'We had to have him': How Central Michigan landed Lumen Christi OL Keegan Smith
Albert Karschnia climbed in his car, put his keys in the ignition and left Mount Pleasant at 3:45 a.m. on a Monday in January 2019.
He picked up a coffee in town before heading southbound on US-127. Karschnia's destination was Jackson, Michigan, just over 100 miles from where the Central Michigan football program resides.
The night before, Karschnia was texting with Lumen Christi High School coach Herb Brogan.
"I'm going to be by tomorrow, so do you have any lifts going on?" Karschnia asked, knowing he was already headed to Parma Western High to see quarterback Tyler Pape.
"Yeah, but Keegan's playing hockey right now, so he comes in with coach (Joe) Williams before school and lifts," Brogan responded. "He's usually in there around 6 a.m."
The opportunity was perfect for Karschnia.
"I'm thinking, 'Alright, let's see, let's see if he's there at 6 a.m. on a Monday,'" he said.
In search of Lumen Christi offensive lineman Keegan Smith, Karschnia pulled up to the high school at 6:02 a.m. with hopes that the three-star prospect was actually in the weight room.
Williams, the strength and conditioning coach, let Central Michigan's director of player personnel through a door in the back of the school.
Karschnia could sense the nobility of the historic program from the moment he stepped foot inside, looking up at the banners that represent a football team with 21-straight playoff appearances and 12 state championships.
But Karschnia already knew that.
He wanted to find out more about a potential addition to the Chippewas, a program in desperate need of players with a win at all cost mentality.
As Karschnia approached the weight room, he could hear the music blaring. By the time Williams tossed open the doors, he immediately saw what was needed to make a recruiting assessment on Smith.
Smith was drenched in sweat, just minutes after the clock struck 6 a.m.
“I’m watching this like, ‘Oh my god. We need this guy. I need this guy to play for us,'" Karschnia said. "That was it. I knew at that moment we had to have him.”
The offensive lineman was screaming at three other kids in the weight room – one was his younger brother, Connor Smith, who was in eighth grade at the time and benching 185 pounds.
The yelling, lifting and sweating didn't stop until Smith had to shower in order to make it to class on time.
"He hasn't missed a day, and he's usually here waiting for me," Williams said.
The 6-foot-3, 315-pound lineman encompassed everything Karschnia was looking for as a tough prospect from the Midwest.
Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain extended an offer March 12, and Smith committed June 22 and signed Dec. 18 as part of the NCAA early signing period.
"I’m blessed to be at Central Michigan," Smith said. "I felt at home there. It was very casual to me, and that's what I love."
'I was going to quit football'
Smith never had intentions of playing football at the Division I level. When he was in eighth grade, the only thing on his mind was dropping all other sports for hockey.
There are three levels of distinct classifications in youth hockey: B/BB, A/AA and AAA, which is House, Tier 2 and Tier 1, respectively.
House hockey is where there are no tryouts and everyone plays. Tier 2 is much like travel hockey, as teams that are limited to players within their specific districts are formed by tryouts. Tier 1 is the top level of play, and athletes can tryout from anywhere in the country.
Smith was set to play AAA hockey (Tier 1) upon entering high school until Brogan sat him down in his office to talk football.
"Keep playing football," Brogan said. "You're going to regret it if you don't."
Brogan expressed the opportunity for a Division I scholarship, and he said Smith could be a "hell of a player" even beyond Lumen Christi. Following a discussion with his parents, Smith decided to play high school football.
By the end of Smith's freshman season, he was at Ford Field as a starter in the MHSAA Division 6 state championship.
"He took advantage of his opportunity and didn’t look back," Williams said. "Safe to say he’s probably one of the only guys in my 35 years that was a freshman starting at Ford Field.”
Smith went again for the next three years and finished with three championships in four title appearances – only losing in 2019 – and an overall record of 49-4.
Along with three rings, Division I scholarships and much more to back up his decision to pick football over hockey, Smith also learned that his will to win trumped everything.
