Gunner Kiel confident in his call

COLUMBUS, Ind. -- Stuck to a filing shelf stacked with documents about offseason camps, fund raising and bus requests, an inconspicuous, yellow Post-it note contains the secrets that Gunner Kiel held so tightly for months.

Kiel, the nation's No. 2 quarterback and No. 20 overall prospect, you see, used this system to update his list of college options -- all as fans and coaches at dozens of football heavyweight programs romanticized his decision.

He'd visit a school with his parents and call Bob Gaddis, coach at Kiel's Columbus East High School. Gaddis would add names to the list on a sticky, three-inch by three-inch paper in his office.

Northwestern. Stanford. Michigan State. Boston College. TCU.

They all wanted him.

Missouri. Oklahoma. Iowa. Alabama. Florida.

Months passed. Kiel agonized over his choice, visiting some campuses repeatedly.

Purdue. Tennessee. Georgia. Cincinnati. Virginia.

Gaddis stayed near his phone. When Gunner called, they'd talk. Gaddis would circle a school or strike it with a line. A check mark meant the program stayed in play.

Notre Dame. Michigan. Illinois. Florida State. Southern Cal.

Kiel wanted to decide in early June, then late June, which became July. Two weeks ago, the strong-armed, 6-foot-3 high school senior drove west on Indiana State Road 46 -- a winding path through the Yellowwood State Forest -- to Bloomington, less than 45 miles from Kiel's home, and accepted the Hoosiers' scholarship offer.

On the way back, Gunner called Gaddis. The Post-it note worked.

"I think everybody was a little bit shocked," said Luke Hampton, Kiel's top receiver at Columbus East and a teammate since grade school. "But I wasn't. I talked to him about schools. I think he made a great decision."

The choice came down to Indiana over Alabama. Oklahoma and Missouri followed closely.

"I don't see how he turned them down, myself," said Gunner's father Kip Kiel, ever adorned in Indiana clothing, what with his second-oldest of three sons, Dusty, set to contend for the starting QB job as a sophomore this month in Bloomington. "There's a lot of things Gunner had to think about in that decision.

"Some people still think he's crazy, but I'm happy for him."

But why Indiana, which went 1-7 in the Big Ten last year and surrendered 83 points in a November loss to Wisconsin?

Kiel and the people close to him prefer a different question: Why not Indiana?

The Hoosiers have nowhere to go but up under first-year coach Kevin Wilson and his energetic staff. They're generating buzz, thanks in part to Kiel's pledge, and the next class of Indiana newcomers get the chance to help revitalize a program that has played in one bowl game in 17 years.

There's more than meets the eye to Kiel, notably private on all things recruiting before his commitment but never one to back away from a challenge.

The opportunity to establish a football legacy in his basketball-centric home state appeals to Gunner, yet the very idea defies his conventional procedure.

It's a complex dynamic that brews inside the mind of Kip and Aleta Kiel's youngest son.

To understand Gunner Kiel's decision, get to know Gunner.

Brothers in arms
The fair-skinned, blond-haired kid recoils at the suggestion of his future stardom in the Big Ten and beyond. He's thrown for 4,831 yards and 61 touchdowns in two years as a starter at Columbus East, but Gunner would rather talk about his teammates. Or his brothers.
Anyone but himself.

"Typical Gunner," said Gaddis, the high school coach.

Kip and Aleta dated in high school at Columbus East -- Kip as the quarterback in 1980 after his brother, Blair Kiel, led the school to its lone state title a year earlier. Aleta was a cheerleader, but they competed at everything.

"That's what we had in common," she said. "We had kids, and when they were little, it evolved from that. Whatever the game, it's always been about doing something together."

They settled a few miles away from downtown Columbus in a rural home that still sits adjacent to family farmland. This month, high stalks of corn press against the back of their lot.

With boys Drew, who played quarterback from 2008 to 2010 at Illinois State, and Dusty still young, the Kiels finished the basement at their home. The kids put holes in the drywall and destroyed ceiling panels, so Kip placed a slab of concrete out back with a basketball goal.

Later, they increased the area to nearly the size of a full court, with light standards that tower above the backboards. An old goal post appeared and then came a separate, large building with a batting cage that descends from the ceiling, a pitching machine and a set of weight benches.

Kip and Aleta Kiel never set out to manufacture quarterbacks. They just wanted an environment in which their boys could enjoy time together.

The fenced-in swimming pool adds to the idyllic setting.

"I didn't know what it was like not to be in a sport," Dusty Kiel said. "I was tossed a football as a baby."

Gunner's brothers started two years apiece before him at Columbus East. Counting the older generation that featured uncle Blair, a starter for four years at Notre Dame and six-year NFL veteran, this fall marks the 13th year since 1977 with a Kiel as the QB at the high school.

On his mother's side of the family, first cousin Katie Stam of nearby Seymour, Ind., won the Miss America pageant in 2009.

"I've had a lot of people around me that I can look up to," Gunner said. "I understand that I'm very fortunate."

Mostly, his brothers paved the way for Gunner.

