By Christina Rivers
Brett Keisel – RDE, #99
Hometown: Greybull, Wyoming
Colleges: Brigham Young University/Snow College
Experience: 10 years
Brett Keisel has been a stable force on the dominant Pittsburgh Steelers. At defensive end, Keisel has proven to be a near-immovable mountain of a man with the ability to get to opposing quarterbacks and help stop the run.
Growing up in Greybull, Wyoming, in the middle of Big Horn County, close to the Canadian border, Keisel and his family lived in a small community. He attended Greybull High School where he was a four-year letter winner in football and basketball, two years in track. A four-time All-Conference selection, Keisel also earned All-State honors at both linebacker and tight end. Keisel was named Wyoming Player of the Year (USA Today), Sportslink Player of the Year, and Conference Player of the Year his senior year. Phil Julliard was Keisels’ football coach during Keisel’s junior and senior years at Greybull. “He was a great athlete, had quick feet, size and everything,” Julliard said of Brett. “He was very coachable and he always helped the young kids…I’m always looking for ’99.” Keisel was selected as an inductee into the 2007 class of the Wyoming Sports Hall of Fame, as athlete of the year for football.
Keisel thought about playing for the University of Wyoming in Laramie before deciding BYU was a more competitive team and redshirted his freshman year. He played defensive end his sophomore year and then transferred to nearby Snow College. Keisel told Ed Bouchette that part of the reason he made a change was because he opted out of serving a two-year mission for his church.
“After my freshman year all of my buddies were gone on missions,” Keisel said. “I didn’t know who to hang out with or anything like that because all of my buddies left. That was a struggle for me. I struggled that year and that was the reason I had to go to a junior college, because I stopped going to school and stopped doing the things I was supposed to be doing.”
When Keisel returned to BYU his senior year, he logged 66 total tackles and 19 stops behind the line of scrimmage. In addition, he had nine sacks. He was named a Super Team Selection by the NFL Draft Report and was an All-Mountain West Conference Honorable Mention.
Selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the seventh round (242nd overall) in the 2002 NFL Draft, Keisel played in five games and made four tackles. Keisel missed the entirety of the 2003 season due to a shoulder injury that required surgery. When he returned in 2004, Keisel had 13 appearances and nine tackles. 2005 was really the year that he showed what his full potential could be. He played in all 16 games and logged 33 tackles and three sacks. While continuing to be a major part of the special teams, he was a reserve defensive end as well. Against Baltimore, Keisel sacked quarterback Anthony Wright on third down during the Raven’s final offensive drive. Against the Cleveland Browns, he logged two sacks. During the AFC Championship game in Denver, in front of family and friends (including his parents, Connie and Lane Keisel), Keisel had four solo tackles and two sacks totaling a loss of 10 yards. Keisel became a member of the winning team in Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks. His mother, Connie, said, “We just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that was Brett, he did it again! What a game for him to shine in.” “You always hope that your son is going to do well,” his father, Lane Keisel remarked, “but to see him perform like that is something else.”
When Kimo von Oelhoffen left the team via free agency in 2006, Keisel was offered a four-year contract to remain with the Steelers. He earned the starting position at right defensive end, playing all 16 games. He recorded a career high 5.5 sacks and 55 tackles. Keisel and his wife, Sarah, had a son in 2008, and told Scott Brown of the Tribune-Review, “It made me realize how important my job is, to not only myself but to my family. It just made me work that much harder to be that much better of a player.” Throughout the season, the Steelers’ defense was ranked first in the league. The Steelers would go on to beat the Arizona Cardinals in Superbowl XLIII.
Keisel again signed a new contract with the Steelers in August of 2009. The move paid off. Keisel caught his first career interception and scored his first career touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3. Keisel jumped a Josh Freeman route and returned the ball 79 yards for the touchdown. That year Keisel was added to the AFC Pro Bowl roster, his first Pro Bowl selection of his career. In 2010, Keisel played in 11 regular season games due to injuries and had 33 tackles, three sacks and 1 interception that went for a 79-yard touchdown return. The Steelers would head to Texas to face the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, losing by the score of 31-25. In 2011, Keisel had 48 tackles, three sacks, six passes defended and two forced fumbles. Through week 11, Brett has started every game of the 2012 NFL Season and currently has 35 tackles, three sacks and one pass defense.
On the field, Keisel has become an icon for ‘Steeler Nation’, being nicknamed ‘Da Beard’. He earned that moniker after he’d started growing a beard during a hunting trip the summer of 2010 with his father. The beard became a signature for Brett. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Keisel said the idea was sort of a rally to change the team’s luck. Keisel’s beard now has its own Facebook page and Twitter account. ‘Da Beard’ gear, like t-shirts, has popped up for fans to wear. Following the 2010 season, Brett and Sarah, with other Steelers players and celebrity barbers, hosted the first “Shear The Beard” event for charity. It was held in the Diesel Club Lounge on Pittsburgh’s South Side. “It’s its own entity,” Ben Roethlisberger said prior to the Super Bowl. “He hides everything in there. We go hunting and he hides his decoys in there.” “The chin strap is fine,” he said. “It holds it all down tight. The worst part is hairballs in my mouth from my mouthpiece. I’m used to it now, and I have to brush it to the side and stroke it a little bit.” The proceeds from the event benefited the cancer programs at UPMC Children’s Hospital.
Brett and Sarah are very active throughout the year supporting and hosting events for charitable causes. Among events and activities with Keisel’s teammates and the Steelers organization, he and his wife also work closely with the Cystic Fibrosis (CF) Foundation and host the 65 Roses Sports Auction annually. Through the sale of Brett’s “Respect the Beard’ t-shirts, proceeds were donated to HCEF.
Both are also on the advisory board for the Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF) which tries to meet the educational needs of local homeless children. Founded in 1999 by Dr. Joseph F. Lagana, the program offers “hope through learning”. The Champions for Chilren Benefit is held annually to meet those needs. The Keisels have supported this cause since 2004. In 2011, Brett and Sarah were recognized as the HCEF Champions for Children, an annual award given for “having a significant positive impact on the lives of children and youth experiencing homelessness in Allegheny County (Pennsylvania).”
The Keisels also support ‘A Glimmer of Hope Foundation’ and the charity’s annual event called ‘Bid for Hope’. The money that is raised is used towards research for young women with breast cancer. The organization has raised more than $1 million to finance the largest premenopausal breast cancer study in the United States. Diana Napper is the founder of the Pennsylvania non-profit organization.
In June of this year, Brett organized a fishing trip for contest winners at a sporting club in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania. He told KDKA-TV, “Why not do something charitable where people can bid on coming out spending the morning fishing…you know we’re out here fishing anyways, so we might as well do something to benefit others.” An auction was held to produce the winners and the event supported the Challenge Program, Habitat for Humanity and Variety: The Children’s Charity of Pittsburgh.
In November, Brett took KDKA’s Bob Pompeani and some of his teammates out hunting for pheasants. They visited the 146-acre Alpine Hunting and Fishing Club in Bridgeville to hold a friendly competition all while raising money for Children’s Hospital.
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.