate probably better than most,” added Palo Alto head coach and athletic director Earl Hansen. “He’s a family man when he’s at home; he’s a coach when he’s with the 49ers.”
While the advantages that arise from Geep’s position are certainly there, it has also been a disadvantage for Keller; the necessity for the family to relocate with Geep’s every coaching change meant that Keller was unable to settle down anywhere he has lived for any significant amount of time.
Since 1996, Geep has been employed by the Arizona Cardinals, the San Diego Chargers, the Cardinals again, the Carolina Panthers and the San Francisco 49ers. Not only have those many moves made Keller self-proclaimed introvert and “quiet guy,” but they have also forced him to adapt to many different styles of play within several different coaching styles throughout his football upbringing.
“My junior year in high school was the first year since fourth grade in playing football that I’d ever run the same offense back to back,” Keller said. “So I’ve been constantly adapting, getting new friends, building new teammates and stuff like that, too, so I’m kind of used to change and it’s just something I have to live with.”
“[It’s helped with] just being able to adapt on the field depending on where the defense is lined, or specific coverage or a specific formation, too,” Keller added. “Just being able to adapt to in-game situations.”
Before he started playing quarterback in eighth and ninth grade, Keller had played almost every position on the football field: safety, nose guard, tight end, receiver, running back. (“Pretty much everything but the offensive line,” he said with a grin.) But despite his relative inexperience at quarterback when he first started, Keller’s incredible work ethic sped his development. Not only did he take advantage of that on the football field; he also took that to heart in his everyday life, to the point where a quiet but fierce intensity governs everything Keller does.
“He has a lot of natural ability, but it all stems from the fact that he works at it,” Hansen said. “He works to be good. He comes in to lift every day. He studies film, makes sure to keep up on our opponents. He checks up, he self-evaluates.”
“I feel like if I’m wasting time doing something, I’m kind of OCD, so I feel like I should be doing something to make myself better,” Keller said.
When he moved from North Carolina to the Bay Area before the start of the 2011 football season and became the starting quarterback for the Vikings, Keller’s intense drive, his natural physical prowess and his football instincts immediately put him on the radar as one of the standout high school quarterbacks in the country.
During his sophomore year, his first season starting at quarterback for the Vikings, Keller threw for 2,165 yards and 28 touchdowns as he led the team to an 8-2 regular season. Despite the gaudy numbers, however, Keller thought he struggled that year, particularly in a 20-6 win against Leland in the first round of the playoffs.
In that game, Chryst shouldered the burden of returning the Vikings to relevance after a deep run in the state tournament the year before. And a terrible first half — one in which he threw four interceptions and the Vikings were shut out as a result — put those goals into doubt.
“I was a sophomore, and I’d just moved here, and the team had just come off state,” Chryst said. “I felt like I’d let everyone down, and I just had to pull that aside and focus on what was in front of me … I thought to myself, ‘It’s over. You’ve got a whole half to play. You’re only down six.’”
The mental solidarity certainly helped Chryst through the rest of the game, as he connected on two touchdown passes to come from behind and pull out a victory that not only propelled the team into the next round of the playoffs, but also consolidated Keller’s status at the helm of the team.
After that, Chryst didn’t look back. Through the next two years, he would build on that experience as he went on to be one of the most talented quarterbacks that Palo Alto High School had ever seen, finishing his career with 7,326 passing yards and 84 touchdowns.
Although his standout performance caught the eye of many football powerhouse programs around the nation when the time came to choose a school, Chryst maintained that the decision to choose Stanford was an easy one — although he did give a “fair shot” to USC and Alabama, as well.
“He didn’t really crave [the attention],” Hansen said. “He didn’t go on all of his recruiting trips. He knew where he wanted to go. He made his decision, signed with Stanford.”
At Stanford, the memory of Andrew Luck still remains fresh.
Cardinal fans won’t easily forget the image of the quarterback finding a hole in the line and exploiting it with his powerful legs and frame to bowl over defenders in order to pick up extra yardage.
Cardinal fans won’t easily forget the image of the quarterback launching improbably accurate throws to receivers as if they had been fired from a cannon.
Cardinal fans won’t easily forget the image of the quarterback that had the combination of raw instinct for the game and football knowledge that took him over the edge — seemingly always knowing where the open receiver was or where his offense matched up favorably against the defensive alignment.
Maybe Cardinal fans won’t have the chance to forget, anyway.
One of the most striking comparisons that Chryst has drawn as of late is to the former Stanford quarterback, now leading the Indianapolis Colts on Sundays. That similarity has many Cardinal fans cautiously optimistic about the development of the incoming freshman through his Stanford career.
“He’s one of the most accurate deep throwers I’ve ever had,” Hansen said. “It’s not just the strength. I’ve had a lot of guys that can throw the ball 60 yards, but they don’t know where it’s going. Keller can put it right where he wants to.”
That arm strength, Chryst’s main calling card, has helped him thrive in the pocket-passing-heavy, West Coast offense that the more traditional Hansen runs at Palo Alto. However, despite the fact that designed quarterback runs don’t really have a significant niche in such an offensive system, another of the factors that has differentiated Chryst from the pocket-passers in his class has been his mobility under pressure, which allows to pick up yardage and keep plays alive for his receivers to get open.
That mobility is due to both his natural athletic ability and his large frame; he stands at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, eerily reminiscent of Luck’s 6-foot-4, 234-pound body.
“I’m obviously not going to break an 80-yard touchdown run like Johnny Manziel,” Chryst said with a laugh. “But I’ll make a few plays with my feet once in a while, just being in the West Coast system, where there’s so many options and you take what the defense gives you.”
