TEMPE – Mikey Keene’s story is about resilience, determination and an unrelenting passion for the game of football. Keene stepped into the Florida humidity for the first time as a 17-year-old quarterback at the University of Central Florida, over 2,000 miles away from his home in Chandler with a coaching staff that had been talking with him daily for eight months.
Just two weeks after arriving, Keene’s world was flipped upside down when coach Josh Heupel and his staff left UCF to take over the Tennessee football program. With no local support system, Keene had to find a way to send forms home to be signed by his parents for physicals.
For those who are close to Keene, the level of maturity displayed came as no surprise, as winners often find a way to win.
Keene, who will start at quarterback for Fresno State Saturday when the Bulldogs visit Arizona State, burst onto the Arizona high school football scene during his senior year at Chandler High School. The leadership skills and ability to lead by example resulted in Keene never losing a game as a starter, a remarkable stint that included a 10-0 2020 season in which he completed 154 of 218 passes for 2,069 yards, 22 touchdowns, two interceptions and led the Wolves to an Arizona Open Division State Title.
“Winner. Number one above all, he knew how to get the job done, not afraid to do the hard thing, and knows how to lead,” Chandler coach Rick Garretson said, describing Keene’s attributes. “He throws strikes, he knows how to lead and he’s smart. Those are three recipes for success in a quarterback.”
Keene finished high school ranked as the 18th best player in Arizona by 247Sports and was named as one of five finalists for the Ed Doherty Award, given to Arizona’s most outstanding high school football player. The most remarkable thing about the ‘20 season is Keene did it all as a 16-year-old senior.
This came as no surprise to Garretson, who happily spoke about his former player in the lead up to Saturday’s game in Tempe, where Keene leads the 2-0 Bulldogs against 1-1 ASU.
“I have known that kid (Mikey) since he was 8 years old,” Garretson said. “At 8 when he was a little dude, he was a gunslinger and still is at 20 years old in college. It’s exciting to see him lead a program like Fresno that’s definitely a football town.”
Watching the UCF program he had committed to get flipped on its head still couldn’t stop Keene.
“He (Mikey) is mature beyond his age,” said Mikey’s father, Mike Keene. “Sometimes he makes us feel like he’s the adult and we are the kids. My wife and I are always very emotional and obviously, people are very protective with their kids, but he has always been so level-headed in whatever he does, even off the field.”
Keene started 10 of the 11 games during the 2021 UCF season. He finished the season with 1,730 yards and 17 touchdowns in the air with one rushing touchdown. Keene became the first UCF freshman to throw for five touchdowns in a single game and the seventh Knight in the program’s history to complete this feat. He had a completion percentage of 63.6, the fourth-highest completion percentage in UCF history. Despite throwing six interceptions, Keene finished strong in his last five games, totaling 145 consecutive passing attempts without an interception.
Resilience would come into play again after coach Gus Malzahn announced ahead of the 2022 campaign that University of Mississippi transfer John Rhys Plumlee would be the starting quarterback for the Knights, demoting Keene to the backup.
During a game against No. 20 Cincinnati, Plumlee went down with an injury and in stepped Keene to lead the Knights to a 25-21 win. He would go on to start the next game against Memphis in a 35-28 win, and finished the year playing in four games completing 60 of 83 passes for 647 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. He then declared for the transfer portal.
Now as the starter for Fresno State, Keene has put his talent on full display, leading the Bulldogs to a 2-0 record with an upset win over Purdue and a two-overtime win against Eastern Washington. In those two games, he completed 53 of 83 passes for 599 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
In his return to Tempe for the first time since leaving the field as a state champion, Keene will have his own fan section.
“I think it’s a long time coming,” Mike said. “It’s our only kid and we are so proud. With him coming home everybody can get to see him come home to play, we are really excited for this opportunity.”
Mike estimated that between 90-100 friends, family, peers and past coaches will be there to support Keene against the Sun Devils, with the family hosting a tailgate before the game.
While it is a homecoming for the Keene family, Keene has one thing on his mind.
“Honestly it is just another game for me,” Keene said after practice on Tuesday. “I get to have some people who have not seen me play since high school but all of that is just outside noise in all honesty. I am just focused on my preparations for this week and getting ready to face a tough opponent in ASU.”