For someone who didn’t exactly plan out his life, Mike Keogh was feeling pretty fortunate last week as he sat on the tailgate of his pickup in Cusick, directing the grade school kids who were arriving for flag football practice.
“I’ve been pretty blessed,” coach Keogh said, oblivious to the rain. “It’s been a good life so far.”
Keogh was reflecting on his 50 years, which included being an All-Greater Spokane League running back at Gonzaga Prep, a defensive back at Idaho, a distinguished military career and, finally, returning to the area where his father was born and where he spent many summer days.
“My mom is back up here, my brother is here and I have tons of cousins,” he said. “I always wanted to come back up here. Fortunately, my wife, who is from Tennessee, fell in love with it, too. It’s just a gem up here.”
That’s how it is that a 1977 Gonzaga Prep graduate and recently retired colonel ended up with a mailing address of Usk after 26 years in the Army.
That’s not really the path Keogh envisioned as he entered college. He was too busy trying to make it as a Vandal. First the walk-on freshman earned a letter for his work on special teams, then a scholarship.
That’s when Greg McMackin – the current Hawaii coach who was Ed Troxel’s defensive coordinator at Idaho – said to him, “We think you’re a good enough athlete to play defensive back. Do you want to do that?” Keogh said, “I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to,’ but you don’t say that. So I said, ‘Sure.’ You do what it takes to get on the field.”
It was a situation he understood. As a sophomore at Prep in 1974 – which happened to be Don Anderson’s first season as coach – Keogh sat behind Tim Lappano, Joe Hare and Phil Tagirello as the Bullpups won their last eight in an 8-1 season.
Keogh got his chance as a junior, when Prep went 6-3 and lost out to Lewis and Clark in a three-way Kansas tiebreaker, missing a chance to be the first Spokane team to participate in the recently adopted state-wide playoff system.
He was all-league as a senior, which was the first year of the GSL, despite missing the last few regular-season games with a knee injury. The Bullpups went 9-0 and Keogh returned as Prep whipped Richland in the playoffs before losing to eventual state champion Snohomish 13-0.
It was the next year the Pups, including little brother Vince and cousin Joe Keogh, made their first appearance in the KingBowl. It was during that run that Keogh was making his mark at Idaho.
“Once I had knee surgery, other than junior colleges, the scholarship offers disappeared,” Keogh said. “Ed Troxel was at Idaho. He was a real neat guy. It seemed like the right fit.”
As Keogh made the transition to defense at Idaho his life path had another swerve.
“I really had no intention of going into the military, but ROTC made a pitch during two-a-days when I was a sophomore,” he said. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated so I got involved and kind of liked it. I planned to go to flight school, give it five years and see if I liked it.”
The answer to that is obvious, but before he found out he liked the Army he started in the secondary for two years before a knee injury forced him to redshirt.
“I was a year behind in the ROTC program,” said Keogh, who was a football starter again as a senior. “That lined me up to graduate and jump right into the Army.”
And there’s no such thing as a straight path in the Army.
Keogh flew Blackhawk helicopters, spending time with the 160th Special Operations Regiment – of “Blackhawk Down” movie fame. His first action was part of Operation Just Cause in 1989, when the U.S. invaded Panama to remove Manuel Noriega from power.
Throughout his career, Keogh drew on lessons from football.
“Being in the military you’re leading men,” he said. “Part of leading is leading from the front. That means physically as well as intellectually. Being an athlete, I was able to keep up or beat guys in certain things. That seems to add credibility. Anything we did I was always out front.”
Keogh has been around the world – Iraq and Afghanistan included – and all over the country, and two things stick out to him.
The first is his wife Kelly – and what she symbolizes.
“Children – and spouses – of the military, and the young men and women in the service, are the true heroes,” he said. “I was blessed to meet her. She was the glue that kept our family healthy and together.
“Most of my assignments involved leading, which included responsibility for families. Kelly did an incredible job of taking care of and minimizing the stress of deployed families. Many of our military families are young and initial deployments, especially combat deployments, can be quite a shock.
That’s the flip side, he said, from what his children experienced, such as living in Australia and Korea, or walking on the Great Wall of China and snorkeling near the Great Barrier Reef.
The other defining moment came when he was a platoon leader for the 160th but wasn’t with his men because of a short-notice deployment when the incident occurred that led to the movie. The 160th provided air support in the attempt to capture Somali warload Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Mogadishu in 1993.
“It was hard not be there,” Keogh said. “That whole episode was hard for Kelly and I. Most of the aviators involved in that operation had worked for me the previous three years while I was platoon leader.”
A moment in life when their family expanded dramatically six years ago is an example how the Keoghs have moved seamlessly through their experience.
While at Fort Bragg, N.C., they adopted three sisters to go with the three children they had at home.
“It was a God thump,” he said. “In church one day Kelly said she just got thumped again and said, ‘Here’s what we need to do.’ We fostered before. That can be tough when you have to give them back to the system. The system is not always what’s best for them.”
Now at home are Kristina, a senior, and Samantha, 16, who are both playing soccer for Newport this fall because Cusick doesn’t have a team, and Joshua, 10, plus adopted sisters Val, 12, Alana, 10, and Amber, 9.
Cameron, a son from Keogh’s first marriage, graduated from West Point is now a captain in the Army flying helicopters.
There are so many more details and stories Keogh could share, but he’s a busy man. Coaching is something he’s always tried to do no matter where he was posted. And he just went to his first Vandals game since his playing days, and he’s eyeing Prep’s schedule.
Those years he remembers fondly. But he couldn’t be happier now.
“I’ve been on every continent and in 20-plus countries and nowhere is there a better country or better people than in the United States,” he said. “And there is no more attractive area than the Northwest.
“I’ve been blessed.”