LOOKING BACK, Keith McKeller remembers it as the most difficult and important decision of his life. He can also say, with absolute certainty, that it was the correct one.
Back in the spring of 1986, McKeller was a former small-college basketball star wondering where to go with his life. He had just led Jacksonville State, a Division II school in Alabama, to a national championship. He had been All-Gulf South Conference four years in succession, and had finished second on his school's all-time rebounding list.
Basketball was his first love. He had that championship ring to show for it. But his college eligibility had expired, leaving McKeller to wonder what place there was for a 6-foot-4, 245-pound power forward in the highly competitive world of professional hoops.
Small-college ball was one thing, the pros quite another. And yet, McKeller was not without his suitors. The Wisconsin franchise in the CBA had drafted him in the second round. But the truly enticing offer was from the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks, one of the league's rising young powers at the time, actually wanted him to come to training camp for a tryout.
Imagine that, the Atlanta Hawks! His idol, Dominique Wilkins, played for Atlanta. What some of his buddies back home in Birmingham would have given for such a chance! It was what they'd all dreamed about as kids playing together on the courts -- just to one day have the chance.
"I mean, that's every athlete's dream to one day play at the professional level," McKeller said. "It was almost like a dream come true, and a lot of guys, friends of mine, didn't quite understand what I did."
What McKeller did was turn the Hawks down. He thought long and hard about the offer, but ultimately decided his dream was just that, a dream. In his words, "Reality set in." He looked at things objectively and realized there was very little room in the NBA for a 6-4 power forward. He had talent, but the second coming of Charles Barkley he wasn't.
Besides, he had other ideas. Maybe his size would be an impediment in the NBA, but on the football field it would be an asset. Though he'd used up his basketball eligibility, he was still eligible for football at Jacksonville State.
By playing football, he'd be able to remain close to his girlfriend, Donya, who would later become his wife. "To stay in school and even give it a try was because of her inspiration," he said. And if he made it, who could say? Maybe the pro scouts would notice him . . .
"I remember joking with our athletic trainer, Jim Skidmore," McKeller, 26, said. "I told him I was going out for football and I was going to start. He told me I was crazy and bet me a six-pack of Coke I wouldn't make it. When I go back there, I still joke with him about that. He never got me my six-pack."
Not only did McKeller make the team in 1986, he started at tight end and caught 26 passes for 449 yards. He also caught the eye of the Bills' college scouts, who saw big-league potential in this unpolished receiver with the extraordinary leaping ability and soft hands.
Buffalo drafted him in the ninth round of the 1987 draft. In the years since, McKeller has undergone the slow, inexorable transformation from a small-college project to a quality tight end. With 21 catches, a 14.0-yard average and a team-leading five touchdown receptions, McKeller has become a vital part of the Bills' high-scoring attack, and one of the top big-play tight ends in the game.
That's quite an achievement for a guy who, upon his arrival in the league four years ago, had scarcely a clue about what it took to survive in the NFL. No one knows that better than Chuck Dickerson, who was in his first season as the Bills' tight end coach in that 1987 season.
"Keith and I immediately had a good understanding," Dickerson said, "that he wasn't worth a damn and I was going to make him better. He came in here physically unable to play the position. He was talented enough to play it, and had the heart to play the position, but he wasn't physically ready. Heck, there were girls on the street stronger than he was. He was a basketball player. He'd stick his his face in there and battle you to the bitter end, but he didn't have enough load in his butt to do it."
So one day, Dickerson and Rusty Jones, the Bills' strength and conditioning coach, sat McKeller down and told him, point-blank, that raw talent wasn't enough in the NFL. He'd have to commit himself to building strength in his hands, arms and upper body, so he'd be able to block the awesome physical specimens playing linebacker in the league.
"He didn't know what the hell it meant," said Dickerson, who became the Bills' defensive line coach this season. "He'd hit a guy in the chest and think just because you hit the guy you blocked him. Hell, I can get a cab driver to hit somebody, but I can't get a cab driver who can block. There's a difference. Keith found out all about what it took to block those guys. He's a lot bigger now. His fat content is down, his strength is up. I mean, he fought hard to be a good tight end, and he's better than good. I think he's a damn good one."
McKeller spent most of his rookie season on injured reserve, though he got a chance to play when he crossed the picket line during the player strike. Dickerson said McKeller got an awakening in that game against the Giants in a sudden collision with Lawrence Taylor, who dropped him like a used match. Of course, McKeller also grabbed the attention of his coaches by catching nine passes in that game.
The following year, McKeller was used primarily as a special teams player. He was continuing to learn the nuances of playing tight end. He was eager to play the position in the games, to catch passes, but confident enough in Dickerson's judgment to realize he wasn't quite ready.
"It wasn't as frustrating as you would think," McKeller said, "because they were very patient with me and they didn't rush me along. The coaches told me when I was drafted that, being a ninth-rounder, I was a long shot. But in my rookie year they saw I had potential. I was going to be on a kind of four-year plan. After the fourth year, either I'd be where they wanted me to be, or I wasn't cut out for football."
If the Bills' brass had any doubts, they were assuaged a year ago, when McKeller established himself as a semi-regular tight end and 'H' back and caught 20 passes for 341 yards -- a remarkably high average per catch (17.1 yards) for a tight end.
"By late last year, we were saying 'We've probably got to start using that guy more,' " said head coach Marv Levy.
They used him plenty in this year's opener against Indianapolis, connecting with him on the season's first play and seven times in all. It seemed he might become a primary weapon in the passing game, but the Bills have thrown to him judiciously since. Still, five of his last 14 catches have been for touchdowns, a sign that the coaches have grown confident in him inside the opposition's 20-yard line -- the "Red Zone."
"That's very gratifying to me," McKeller said. "And whatever it takes for me to help the team win, I'm all for that. If it's inside the 20, I can live with that. I'd love to have some more balls outside the 20, too, but it's just a matter of the way the game flows. . . . I've had a few games where I didn't catch balls and it's a little disappointing, but the bottom line is winning. Of course, every receiver would love to catch five to seven balls a game, and I'm no different. But it doesn't always work that way."
While he is no longer a project, there are still parts of McKeller's game that require polishing. His blocking, while greatly improved, can best be described as adequate. His routes could be more precise. And, as was the case at Houston, there are times when he could be more aggressive in preventing defenders from picking off poorly thrown balls.
But when you consider how far he's come since choosing football over basketball just five years ago, his story seems nothing less than a triumph.
"It's my fourth year and I'm a starter, having a pretty good year," McKeller said. "So I guess you could say the four-year plan is working right on time."