by nathan oster
Zack Keisel became the latest Greybull High School student-athlete to sign a national letter of intent Thursday when he put pen to paper finalizing his commitment to play college football at Dickinson (N.D.) State University.
A senior at GHS, Zack was a four-year starter for the Buffs who capped his prep career by earning all-conference, all-state and Super 25 honors last fall. He is the son of Chad and Jamie Keisel and the nephew of longtime Pittsburgh Steeler defensive lineman Brett Keisel.
Zack said even though he was “pretty good” at football as a kid and enjoyed playing with his family and seeing his uncle’s success, he didn’t make playing at the collegiate level a goal until his freshman year.
“It kind of hit me when I was a freshman: ‘Hey, this is serious and I love this sport,’ Playing with all the dudes and being on the team, it was just an amazing feeling. I want to keep playing, keep building relationships and keep winning.”
Zack had to overcome some adversity along the way. A sophomore at the time, he was on the field in Laramie with his Greybull teammates, facing Big Horn for the 2A title in November of 2016, when he suffered a devastating knee injury in the early moments of that contest.
Big Horn went on to win, 28-20. A month later, Zack underwent surgery. He’d completely torn his ACL and his medial meniscus and partially torn his lateral meniscus. It took almost 10 months of intense rehab for him to be cleared to return to football activities.
“To be honest, there were points where I was like, ‘I don’t know if it’s worth it.’ That’s how low I got,” Zack recalled. “It was awful, going to Cody three to four times a week, each time for like an hour-long session, and doing it for six months.”
He got cleared to return just after football started his junior year, but it took awhile for him to feel like his former self. “Just learning to trust the knee was the big thing,” he said. “There were times in games when I’d go to cut and I’d cut with both legs, so I wouldn’t have to put all my weight on the one leg.” He was wearing a knee brace, too, which didn’t help.
But the brace was missing when he took the field this past fall to begin his senior season. So, too, were the doubts about his knee. “It was incredible … I felt so much better,” he said.
On the field, he was a monster. “Anything that we needed, he did,” said Coach Eli Moody. “Running back, tight end, punter, kicker … we used him all over the place.”
College coaches took note. Zack said he received offers from five different schools — the University of Wyoming wasn’t among them — and that in the end, it came down to Dickinson State and Chadron State, which in recent years has landed commitments from Calder Forcella and Riley Hill.
Zack said he chose Dickinson because of its coaching staff and the impression they and the Blue Hawk players made on him during his visit to the campus. “All the players were all in, there was no messing around. It was football, but it was fun. I felt at home there.”
Michael McGuire led the recruiting charge for DSU. A Greybull native, McGuire spent many years at Big Horn and was on the other sideline in the 2016 title game when Keisel went down with the knee injury. He left Big Horn last spring to become DSU’s offensive coordinator.
“He was a very important part of that team and I know how special that day was to him and the community,” said McGuire. “He’s had a great attitude through it all and built himself into a great leader and player.”
McGuire said landing Zack was a priority of his since last summer, when Zack attended a football camp at DSU. “It was there that we got to see all the intangibles that he possesses,” said McGuire. “You can see on film how good a player he is, but at camp, we were able to see how he competed, how he related to his teammates and how he took instruction.”
McGuire said Zack was recruited as a linebacker and “has great potential there because of his size, speed and physicality.” DSU prefers its freshmen to redshirt, but McGuire said, “We won’t know for sure until fall camp.”
Moody, who played college football at UW, is confident that Zack has what it takes.
“As soon as he gets the plays down, he’s getting in games,” he predicted.
Zack credited his father, his uncle and a number of current and former football coaches at GHS — including Kent Dempsey and Jeff Hunt, to name just a couple — for his success on the football field.
Hunt, who coordinated the defense for the Buffs, called Zack “the most naturally talented kid I’ve ever coached in football.
“He sees things so naturally at that linebacker spot because of his instincts. If we blitzed him, nobody touched him. He has such a good feel for the game itself. He can set the tone. He can set the flow of the game. He was an awesome leader for us.”