Keller's grateful comeback: CMU quarterback begins journey back to the field after being shot

John Keller poses for a photo on Sun. Oct. 10 in Moore Hall.

Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

Sophomore John Keller exits the Chippewa Champion Center and steps onto the field at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. As the sun shined on the Central Michigan University quarterback donning his maroon No. 8 jersey, he walks to the sideline with obvious excitement. Not only was it the Chippewas home opener against Robert Morris, but it was Keller's first CMU game with fans in the stands. 

To many CMU football fans, Keller's appearance may seem ordinary. But to Keller, his family, friends and teammates it was they beginning of a new chapter. They couldn't have been happier to see him back on the field, especially after the emotional, physical and mental trek he endured for the past four and a half months. 

Keller's life changed in an instant on the night of Friday, April 24 after he took a bullet through his chest. Both of his lungs collapsed. His pulmonary artery was permanently damaged as the bullet pierced through one of his lungs and out his back. 

With one squeeze of a trigger, Keller’s biggest challenge was no longer competing to be starting quarterback. His fight was using every ounce of his strength to live.

"It was a nightmare"

“I don’t even remember waking up the first time (after the incident)," Keller said. 

What started as a simple party with friends in Deerfield Village Apartments quickly turned sour when a fight broke out. Two people, who were in Mount Pleasant to enjoy the bar scene, crashed the party and were ultimately kicked out. 

One grabbed a gun and shot at both Keller and 23-year-old Tyler Bunting, wounding the latter and leaving Keller on the ground. 

Keller was rushed to a Mount Pleasant hospital to be stabilized and later air lifted to Hurley Trauma Center in Flint, the only level 1 trauma center that serves mid-Michigan, northern Michigan and the thumb areas.

"I just remember I was in the hospital and I didn’t know why I was there," Keller said. "I thought I was sick if I’m being honest.

“I didn’t know why I was there until two weeks after.” 

The incident left the Mount Pleasant community, and the CMU football team, in a state of shock.

"It shakes you when it comes to the core of people that you are so closely involved with," said head coach Jim McElwain in an April 26 press conference. "Part of being in Mount Pleasant is that kind of stuff happens elsewhere and not here."

Kenneth Thomas of Farmington Hills was arrested by the Isabella County Sheriff’s Office in connection with the shooting. He is currently facing 10 felony counts, arraigned on Aug. 2 and will appear before a jury in January 2022. 

Keller's parents, Ray and Maria, received a phone call shortly after the incident occurred. What they heard next was a parent's worst nightmare: Their child was shot and fighting for his life. The couple dashed out the door and made the venture from Canton, Ohio to Flint to be at their son's side. 

"It was a nightmare," Ray said to ESPN. "The (whole) month was a nightmare."

John does not hold a grudge against what happened during the life-altering April evening. Instead, he attacks his situation with unwavering optimism. 

“You can either let it destroy you or let it make you,” Keller said.

Keller has always been interested in understanding mental health. While in the hospital, he read Jay Shetty's To Think Like a Monk. The book discusses overcoming negative thoughts and habits, and looking for calm and purpose in life.

While some days were better than others, Keller was finally able to return to his hometown of Canton, Ohio in June.

“I was very relieved to get out of (the hospital) and finally get back on my feet,” Keller said. “I was ready to see everybody.”

Football has always been my go-to

Growing up in the same town as the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Keller's life has revolved around battling on the gridiron. His playing days started with flag football in second grade, idolizing the work ethic and competitive nature of NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

Keller was the starting quarterback at North Canton Hoover High School for three seasons. Eventually, his next step of playing collegiate football would become a reality. Schools such as Cincinnati, Akron, Marshall, West Virginia and other midwest colleges began to show interest.

Ultimately, he decided to start his collegiate career at the University of Cincinnati as a walk-on in 2018. After a year, he left the Bearcats, transferring to Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Mississippi – 975 miles away from his high school. 

“JUCO life is tough because there’s not as many rules and regulations (compared to Division I),” Keller said. “We’d have to be up at five in the morning and workout and you don’t have time to eat. It sucked.”

The Wildcats finished 3-6 in 2019. Keller did not see the field was unable to play during the season after suffering a torn MCL and patellar tendon tear during the practice prior to the season opener. Through a connection with Austin Appleby, a former quarterback at North Canton Hoover who served as an offensive analyst and quality control coach for CMU's 2019 season, Keller moved more than 1,000 miles away and transfered to CMU. 

His first practices in Mount Pleasant were challenging, but due to NCAA transfer regulations, Keller had to sit out the 2020 season. 

“I was used to college football. It’s fast paced and you’re moving around a lot," Keller said. “It was nice to be with the team and everything, but I (wish I was) out there playing.”

Being grateful

After spending the summer at his family home, Keller returned to Mount Pleasant for the 2021 fall semester. 

He arrived back to campus in late August to continue studying psychology and begin his physical therapy with CMU athletics, focusing on getting his blood flowing and regaining his strength. His rehab workouts consist of high repetition cardio workouts that help raise his heart rate in a healthy matter that last for approximately 90 minutes. 

"The thing about an injury like this is that it is not an external injury like an ACL," Keller said. "It is an internal injury; letting things on the inside heal takes more time.”

Not only did Keller get to start up with rehab at CMU, but he also finally got to be reunited with some of his closest friends, including Nick Apsey, Hunter Buczkowski, Joel Wilson, Daniel Richardson and Darius Bracy.

“I have a lot of best friends," Keller said while laughing. "I can’t say one best friend because if I say just one it’s going to go bad.” 

Being back in the football locker room with his teammates is something Keller is especially grateful for. Although he is restricted to the sidelines for the second-straight season, he still gets to be part of CMU's 2021 season, something that looked improbable in May. 

Keller won't play a snap in 2021, but he makes his presence felt in the quarterback room helping digest film and writing down plays during games.

“I love being out there with my team,” Keller said. “Just like anyone else who gets injured, you feel sad that you’re not out there playing. At the same time I’m still happy for my teammates.”

What the future holds

Despite nearly losing his life, Keller still believes CMU is the right place for him and is grateful for the support he has received. 

“I feel like CMU is family," Keller said. "I like everyone here. Everyone’s really cool and nice."

After his incident, Keller's perspective on life has changed. He does not take anything for granted. While he aims to play in 2022, Keller sees himself in either two spots: playing football or moving on to something else, such as getting involved in entrepreneurship.

He now lives by the mantra "grow seeds instead of weeds."

“A big key is to be grateful,” Keller said. “I think gratitude is what really creates fulfillment in life. Be grateful for what you have and be thankful for the people you have.

“It’s only you, and you can’t live anyone else’s life. Love your life.”