Brad Keeney is shown here in 1999 after finishing fourth in the state in Class AAA at 171 pounds for Susquehannock. (SUBMITTED)
He had never missed school, especially not during the wrestling season.
Something told Brad Keeney, though, to stay home on this winter day in January of 1998.
“I stayed home one day. My grandfather, I was hanging out with him. My grandmother was in the hospital. He was like ‘hey, let’s go up and see grandma,'” Keeney said recently. “I just felt like I was supposed to miss school that day. I never did. We went to a restaurant and we went and saw grandma.”
Upon returning to his grandfather’s Shrewsbury home later that chilly afternoon, the then-17-year-old Keeney noticed the leaves on the ground in the front yard. His 78-year-old grandfather, Joseph Keeney, went inside while Brad stayed out for a few minutes to clean up the yard.
Susquehannock coach Brad Keeney talks to one of his wrestlers during a recent match. The Warriors are enjoying a turnaround season under Keeney and currently boast a 12-7 record, which is the Warriors’ most wins since the 1992-1993 season. (BIL BOWDEN — For The York Dispatch)
“When I came home I decided to sweep his leaves up while he (my grandfather) was inside,” Brad said. “When I came back in he was dead.”
Brad found his grandfather unresponsive in the kitchen. Brad laid him on the floor and immediately began an attempt to resuscitate him. He also called 9-1-1, followed by an immediate phone call to his dad, Jan, who lived just up the road.
“He must have sprinted,” Brad said of his dad. “He came in and when I saw his reaction … I couldn’t talk for months.”
Brad’s grandfather died of a heart attack.
“I felt like it was my fault,” Brad said. “It was my fault he died because I was the last one that was with him. I was supposed to take care of him. I couldn’t have been out there for two minutes.”
‘You achieve what you believe': Brad Keeney, now 34, stood in the middle of the wrestling room at Susquehannock Middle School on a Friday night in January a couple weeks ago. The second-year coach of the Susquehannock varsity wrestling team was surrounded by about two dozen of his high school wrestlers, forming a large circle around the coach with 45-pound plates laying on the wrestling mats in front of them. A grueling practice neared an end, and Keeney paced back-and-forth in front of his wrestlers, about to challenge them to finish strong.
“The bottom line is this. You achieve what you believe before you walk on the mat. Bottom line, the guy who wins the state title and the guy who gets second, the guy who wins is the guy who knew he was gonna win before he went out on the mat,” Keeney said. “I don’t care what anybody says. I wrestled at that level in college. I can you tell you right now the only difference in any match is who believes they can win. Who truly believes they can win. Who doesn’t hesitate when they shoot. That’s the guy who wins the match. What makes you get that tough? There’s only one thing. What makes you get confidence? What is it?”
One of his wrestlers answered: “Hard work.”
Susquehannock is quietly in the midst of one of its best seasons in a while. To this point, the Warriors are 12-7 overall, marking the most overall wins for the program since the 1992-93 campaign (12-5-1). Susquehannock finished its York-Adams schedule with a 3-3 Division II record, the most league wins since the 2002-03 season (4-4 league). It should be noted here Susquehannock would’ve been 4-2 in league action had it not lost its league opener against York Suburban on criteria when the match ended in a 33-all tie, with the Trojans getting credit for the win on the eighth criteria — or tiebreaker H, for the most points scored in bouts.
Susquehannock has two regular-season matches remaining at Shippensburg later this week and at York Tech on Feb. 3. Win both of those and the Warriors can get to 14 regular-season victories for the first time since 1989.
And Keeney, a 1999 Susquehannock grad, is the man leading the charge in bringing Susquehannock out from the cellar. It’s a man he’s become through the unexpected twists and turns he’s faced in his life, from Glen Rock to Michigan and back. And a man he says has been molded by his faith in God.
‘I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat': The accompanying thoughts of guilt that Keeney felt following his grandfather’s death stayed with him for months.
“I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I tried to go to school. I felt like I was responsible for his death,” Keeney said. “So when I would go to school I’d just sit in class and I’d have to cry.”
Keeney says he grew up attending church in Shrewsbury every Sunday with his mom, dad and older brother. However, it wasn’t until his grandfather’s passing when Keeney truly felt God at work.
“My mom was like my prayer warrior. My dad has always been a real humble, quiet person. He would just come in and say ‘it wasn’t your fault, buddy. You don’t need to think that.’ I knew he was struggling himself. He never let me see him cry. That’s my dad,” Keeney said. “Anyway, my mom told me ‘listen, God wants to take your burdens.’ I said ‘OK.’ She said ‘just pray with me.’ I don’t know. You feel weird things. People say God’s not real. Bull crap. We prayed together and right after that I could sleep. I felt it come out of me. That really convinced me that God is real.”
