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Wharton team, family have leaned on Keil's strength

Published:   |   Updated: November 8, 2013 at 07:45 AM

TAMPA — Jeff Keil Jr. has experienced trying moments in his young life.

Armed with inner strength and faith, he learned, one can overcome those situations.

With his team trailing 23-8 in the second half against the Bloomingdale High football team last week, the Wharton senior running back found the strength to lead his team with 101 yards and three touchdowns. His final score came with 30 seconds left in the game, giving the Wildcats a 30-23 victory and securing the program's third consecutive playoff appearance.

Two years ago, Keil's courage helped his family get through the darkest time they've known. In early 2011, Keil's father, Jeff Sr., went into kidney failure and required a transplant. If a suitable donor was not found, death would be the end result.

“It was definitely tough for me,” said the younger Keil. “Seeing my father that weak, he was my idol and was supposed to be the strongest person in my life, and seeing him fall off like that was definitely hard. He told me to step up and be the man in the house, so I tried not to show my pain and what I was going through.”

Watching his son play football at Wharton, however, distracted Jeff Sr. during his illness.

“My daughter was a cheerleader here for four years, and families have things, the sports and football activities, that hold you together,” Jeff Sr. said. “That was a big part of it, and to look back now and to not be able to see the past two years, that would have been rough.”

Jeff Sr. has been diabetic for 19 years, but the severity of his condition surfaced when he lost consciousness while driving down Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, just a few miles from Wharton. The elder Keil, a former linebacker and running back at Division III Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, drove three miles through intersections until he crashed into a stopped car at a red light. He soon started dialysis and started waiting for news on a possible organ donor.

Jeff Jr., his first-born son, offered encouragement in an unlikely way.

“I felt like I always had a better relationship with God than my family has, and seeing my dad sick like that and seeing what a blessing we had for him to still be here, because some of the messages they would preach is every day is like a blessing and you never know when it's your last, so take advantage of the opportunities.”

Jeff Sr. had a kidney transplant in April 2012. On his Christmas list that year, Jeff Jr. wrote that he wanted his family to attend church together on Christmas Eve.

“He taught me faith. My son taught me faith,” Jeff Sr. said.

Though the transplant was successful, Jeff Sr., 47, acknowledges his health problems likely won't allow him to live a lengthy life. His wish is to see his children graduate from college and to be able to attend their weddings.

“And to see touchdowns on Friday night and hopefully Saturday afternoons,” he said.

His youngest child, Mike, is a sophomore at Wharton and is next in line to be a football standout.

Jeff Jr. has rushed for 806 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. He also is the second-leading receiver for Wharton with 484 yards and four touchdowns.

Wharton (7-3) will play at Orlando Dr. Phillips in a Class 8A region quarterfinal for the third straight year on Nov. 15.

“I get a text from him every week saying this is the reason he lives,” Jeff Jr. said. “When he was sick, we all thought time was running out, and we just needed to perform because I know how much joy it gives him to watch me play. I always try to keep that in my mind to have the best game as I can, because I know it will make him happy.”

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Twitter: @NickWilliamsTBO