Kyle Kempt became an all-time Cinderella story in 2017 Oklahoma-Iowa State game
October 7, 2017, dawned bright and crisp in Norman.
“It was a beautiful day,” Kyle Kempt remembers. “There's always a couple of games a year where the weather's just right.”
Those kinds of days ignite every football instinct. For players. For coaches. For fans.
But 49 Saturdays ago, Kempt didn't need a pristine day to get him juiced for football. Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night could keep Kempt's excitement from bursting. After five long years, he was getting to play quarterback in a real football game.
You know the rest. The third-team Iowa State quarterback, who had come to Ames without a scholarship and was on his third school since leaving Massillon, Ohio, engineered one of the biggest upsets in Big 12 history. Kempt threw for 343 yards and three touchdowns as Iowa State stunned the 31-point favorite Sooners 38-31.
Fast forward almost a year, to the eve of another OU-Iowa State game, this one in Ames, and Kempt's status has flipped. Now he's the Cyclone cornerstone. The leader of a program that rallied to a breakout 8-5 season in 2017. One of the few established Big 12 quarterbacks. And maybe the guy who has to miss an OU-ISU game.
Kempt suffered a knee injury last week against Iowa, and his status for Saturday remains unknown. Kempt practiced Wednesday, in limited form, but no word from the Cyclones on who will start. Kempt or backup Zeb Noland.
But at least the Sooners are forewarned. Last October, they never saw Kempt coming. Starting quarterback Jacob Park took a leave of absence from the team the week of the OU game and eventually left the squad. Kempt on Tuesday was thinking he would start, even told his family, and found out for sure on Thursday. Word spread Saturday morning that Park was out and Kempt was in.
Kempt was almost 23 years old. He had spent two years at Oregon State, one year at Hutchinson Community College and was in his second year at Iowa State. He had thrown two passes total in all that time.
“I never really got nervous,” Kempt said. “Even the night before the game, I was (only) a little restless. It felt right, I guess.”
One of college football's all-time Cinderella stories unfolded. Kempt outdueled Baker Mayfield. Carol Stoops wrote Kempt a letter of congratulations. Even crushed Sooner fans had to admire the perseverance of a quarterback whose hopes seemed gone.
“It takes a special individual to be willing and able to do what he's done,” ISU coach Matt Campbell said this summer. “The secret sauce is the confidence that young man had in himself but also that belief that he's had in others around him.”
That beautiful morning in Norman, with an 11 a.m. kickoff, “was a little surreal,” Kempt admitted in July during Big 12 Media Days. “
“Just the fact that I was back on the field for the first time, actually playing a meaningful game, since 2012. As much as possible, it wasn't about who I was playing, it was about me doing my job. Me kind of kicking off some of the rust early on.”
The first quarter did not go smoothly for Kempt. OU jumped to a 14-0 lead, and Kempt completed just two of five first-quarter passes, both dump passes to tailback David Montgomery. Then Kempt started heating up. He directed a touchdown drive. Then Iowa State got the ball at its 31-yard line with 26 seconds left in the half, and Campbell showed confidence in his quarterback; Kempt hit Hakeem Butler for a 54-yard gain to set up a field goal.
The Cyclones had been unleashed. Four possessions in the second half, 25 points, 12 of 13 passing for 212 yards and three touchdowns.
“As weird as it, it just felt so normal out there,” Kempt said. “It was so nice to be back out playing a football game. You sometimes forget it's just a game. The fact that I finally got to play with the other guys on my team was awesome for me, too.”
Iowa State defensive tackle Ray Lima admits to seeing Kempt as “just kind of this side guy.” Then in summer 2017, Lima noticed Kempt as the only ballhandler working out with the linemen.
“I knew this guy was special,” Lima said. “He showed up to work every day, the same focus, the same intent, as if he was the starter. He believed in himself the most. For a guy to go three, four years without touching the field shows a lot about his character and how faithful he was in his craft.”
Now comes another OU-Iowa State Saturday, with the Sooners again a heavy favorite and the Cyclones again in quarterback upheaval. Iowa State will go either with a backup or with a questionable Kyle Kempt. The Sooners know to fear either one.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.
NO. 5 OU AT IOWA STATE
•When: 11 a.m., Saturday
•Where: Jack Trice Stadium; Ames, Iowa
•TV: ABC (Cox 8/HD 705, Dish 5, DirecTV 5, U-verse 5/HD 1005)
•Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7