It has taken Matt Kegel five years to prove he's a winner on the football field at Washington State, but the Cougar quarterback proved long ago that he's a big-time winner off the field.
Dating back to his days as the three-sport town hero of little Havre, Mont., Kegel has shown a passion for helping the less fortunate. He's worked closely with mentally challenged youth in Havre and Pullman, and when he learned of the difficult childhood of the adopted brother (Ruben Blair) of WSU teammate McKenzie Hansell, Kegel pledged to pay for Blair's college education if Kegel plays in the NFL and Blair meets certain athletic and educational standards.
"I feel I've been given a lot, and these kids weren't," Kegel says. "I feel I can give back a lot. Nothing makes me feel better than giving back to the community."
Kegel, shooting mortar holes in the stereotypical image of the star high school jock, loved to plop down on a lunchroom seat next to a mentally handicapped student at Havre High and chit-chat through a meal. Kegel's volunteer work with special education students at Pullman High led to a state-paid position as a caretaker for one of the students, Ryan Conley. Kegel occasionally takes Ryan out for dinner or lunch with his girlfriend, WSU soccer star Sara Leibowitz.
"We've come to know [Kegel], first and foremost, as this very generous, warmhearted young man," says Becky Conley, whose son suffers from autism. "He gets along with all people, but he has this special gift with his ability to relate to people who are vulnerable."
It is the qualities of Kegel the individual, even more than the qualities of Kegel the athlete, that give those who know him such pleasure in seeing Kegel finally land the starting job at WSU.
The cousin of former Cougar quarterback great Ryan Leaf, Kegel chose WSU over dozens of other suitors after an All-American career with the wonderfully named Havre Blue Ponies. Unfortunately for Kegel, he arrived at WSU one year after Jason Gesser.
While Gesser shattered a slough of school records and established himself as one of the top college quarterbacks in the nation, Kegel watched from the sidelines. Kegel considered transferring on numerous occasions, but now says he is glad he waited for Gesser to complete his spectacular career and move on to the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
"Being the starting quarterback at a prestigious school like Washington State is just indescribable," says Kegel, who was not activated as a freshman to save a year of eligibility. "It kind of sends a chill through your body. I just thank God for giving me this opportunity. It's not often that you get a team with these types of personalities, competitiveness and discipline.
"I've never been around a team with such a family atmosphere, that cares for each other so much," Kegel continues. "Now that I'm the guy, I just sit back sometimes in the locker room and see guys singing and joking, and I'm thinking, 'I've got six months. I'm going to make the most of it.'"
Kegel, who is bigger and stronger -- OK, he's got a serious gun for an arm -- than Gesser, has yet to prove he possesses the tremendous instincts and leadership qualities of the quicker Gesser. Kegel, however, has made progress each game this season as he shakes off years of rust. His fine performance (310 passing yards with three touchdowns) last Saturday at Colorado (then ranked 17th in the nation) keyed WSU's 47-26 victory and lifted the Cougars into the two major Top 25 polls at No. 24 and 25.
Kegel's only college starts prior to this season came at the end of the 2000 season, when Gesser was injured. The Cougars split in Kegel's two starts, scoring a rare win at USC before getting trounced by Washington. Kegel said he learned plenty from the starts and the 23 games he played in as a reserve.
"I was fortunate enough to have coaches who believed in me and let me play a lot, whether it be for three plays or 13 plays. It helped a lot," says Kegel, whose 2-1 team makes its Pullman debut Saturday against New Mexico (1-2).
Cougar coaches and players have long raved about Kegel's work ethic and athleticism (he was a 44-foot triple jumper and a basketball standout in high school). After nailing down the starting job in spring practice, Kegel was an overwhelming pick by WSU players as the team's offensive captain.
"It was always hard being the backup," admits Kegel, who said his close relationship with his parents and Leibowitz helped get him through the worst times. "It's just a different mindset. You go out and try to be a leader and keep the tempo up, but it's just different.
"Now I'm the guy. They're looking to me. If I can make the right reads, make the right plays, everything will go awesome."
Kegel lauded the former Cougar coaching staff for their work with him, but says new quarterbacks coach Timm Rosenbach "has taught me a lot about football the last six months." Unlike predecessor Aaron Price -- a high school quarterback and WSU kicker -- Rosenbach was a standout college quarterback who went on from Washington State to the NFL.
"There's a ton of little things he can relate," Kegel says. "Things are just different. But A.P. [Aaron Price] was great, too."
Now, finally, it is time for Kegel to find out if he can be great on the football field. Lord knows he's already proven his greatness off the field.
"I've waited my time," Kegel says firmly. "I've put in my dues. Right now, I'm very, very comfortable on the field and with my teammates. Things are coming very naturally. Everything is clicking.