His conscience finally clear, Keeney completed that 1997-98 season wrestling strong, finishing as a District 3-AAA runner-up and qualifying for the state tournament — following in the footsteps of his dad, who had wrestled in states for Susquehannock in the 1970s.
Jan Keeney was also the one to suggest Brad try wrestling in elementary school.
“I played basketball every year and I fouled out every single game,” Brad Keeney said. “My dad goes, ‘you’re wrestling.'”
In his senior year at Susquehannock, Keeney became a two-time District 3-AAA runner-up and placed fourth at states at 171 pounds in 1999. A framed picture of Keeney with the fourth-place medal around his neck, and his face battered and bruised, still hangs on the wall in the wrestling room, collecting dust in between other framed pictures of former Susquehannock state qualifiers.
Keeney’s performance grabbed the attention of several college coaches, and he quickly settled on wrestling collegiately for Eastern Michigan University, where he would meet his eventual wife, the same woman who would play a vital role in getting his life back on track following a career-ending back injury.
‘I broke three bones in my back': The injury came in the middle of a match during Keeney’s redshirt sophomore season at Eastern Michigan.
“He rolled. I tried to roll with him and I hit the back of my head on the mat. I broke three bones in my back,” Keeney said. “I wasn’t paralyzed. It hurt. I felt it immediately. The match was over. I walked off to the side. I was fine. It didn’t sever my spine or anything. It cracked one of my vertebrae in half. It didn’t shatter. It hurt. Don’t get me wrong. It hurt but I felt OK. I felt a tingling in my butt. I get up and walk over to the bleachers. I laid down and when I tried to get back up I couldn’t walk.”
Keeney is still able to “roll around” today, but takes it easy on the mat, although doctors have told him he might need back surgery later in life.
At the time of the injury, though, it caused him to lose contact with fellow student-athletes as part of Athletes In Action, an organization that provides an opportunity for student-athletes to use sports as a platform to share fellowship in, and answer questions about, Jesus Christ.
“I couldn’t wrestle anymore. I kinda got off the path a little bit,” Keeney said of losing his faith. “You don’t realize how much God is in control until you’re not in control. When you get to a point when you’re not in control you know it’s time to get back in. I didn’t really experience anything massive when I was off my walk. Little things would happen, whether it’d be with a job or place to live. It was one of those things when God was there, things would work out.”
Fortunately for Keeney, his girlfriend, and now wife, “straightened him out” and got his relationship with God steered back in the right direction.
‘That was the stupidest thing I ever did was coach that year': Following graduation from Eastern Michigan in 2005 — with a bachelor’s degree in special education and minor in psychology — Keeney felt he had it all only five years later. He worked full time as a high school teacher in Michigan. His wife had recently given birth to their second child. And he led powerhouse Oxford (Mich.) High School to the All-Oakland County Division 1 team state wrestling title in the 2010-11 season in his first year as a head coach.
In the week following the wrestling season, though, everything changed. There were problems Keeney needed to take care of at home. The only solution was to move back to York County.
A year later, Keeney was the head coach of Red Lion, taking over for Biff Walizer, who led the Lions to a share of the York-Adams League Division I title four times, compiling a 66-17 record in Division I matches in the last 10 of his 12 years as head coach. Although nowhere near the level of Oxford, pressures were still tense for Keeney to live up to the high bar set by Walizer at Red Lion.
On Jan. 3, 2012, Keeney exited the visiting locker room at Dover High School and walked back into the gymnasium, now nearly empty, to take a seat on the first row of wooden bleachers. Red Lion lost that night, 37-27, to drop to 2-3 in league action.
“We have to be going the other way now,” Keeney had said following the loss. “We have to get our kids to the point where they’re hungry for that win. I think some of our kids are there, but they’re not all on board yet.”
Coaches don’t like to lose, of course. But Keeney seemed especially upset that night, bending over at one point to put his head in his hands, defeated. What we didn’t know, however, was that the problems at home, the ones he moved back to York County to fix, were still broken.
“That’s why at Red Lion I wasn’t able to do much,” Keeney said.
Keeney requested the details of those problems at home be left out of this story. But just know he was dealing with them during the 2011-12 season, when Red Lion went 4-6 in league action, marking the first losing record in league competition for Red Lion in 11 years. After only one year at the helm of Red Lion, Keeney immediately resigned at the conclusion of the season.
