Kiel moving forward in uncle's honor

April, 18, 2012
4/18/12
9:00
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Gunner Kiel got under center Saturday and immediately blanked.

Hoping against hope to make something happen, the freshman quarterback took the snap and tried to gain as many yards as possible, firing into crowded territory near Ben Koyack and nearly costing the tight end his head in the process.

Back on the sideline, Kiel confessed before coach Brian Kelly could even ask what he was thinking.

"He goes, 'I just, I just blew it. I blew it. I blanked. I can't believe it,' " Kelly said, imitating Kiels' deer-in-the-headlights look.

"I go, 'Well next time you blank, let's try doing something else, like running outside and throwing the ball away.' He goes, 'That's a great idea.' "

Kiel can be forgiven had his mind not been in the right place just yet, as his uncle, former Notre Dame quarterback Blair, died unexpectedly at the age of 50 only six days earlier.

The early-enrollee missed Wednesday's practice to attend Blair's funeral but turned down Kelly's offer to take as much time as he needed to mourn his loss, returning for Friday's practice and Saturday's scrimmage to honor his uncle.

"He's probably with me right now in this interview telling me what to say," an emotional Kiel said Saturday. "He's going to be there every step of the way of my career and the rest of my life. And thank God for him and always being there for me and pushing me. It's hard, but that's life. I love my Uncle Blair. I've got a picture of him in my locker now, so I leave there to go to every practice, and I'm thinking of him."

Kiel said he has relied on his family -- arguably the first family of Indiana football -- to get through the difficult time. His brothers Drew and Dusty played at Illinois State and Indiana, respectively, and his father Kip played at Butler.

His uncle, who started all four years with the Irish, was always supportive of Kiel growing up. Kiel said that during his last trip home to Columbus, Ind., before Easter break, Blair saw him wearing Notre Dame gear, hugged him and told him how proud he was.

"He was always there for me and my brothers, and he made things a lot of fun," Kiel said. "And knee football was probably the funnest thing I remember doing with him -- just him tackling us and chipping our knees and running around. It was a good time."

Coaches and teammates were impressed with how locked in Kiel was upon returning to campus, and Kelly said the broken play in Saturday's practice illustrated how much fun Kiel is to coach.

"He's a great, great player, a great kid, a great person -- you hate to see something like that happen to him and his family," fellow quarterback Andrew Hendrix said. "But he bounced back so well. He's asking [if] maybe he should take home like a weightlifting thing to do when he's home, he's so bought in to this. And it's cool to see. Glad to have him back, glad to have him at practice, but he's responded so well and it's just good to have him back."

Matt Fortuna | email

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