It was exemplified when he played his entire junior season with a hernia.
One day in July 2018, Smith rolled over in his bed with "excruciating" pain in his lower abdomen.
His mother, Marcy Smith, immediately thought it was a hernia.
And after seeing four different doctors, Marcy's thoughts about her son's health were confirmed.
"Well, you’re obviously still hurting, right?" she asked.
"Yeah," her son responded. "I’m not just making this up."
Smith had a hernia and would be forced to miss the beginning portion of the 2018 season if he went into surgery.
"I’m a tough kid, so I knew for a fact that I could play through it," Smith said. "I didn’t want my opportunity for film and recruiting to get lost."
Practicing, hitting the weights and playing on Friday nights with a hernia, Smith led Lumen Christi to its third-straight state championship.
"He loves the weight room, and he’s an extremely hard worker," Williams said. "He’s very adamant about wanting to be the best and taking his game to the next level."
Only having an offer from Bowling Green before the 2018 season, he ended up with coaches from Miami (Ohio), Eastern Michigan, Air Force, Buffalo, Ball State, Navy, Eastern Kentucky and, of course, Central Michigan pleading for his services.
Smith had surgery in December 2018, shortly after his team's 42-28 victory over Montague at Ford Field.
"I just went through the pain," Smith said. "I played the whole year, and I don’t regret it at all.”
Five months following surgery, Smith was named the Most Valuable Player of the offensive linemen at Nike's The Opening Showcase in Nashville.
'The culture was different'
Smith's interest in Central Michigan began in 2018, and he took a visit for the Sept. 8 home opener against Kansas. The Chippewas lost, 31-7, and the Jayhawks picked up their first road win since 2009.
The rising prospect was disgusted with what he saw on the field from former coach John Bonamego's team.
"I absolutely hated it," Smith said. "I was very disappointed. It was against Kansas, and the team got one first down in the first half. It was boring. The coaches didn’t talk to me a ton. The facilities weren’t all that, and they didn’t play good.
"It wasn’t somewhere I wanted to be."
Following a 1-11 season in 2018, Bonamego was fired the night of the Nov. 23 loss, 51-13, to Toledo in the finale.
"When he was up there, as a junior, he didn’t like the looks of things," Williams said. "He had the opportunity to look at it from both sides of the fence and notice there’s a new staff but a lot of the same people playing, so the culture was different."
McElwain was hired Dec. 2, and Smith's interest was rekindled.
"Man, this is a big-time coach," Smith thought to himself. "He could turn the program around by putting his twist on everything."
And McElwain did just that, delivering an 8-6 record in 2019 with a 6-2 mark in the Mid-American Conference. The team went undefeated at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, played in the MAC championship and were participants in the New Mexico Bowl.
Before committing to the Chippewas June 22, prior to McElwain's first season, Smith took back-to-back official visits to Central Michigan and Ball State after removing Miami (Ohio) from his top three.
"Miami wanted me early, and I didn’t like that," Smith said. "I wanted to take my time to see who I liked more."
He was most concerned about getting along with the respective coaching staffs. He fell in love with McElwain, strength and conditioning coach Joel Welsh and offensive line coach Mike Cummings.
Ultimately, the winning mentality McElwain's staff displayed was Smith's main draw to the Chippewas that sealed his commitment.
“Coming from our program, we were on a winning streak of 35 in a row, so he’s used to success and having that high standard," Williams said. "He’s used to people being demanding."
Smith has plenty of goals for his time at Central Michigan, but he also has a message for Nebraska, Northwestern, Missouri, LSU, Oklahoma State, Penn State and Alabama – all teams the Chippewas will play from 2020-2023.
"We’ve got the people we need," Smith said. "I don’t care who it is, if you have a good coach and work your tail off, you can beat anybody.
"We’re the underdogs. As I like to say, we’re the blue-chip boys. The country, hard-nosed kids. We can win those games."