The crowd was there to watch the football teams from Land O’ Lakes and Sunlake high schools take the field. But for several minutes before kickoff, they were all chanting something much different: “We love Keppel!”
Kris Keppel, who spent more than two decades as the coach of the Land O’ Lakes cross-country team, and even longer as a teacher, was given that ovation during last Friday’s game. Keppel, never one who likes to draw attention to himself, knew something was up when he was invited to the game. But he still showed up, because he knew his courage facing pancreatic cancer would continue to inspire the students and athletes at the school.
“It’s pretty easy to inspire,” Keppel told the crowd. “Inspiration is a two-way street. You all can inspire each other on a daily basis.”
School officials and his team wanted to honor Keppel for being a finalist in the Brooks Inspiring Coach of the Year contest. Although Keppel received the most votes in the nationwide competition, he was able to applaud as Renee Williams-Smith of Manhattan Beach, California, received this year’s award during a ceremony last summer in Seattle.
The initial idea was to give Keppel a large trophy, girls’ cross-country coach and close friend Karen DeHaas said. But then an idea surfaced that would allow Keppel’s work to be honored year after year, naming a new school inspirational award after him and a fellow teacher, the late Marilyn Ling, who also battled cancer.
“We have always had inspirational people that helped our students and helped our faculty,” school assistant principal Rich Batchelor said. “We would like to start a new award, the Ling Inspiring Individual Award. But we decided to rename it for the first recipient of the award. So it will now be known as the Ling Keppel Inspiring Individual Award.”
But the school wasn’t done. A small crowd walked to a spot just outside the Land O’ Lakes football stadium so a new street sign could be unveiled — renaming that stretch of Gator Lane to Keppel Way.
“What better way to have students in the future know how much he inspired us to do things the Keppel way than to actually rename the roadway that leads into the athletic facility here,” school principal Ric Mellin said. “From this point forward, every time our athletes come down the road from the parking lot into the stadiums in the back here, they are going to be doing it the Keppel Way.”
Keppel was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer more than a year ago. Despite his grueling treatment for the disease, Keppel continued to attend as many practices and meets as he could. That continued until this past school year when he was forced to retire to focus more on fighting the cancer. It meant stepping down from his longtime role as cross-country coach, too.
“He’s retired, yet he comes to all the practices, except when he has chemo on Mondays,” DeHaas said. “He’s not able to bike with the runners anymore, but having him out there has really motivated all of our runners, and they want to win for him.”
Those trips to practices and meets have become their own inspiration to Keppel.
“We’re a team, we are a partnership,” Keppel said. “They keep plugging away, and I keep plugging away.”
A recent change in his chemotherapy treatment has allowed Keppel to grow back his hair, his eyebrows, and even his trademark moustache. He has lost weight, but being able to recognize his reflection in the mirror has helped him continue to fight the cancer.
“I have good days and bad days, but today was a good day,” Keppel said, looking toward his wife Dar, standing nearby. “The last few days were good, but the beginning of the week wasn’t so hot. It is what it is, and you just take it one day at a time.”
And that couldn’t be any other way, because it is indeed the Keppel way.
Published October 22, 2014
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