By Kit Ramgopal
In the fourth quarter of the rain-soaked 2011 Big Game, Stanford recovered an onside kick from Cal in the final 14 seconds to claim a 31-28 victory under the Stanford Stadium lights. Three starting Stanford quarterbacks watched the clock run down: Andrew Luck from the field, Kevin Hogan from the bench, and Keller Chryst from the bleachers.
All the Paly kids go to Big Game, according to Chryst.
It makes sense — Palo Alto High School stands just a thousand yards away from Stanford Stadium. With its red-tile roofs and sandy-faced buildings, it would melt right into the Stanford campus if not for the separation of a crosswalk.
Chryst was a sophomore in 2011, the same year he moved to Palo Alto from North Carolina and became starting quarterback for the Vikings. While senior Andrew Luck played quarterback in Big Game, high school sophomore Keller Chryst played quarterback in the 2011 “Little Big Game,” when Palo Alto earned a 45-14 victory against cross-town rival Gunn.
Chryst had been a Stanford fan since the beginning of the Jim Harbaugh era, and so he fit right in with the Paly fixation on Stanford football.
“I really started watching once Andrew Luck started playing in 2009,” Chryst says. “That’s when I really started to lock in. Like, this is the school I really want to go to.”
While the shadow of Stanford campus can sometimes be an oppressive force on Paly students, it was less so for Chryst. Stanford was just as interested in Chryst as Chryst was in Stanford.
Chryst committed to Stanford in 2013 as a four-star quarterback recruit and the top-ranked pocket passer in the nation. He finished his high school career as crown jewel of the Palo Alto football program, with 7,326 yards and 84 touchdowns — one of the best deep throwers Palo Alto had ever seen.
Despite the hype that has surrounded Chryst since he arrived in Palo Alto, he remains 6 feet and 5 inches of pure humility — a self-proclaimed introvert and “quiet guy.” In high school, he won championships wearing a jersey with his last name misspelled.
“It fit better,” Chryst said, with a laugh.
“He didn’t really crave [the attention],” Palo Alto head coach Eric 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.”
The decision was easy, but the move across the street was harder than it looks. Chryst was stepping out of one program of excellence and right into another. His senior year was 2013. That year, Gunn didn’t play a “Little Big Game” with Paly after suffering a decade-long losing streak, and Stanford broke the Big Game score record with a 63-13 victory. As Chryst moved his gear across El Camino Real, he prepared to shoulder the mantle of Stanford success, passed down from Andrew Luck to Kevin Hogan, soon to him.
Chryst has been warming up for a Stanford Big Game for five years now.
He’ll play the first snap under center for the Cardinal in Memorial Stadium on Saturday, a prospect which felt far from reach just three weeks ago. Chryst has only been starting quarterback for three of Stanford’s games so far. Up until a few weeks ago, Chryst’s most recognizable play for the Cardinal involved him replacing Kevin Hogan for one snap in 2015, only to transition to a fullback mid-play to throw a pancake block on an Arizona cornerback, allowing then-sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey space for a 25-yard gain.
Chryst was the backup quarterback for then-fifth-year senior Kevin Hogan in the 2015 season, but head coach David Shaw surprised fans when he promoted Ryan Burns, then a junior, as the starting quarterback over Chryst after sizing up his roster in spring practice.
However, Stanford stumbled in a tough midseason stretch when it lost to Washington, Washington State and Colorado. Burns was a visible target for pointing fingers, even though Stanford’s problems ran deeper than simply pass accuracy. In a 1-3 stretch, the offense contributed a meager 27 points in Pac-12 play.
“If you could see me on TV, I might have been the one booing,” Shaw said after the third loss to Colorado. “It was not good enough. Our fans deserve better. Our defense deserves better.”
Around this point, college football columnists began shouting loudly about injuries, while students admitted to their parents that their families were no longer forced to plan winter break around the Rose Bowl. Sunday morning headlines glared at Cardinal fans from cheap plastic crates like a bad hallucination.
The Sunday after the Colorado loss, Shaw informed Chryst that he would be replacing Burns as starting quarterback.
“You hate to get to this point,” Shaw said. “[But] this is the best thing right now for the offense.”
Shaw didn’t need Chryst to emulate Andrew Luck’s downfield accuracy or Kevin Hogan’s leadership. He needed Chryst because he needed a change.