“That was the stupidest thing I ever did was coach that year,” Keeney said. “From a family standpoint that’s the stupidest thing I did. And I was miserable because I didn’t have a teaching job yet. I (originally) said: ‘OK, if I get my head in the door somehow (at Red Lion) maybe I can get a job.’ The only thing they had was a long-term sub (at Red Lion) and that fell through. So then going back and forth from home (in Shrewsbury) to Red Lion was a mess.”
‘Turning this program around': Keeney sat out from coaching the next wrestling season, mainly to resolve things back home. He wouldn’t stay away for long, though. At the end of the 2012-13 wrestling season, the head coaching position at Susquehannock opened up. Keeney was immediately interested.
The coaching opportunity felt right this time. Keeney lives in Shrewsbury — he and his wife now have three daughters ages 2, 4 and 7 — and works full-time as a special education teacher at Susquehannock High School. It’s a career he’s had a passion for since having a best friend in high school with cerebral palsy.
With the problems back home resolved, Keeney couldn’t pass up on the chance to coach his alma mater. Sure, it may have been a challenge. It was the complete opposite of Oxford, a program with a winning tradition respected for consistently dominating opponents on the mat. Instead, Keeney would have to take over a program with a losing tradition and try to build Susquehannock into a winner.
He heard of stories of the program in its heyday, though. Of Doug Krebs, Susquehannock’s lone state champion, winning it all at 145 pounds in 1975. He’s heard of the 11- and 12-win seasons in league action by Susquehannock and second-place finishes in the standings behind Dallastown in the 1980s. He knows of the York-Adams Division I title the Warriors split with West York and Spring Grove in 1991-92. If the Warriors could do it before, why couldn’t they do it again? Keeney took the gig in April 2013. And the changes he implemented were immediately noticed.
“My sophomore year before Keeney got here we were so used to losing seasons,” said Collin Riley, now a senior starter for Susquehannock. “We weren’t worried about winning or losing. It was more about an individual sport at that point. As soon as Keeney got here, he made it a team sport again. It wasn’t about individuals. It was about turning this program around.”
Susquehannock won eight matches overall and went 1-9 in league action in Keeney’s first season a year ago. A pair of seniors also competed in the individual District 3-AAA Tournament.
“It had been years since they won a match,” Keeney said. “So the first thing was just getting the kids confident enough to feel like ‘hey, we can win a match.’ And a big thing was just getting numbers. Prior to me getting here, they struggled to put a full lineup together, and a full lineup of kids that actually wrestled before.”
About 25 wrestlers make up the varsity and junior varsity this season. And Keeney says the numbers at the junior high and youth levels are encouraging. Plus, he feels the right coaches are in place alongside him on varsity and at those lower levels — including former Susquehannock state qualifier Eric Shive — to better prepare those wrestlers.
‘We’re the new Warriors': On Jan. 13, the Dover wrestling team arrived in Glen Rock with perfect 3-0 league record and appeared to be the favorites to win this year’s York-Adams Division II title.
“I’ll be honest. Walking into the match I told the kids ‘we can win this.’ In my mind I don’t know if I believed it or not,” Keeney said.
Before every home match, the Susquehannock wrestlers gather in Keeney’s classroom, sometimes to watch a funny movie or just hang out — a method Keeney is employing in an attempt to break his wrestlers of being nervous before a match.
“We started talking and they came together and they were like: ‘We’re gonna do this for each other. This isn’t about my record, this isn’t about your record. When you’re out there wrestling and you’re in a bad position, you’re gonna get out of it for him. For him not for you,'” Keeney said. “And that’s what they did.”
With a starting lineup consisting of three freshmen, six sophomores and four seniors, the Warriors proceeded to win seven of the first nine bouts of the match and went on to beat Dover, 37-24, handing the Eagles their first league loss of the year.
“We knew we were underdogs,” Riley said of the win. “We have been underdogs the whole season. To go out there and get a win like that by that many points, that was pretty great. Everyone had a great match. I don’t think anyone wrestled sloppy or anything. That was us saying: ‘We’re here. We’re here to turn it around. We’re the new Warriors.'”
Keeney, meanwhile, feels God has put him in the position he was supposed to be in all along — at the first place he ever called home.
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride there’s no doubt about it. I thought I had a home up there at Oxford. Not just from a coaching standpoint. It was a great school,” said Keeney, who still has a Michigan area code for his cell phone number. “Things happen that change your life. But happiness does not depend on where I’m living. We threw it up to God and said ‘where should we go?’ It’s strange. I never thought I’d be back in the school I graduated from. To go back and have teachers I had and build that professional relationship with them these are the times if you find if you’re strong in faith or not. I feel like when I look at it, things worked out. The program (Susquehannock wrestling) was definitely not in a great spot. If there’s anything that I can do to help it, that’s what I want to do.”
— Reach John Walk at firstname.lastname@example.org.