If you would have told Keegan Crafton five years ago that he’d be playing college football at this point in his life, he’d have laughed you right off the basketball court.
The 6-foot-5 Crafton was a standout basketball player and golfer for Hermiston High School, but only played football his senior year when the Bulldogs won the 2014 state title.
Now, Crafton and former Hermiston teammate Landon Clark-Gammell are seniors at College of Idaho, and have helped the Yotes to a 10-0 record, the Frontier Conference title, and a spot in the NAIA playoffs.
“It’s like the same exact team,” Crafton said of comparing the 2014 Hermiston team to College of Idaho. “It’s crazy how similar the feeling is. I’ll never forget this my whole life. The coaches are telling us to be ready, to bring the juice and let them know who the Yotes are. It’s crazy the memories that come back.”
Fifth-ranked College of Idaho beat No. 16 Ottawa (9-2) on Saturday in the first round of the NAIA playoffs at Simplot Stadium. It was the first time the teams have played one another.
“Ottawa has a really good running back, and their O-line goes three bills across the board,” said Clark-Gammell, who plays defensive end for the Yotes before the game. “I think they will have a lot to handle with our defense.”
Crafton feels the Spirit may not be up to the task of stopping the Yotes’ offense.
“They give up 170 rushing yards a game,” he said. “I don’t think they are looking for a physical game, but that’s how we play. We will not roll over. We will punch them in the mouth the whole game.”
College of Idaho, which has won 16 games in a row dating to last season, turned in its first perfect regular season since 1953 last year, and are 5-0 at home this season.
“We are super pumped to get a home game,” said Clark-Gammell who, like Crafton, is a 2015 Hermiston grad. “Who knows, we might get two. Our crowd is crazy. We average about 4,000 fans a game. The people go absolutely insane.”
Built to play football
Clark-Gammell, 23, has played football since Grid Kids. Now at 6-2, 230 pounds, he starts for the Yotes at defensive end. He said the team prides itself on its defense, which gives up an average of 17 points per game, while scoring 37.
“We’ve got a veteran group on defense,” Clark-Gammell said. “We pride ourselves on stopping the run, which opens up some blitzes. Every game, we give up less than 100 yards rushing (83.3 yards).”
Though Clark-Gammell has had a standout senior season, it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
“I came to College of Idaho right out of high school,” he said. “I had too big a head coming in. I thought I was better than what I was. We won a state title and I played in the Shrine Game, but there are a lot of those guys here. I had a talk with (Mark) Hodges (former Hermiston coach). My junior year, I got some some special teams time, and then I was seeing time on the pass rush.”
His persistence and hard work paid off.
“This year, I have started every game, and have been a captain a couple of times,” Clark-Gammell said. “It’s nice to see myself start as a scrub, to where I am now. I’m ecstatic that I stuck it out.”
Clark-Gammell has 13 solo tackles, 28 assists, and 6.5 quarterback sacks this season, along with two forced fumbles, and five quarterback hurries. The Yotes are the NAIA leader in sacks with 38.
“(David) Faaeteete was the hardest coach I ever had,” Clark-Gammell said of his former high school defensive line coach. “Now I appreciate it.”
And, he appreciates the opportunity to play.
“People don’t give NAIA or D-II or D-III much of a look,” Clark-Gammell said. “We have guys who can play. People don’t give us much credit. A lot of guys fall through the cracks, and they end up here.”
At home on the court
Like Clark-Gammell, Crafton played youth football, but once he got to high school, he put his efforts into basketball, until his senior year.
“If I could go back, I would have played (football) from my freshman year on,” Crafton said. “The spring before my senior year, coach Hodges took the time to show me how to play. He made me who I am today.”
It just took Crafton a while to get there.
After playing football his senior year, Crafton turned his attention back to basketball, earning first-team all-league honors. He then signed a letter of intent to play basketball at Wenatchee Valley College.
“I was playing quite a bit at Wenatchee, but I knew I didn’t have the skills to play at a higher level,” Crafton said. “I had talked to Landon, and he said they would be needing a tight end in a year. I took a chance and went down.”
The move did not go as smoothly as Crafton had hoped. He played behind all-conference tight end Marcus Lenhardt and felt ill-prepared for the college level.
“I thought I would never play,” Crafton said. “When I got here, I didn’t know what a Cover 1 defense was. I was intimidated. My first year, I got yelled at a lot because I didn’t know the playbook. I never thought I’d play, so it wasn’t a big deal. It was.”
Once Crafton started putting his efforts into the game, it paid dividends.
“Marcus was a senior and he was good,” Crafton said. “I watched him run routes. He helped me; that guy made me into the player I am today. I’m glad I found this place.”
Crafton, 23, is the second-leading receiver for the Yotes this year, hauling in 24 passes for 373 yards and four touchdowns.
“I have contributed all three years I have played,” he said. “There’s only been one game where I haven’t had a catch. A lot of games, I am getting double covered. If we need a first down on third-and-10, it’s very seldom that I don’t convert.”
The 6-5, 235-pound Crafton, and Connor Richardson (23-336, 4 TDs) may get a little more work thrown their way in the playoffs after leading receiver Hunter Juarez (41-811, 7 TDs) broke his foot.
“We were the three amigos,” Crafton said. “Now we are down to two amigos.”
Crafton’s size has gotten him a little interest from a few NFL teams, and with offensive lineman Josh Brown (6-7, 305) drawing an NFL crowd, Crafton said he’s shaken a few hands.
“I’ve gotten a little recognition from scouts from the Falcons, Browns, Lions and 49ers,” he said. “I hope so bad they send someone out and they want me. Being 6-5, I don’t see why I can’t get a shot.”
Until that day comes, Crafton and Clark-Gammell will focus their efforts on the game at hand.