"Pretty much, starting when he was in eighth grade, we were going over reads and doing everything with him that we needed to know as quarterbacks," Drew Kiel said.

Gunner learned perhaps the most important lesson from Drew, whose career at Illinois State veered off track from the start. The school burned through five offensive coordinators and two head coaches in Drew's four years. After he earned the starting job in 2009 and completed 20 of 22 passes against Eastern Illinois, a thumb injury ended his season. He never regained the position.

"Football is great and glorious, but it's not going to be around forever," said Kip Kiel, who played collegiately at Butler. "That's the message Drew gave his brothers."

It stuck with Gunner. In fact, Drew's experience helped lead Gunner to Indiana.

More than a feeling
Gunner felt right about the Hoosiers by mid-July, before he left home for a week in Malibu, Calif., at the Elite 11 finals.

"I sat down and said, 'Let's just wait a little bit and see if this feeling is real,'" Gunner said. "I wanted to know if it was going to stay. It did."

Hard to believe for those who watched his decision play out in public, but Gunner said he enjoyed the recruiting process. In addition to Wilson and the IU staff, he grew close to Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.

When he committed to Indiana, Gunner called both assistant coaches.

"It was really hard," he said, "something that no one wants to do. But at the end of the day, you can't please everybody."

The distance from home played only a minor factor; travel is not a problem for Kip, who works from home as a sales representative for a manufacturing company, or Aleta, a substitute teacher.

Not even Dusty, set to compete as a junior with his brother in 2012, placed pressure on Gunner to pick IU.

"He's worked really hard for what he's gotten," Dusty said. "He's stayed humble, and I'm looking forward to everything that's happening in his future."

Columbus, a two-high school town of 44,000 about 50 miles south of Indianapolis, feels the excitement around the youngest Kiel, too.
But even here, a sense exists that they don't grasp his rare talent.

"It's hard to believe he's this kid that you know," said Amy Elsbury, Columbus East Class of 1985 and mother of senior offensive lineman Evan Elsbury. "But it's him. My oldest son keeps telling me, 'Mom, you don't understand, this is huge.'

"I guess I just don't think of Gunner that way."

Maybe reality will hit on Aug. 26, when ESPNU televises the annual Columbus East-Columbus North game -- with Gunner reluctantly again on center stage.

The times they are a changin'
You can bet if Gunner Kiel wore shorts and bounced a round ball, they'd recognize his talent. After all, Indiana is basketball crazy.

"Probably always will be," Aleta Kiel said.

From the porch outside Wilson's office on the north end of Memorial Stadium, Assembly Hall looms a few hundred feet to the east. It's home to five national-championship banners for basketball, and everyone in Indiana knows it.

Schoolboy legends Larry Bird and Damon Bailey grew up nearby in decades past. They sold out high school gyms and played at state universities.

Indiana has produced its share of high school football talent, too. Mostly, though, stars like Rex Grossman and Jay Cutler left for college.

Not Gunner.

"I'm proud of him that he made the decision to stay here," Gaddis said, "because not a lot of guys have done that."

Wilson can't comment on Kiel, but he talks passionately about the importance of securing the top Indiana players.

"We are the state school of Indiana, and it's hard to beat your state school," the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator said. "We're going to sell that we're a great state school -- academically, athletically, the campus life, the atmosphere.

"We want to make it very hard for the best players in the state not to come here."

Wilson recruited in Indiana 20 years ago as an assistant at Miami of Ohio. The football landscape has changed dramatically, he said.

Nearly everyone agrees on the reason for it: The Indianapolis Colts.

"People used to give away tickets," Gaddis said. "Now, it's a great football environment. And it's trickled down."

Gunner's parents named him after Boomer Esiason's son, Gunnar. Esiason, in the years before Gunner Kiel was born, played for the Bengals in Cincinnati, a two-hour drive to the east.

Back then, Peyton Manning was still in high school. Manning is the star now -- not a quarterback from neighboring Ohio.

In his first game at the helm for Columbus East, Gunner played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy. A pregame photo of the sophomore QB with Manning hangs on the wall in Kip Kiel's office.

Gunner may someday pose for those pictures with kids.

"It would be an honor," he said, "something really special to be known as the guy who helped turn around Indiana football."

Some plans don't fit on a Post-it note.

Gunner snaps back to reality. He let his mind slip. Focus returns to the team.

When he's older, according to Dusty Kiel, Gunner will feel more comfortable in the spotlight. It's part of the maturation of an athlete, especially a quarterback.

"College will put him in that position," Dusty said. "He'll be forced into that role. And he'll be fine."

Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who coached the Elite 11 finals, said he admired Kiel's leadership on the field. He's far from shy around teammates. In public, Dilfer said, he noticed similarities between Gunner and a young Manning.

"Think of Peyton in his first couple years in the NFL," Dilfer said. "He was a total goofball, and now he's one of the best marketing tools in the history of sports. He's got one of the most dynamic personalities out there.

"I would say there's a lot of Peyton Manning in Gunner Kiel."

In Indiana, there's no greater compliment.

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mshermanespn@gmail.com.

Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter @mitchsherman