Shaw says he told Chryst, “You’re not going to go out there and try to be Superman.”
This is easier said than done for Chryst, whose family consists of variations on a theme of football success. Keller’s dad, Geep Chryst, coached quarterbacks for the San Francisco 49ers. Across three generations, his paternal family members have held positions as Mid-American Conference commissioner, University of Pittsburgh head coach and University of Wisconson-Platteville athletic director, to name a few.
However, perfectionist instincts are tough on the first-year quarterback learning curve. Chryst’s numbers weren’t exactly popping off the page in the first two games he started, against Arizona and Oregon State. He averaged 82 yards a game, totaling only 60 yards the second week against Oregon State.
“I was definitely hard on myself,” Chryst admitted.
However, Oregon saw a whole new Keller Chryst. Despite the buzzing dark-green hostility in the Ducks fan section of Autzen Stadium, Chryst looked at home in the pocket for the first time last week. He completed 19 of 26 passes against the Ducks defense, including three touchdowns, one of which was a 61-yard pass to sophomore receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
“When he gets comfortable, there’s not a better guy out there,” Christian McCaffrey said after the game. “Watching him develop is something special.”
“I’ll tell you what, nobody’s working harder.” Shaw agreed in the press conference before Big Game. “Nobody wants it more, nobody’s pushing himself harder than Keller.”
Even though Stanford has won Big Game for the last six years in a row, the statistical differences between Cal and Stanford are less prominent than they have been the last five years. Some analysts have predicted that the 2016 match-up will be Cal’s best chance to take the Axe since 2011’s narrow Stanford victory.
However, thanks to Chryst’s improvements, any reasonable college fan is inclined to argue the deck is finally shuffled in Stanford’s favor this game. The Cardinal are coming off of a three-game win streak that began the moment McCaffrey and running back Bryce Love were both finally healthy. The offensive line looks practically born-again, and both fullback Daniel Marx and safety Zach Hoffpauir have returned to play. Meanwhile, Cal’s run defense is spotty at best — the worst sort of weakness to test against the McCaffrey/Love running game.
However, if the 2016 season has taught fans anything, it’s that roster strength alone does not win games.
“We have not been a pantheon of consistency,” Shaw warned in the press conference before Big Game. “We haven’t played well enough this season to look down on anybody for anything.”
Luckily for Shaw, Chryst is not the type to ride the statistics of his last game. Despite the recent acceleration of his college football career, he is as grounded as ever, according to roommate McCaffrey.
“He’s a very calm, low-key guy whose personality doesn’t really change based on what’s going on in the football world,” McCaffrey said, smiling. “He’s a great guy. Always has been, hasn’t changed.”
Chryst’s relaxed manner could be his greatest asset in Big Game, where the challenges of playing in Memorial Stadium extend above and beyond the 100 yards of turf.
The question remains: How different is Big Game at the end of the day? More importantly, how will Chryst adapt to the increased pressure?
As a Paly grad, he knows the energy of the rivalry better than most. The Berkeley stadium fits 63,000 fans — “underratedly crazy fans,” Chryst recalls with a laugh — color-coded and segmented into Cardinal red and California blue, polka-dotted with brass tubas. The fact that he’s only started three Stanford football games is not really a handicap for Chryst. His starting position, or lack thereof, never changed the way he trains.
“I always prepared like I was the starter,” Chryst said. “As a backup, you never know what can happen, [but] fortunately enough for me, I was able to get a chance to be able to play. So I just try to take every game like it was the first game, like I was going to be the starter.”
Chryst is last guy off the field after practice the Tuesday before Big Game. He almost always is.
At least it’s him and sophomore wide receiver Trenton Irwin, who’ll take pretty much anyone who’ll throw him a ball. The rest of the team trickles off the field, players removing their helmets one by one to shake the sweat and rain from their hair. Reporters pocket David Shaw quotes on silver recording devices as they wait impatiently for Chryst and Irwin, who are still engaged in a mesmerizing game of fetch under the white glare of practice field lights.
“This guy prepares better than a lot of people you’ll see out there,” McCaffrey said of Chryst. “When you’ve got a guy like that who prepares the way he does, nerves are kind of out of the question.”
Contact Kit Ramgopal at kramgopa ‘at’ stanford.edu.