However, while being able to scramble and take on second-level defenders in high school is one thing, doing the same in a primetime conference like the Pac-12 represents a much more advanced challenge. While Chryst has the physical abilities to adjust to the new level of competition, mastering the mental element of the game and catching up to the speed of college defenders that will present difficulty. That said, Hansen believes Chryst is more than prepared for that challenge.
“He’s going to have to get used to that speed,” said the coach. “I don’t believe that’s going to be an issue. He’s not going to go over there and be overwhelmed because they’re so big.”
With the elevation of the level of the game comes a mental adjustment that needs to be made as well. In high school, Chryst was able to rely on his superior physical prowess to make plays even in the most difficult of situations, but that physical advantage will not be as pronounced at the collegiate level. Because of that, he will need to accept the idea that he won’t always be able to make something happen.
“He’s not a finished product yet,” Hansen said. “He has to understand the situations much better and try not to make a play every play. That’s what he did in high school, and he was head and shoulders better than anybody in our league, but he thought that he could make a play every play and it’s not realistic. Sometimes you have to fold.”
At Stanford, where he will almost certainly redshirt his freshman season while Hogan starts for a third straight year, there will be plenty of time to develop that maturity and turn a diamond in the rough into a gem.
And that gem certainly has the potential to twinkle in the limelight.
“I just feel that Keller fits with Andrew Luck a lot,” said KeeSean Johnson, Chryst’s leading wide receiver at Palo Alto. “Luck might be able to run a little faster than Keller, but when Keller needs to make a big play on his feet, he can. And the passing game — once he gets to that level, he might be a little better at the passing level than Luck.”
When asked about the comparison of his skillset to any NFL quarterback, Chryst chuckled.
“I’m not going to say Luck,” he said immediately. “If I get my running game up a little bit better I could become more like Andrew Luck, but I see myself in between Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning.”
Even with the comparisons to Stanford fans’ favorite quarterback, Chryst is quick to maintain the humility that has defined his character throughout his career.
“I’m just a regular class of 2014 guy coming in; a true freshman coming in just like the other guys,” he said. “I’ve got to work hard and I’ve just got to pay my dues.”
Making the mental, physical and emotional adjustments to college is an enormous hurdle for any football player. But for Chryst, that transition will mean more than just adjusting to the bigger and faster college game and learning how to handle the media.
In order for Chryst to be successful, he will have to complete the process of emerging from his shell and fully taking on the personality of a leader, both on and off the field. At the college and professional levels, being a quarterback isn’t just about making the throws and putting up points. It’s also about becoming the focal point of the team and being a leader in the huddle and on the sidelines.
Put simply, Chryst will have to overcome his natural introversion.
“I’m kind of a quiet guy,” Chryst said with a smile. “When I first started playing quarterback … I was kind of quiet and didn’t really want to boss people around, be a leader and express myself.”
That quietness didn’t go unnoticed by his new coach and teammates at Palo Alto High. At first, Chryst’s quiet off-the-field demeanor was also reflected in his more reserved direction of the offense. However, as Chryst quickly learned about the demanding leadership requirements of the quarterback job, he strived to become a more vocal presence on the offense and to open up to his teammates as well. As his bonds with his new friends and his comfort with the environment and expectations grew, so did his intensity on the field.
“When he first came here, Keller was really quiet, not talking a lot,” Johnson said. “And then he finally opened up. He started cracking jokes with us and being funny. And then on the field, there’s a totally different Keller. As soon as we hit the field, there’s no fun and games. It’s all seriousness.”
“That’s probably one of the things over the last three years that he’s really improved on: his leadership,” Hansen added.
But as far as he has come in that regard, Chryst, a self-described perfectionist, knows that the work that he has done in high school is just the basis for a bigger transition that he needs to make into leading at the collegiate level — and maybe beyond.
In terms of knowing what is required of him at the collegiate level, Chryst has a leg up on his competition due to the various opportunities afforded to him in high school. Chryst worked out at the training camps of both the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers when his father worked for each of the franchises. In addition, he was able to interact with many talented collegiate quarterbacks — including Tajh Boyd of Clemson, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and David Fales of San Jose State — at the Elite 11 finals at The Opening in Portland, Oregon last summer. By interacting with quarterbacks that have already experienced the challenges that he will face as a collegiate leader, Chryst feels that he already has a good idea of what he will need to do in order to succeed.
“I’m going to be a young guy; I’m going to have to be talking in the huddle to older guys,” Chryst said. “I hate to say it, but even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you need to look like you do know what you’re doing, and you’ve got to have command of the huddle. You’ve got to have sternness and authority.”
As he transitions from his comfort zone to yet another new situation, however, Chryst is more confident and experienced after all of the progress that he has made in the last three years at Palo Alto. He has already begun to interact with his new teammates at Stanford in a way that the Keller Chryst of three years ago would likely not have been able to. In doing so, he is building a solid foundation on which he can realize his fullest leadership potential on a new stage at Stanford.
“When I met the incoming [class of] 2014 guys in January, I think I really clicked with them and I kind of got out of my introvert-type self,” Chryst said. “I felt like we’re so like-minded in everything we do that it was easy.”
And if he is able to fully gel with his teammates at Stanford and develop the full leadership mindset to complement his extraordinary physical talent, there’s no telling how far Keller Chryst could go.
“I believe that Keller can end up going all the way [to the NFL],” Johnson said. “As far as you would want to with a football career.”
For a stellar leader on the field, it doesn’t matter how bright the lights shine, how heavy the burden is, how tough the scrutiny is or how high the stakes are. It doesn’t matter whether there are 2,348 fans or 51,424. Because for a leader, the only things that matter are the 10 other people taking the field and his ability to spearhead their collective pursuit for perfection. And Keller Chryst is no stranger to pursuing perfection.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 'at' Stanford.edu.