Hollidaysburg native finding his way in NFL

Watching San Diego battle Kansas City to close out the NFL regular season, few local fans were cheering on the Chargers.

As the Steelers playoff hopes hung in the balance, ultimately quashed with the San Diego victory, little did we realize that a local boy was fulfilling dreams of his own on the California gridiron.

Third-year NFL linebacker Thomas Keiser spent his early years living in Hollidaysburg, beginning a football journey that would take him from Blair County to the WPIAL, to Stanford and ultimately the San Diego Chargers.

Currently working out in Portland Ore., Keiser, who grew up a die-hard Steeler fan, reflected on that crazy overtime win that broke the hearts of black and gold faithful.

“It was pretty miraculous the way it worked out,” he said during a phone interview. “I’ve never been part of something like that, but my friends and family didn’t complain too much – they were happy I had a chance to make my first playoff appearance.”

Chasing the NFL dream, the word miraculous is one Keiser uses often. The polite and articulate 24-year old remembers his family’s home in Hollidaysburg, playing with friends on the backyard jungle gym, and fishing with his dad in Roaring Spring on weekends; his goal of playing professional football as old as his earliest memories.

“We have deep and wonderful roots [in Central Pennsylvania],” said Tony Kesier, Thomas’s father, from his Wexford home. “Our children were born at Altoona Hospital, and to this day we come back every year to fish along Spruce Creek.”

The family moved just north of Pittsburgh as Thomas started elementary school, and he went on to play high school football at North Allegheny, just 13 miles from Heinz Field. Throughout his scholastic career, Keiser checked the Hollidaysburg and Altoona high school scores in the Pittsburgh newspapers, but never had the chance to face the local teams in the state playoffs.

After earning Pac-10 and national honors at Stanford, and balancing the highest expectations of academics and athletics, Thomas quickly learned that the road to NFL stardom can be a winding one.

Signed by Carolina as an undrafted free agent, Keiser saw limited playing time in his rookie year and returned to Stanford to finish his degree during the offseason. His sophomore NFL campaign was cut short by injury; after being released by the Panthers, good fortune smiled and the San Diego Chargers came calling.

“I had no idea how difficult it would be for me to actually get an opportunity to play on Sunday,” said Thomas. “Three seasons in, it blows my mind how much I have to fight to get those opportunities – that’s the frustrating thing, definitely at times discouraging.”

After a stint on the practice squad, Thomas was signed to the active roster in October to take the place of his injured mentor, Dwight Freeney. He made the most of the bittersweet opportunity, and as he himself predicted, became a valuable contributor to the Chargers defense. Playing in twelve games and starting three, Keiser racked up 17 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and one very important interception: picking off Peyton Manning in a crucial Dec. 12th win over the Denver Broncos.

“That play was the one that got the most praise and excitement from my friends and family,” said Thomas. “It’s always nice to step up and make a play that will help your team make it over the hurdle in a game that’s so important.”

During his burgeoning NFL career, Keiser has faced his ups and downs.

He’s traveled internationally as part of American Football without Barriers, a charitable initiative to introduce football to other cultures.

But he’s also awaiting the outcome a December incident which resulted in a citizen’s arrest for misdemeanor battery, a legal matter he hopes to soon put behind him as he looks ahead to the 2015 campaign.

Keiser’s fourth season in the NFL should hold boundless possibilities, for himself and the Chargers. San Diego’s schedule includes defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle, as well as San Francisco, a reunion with his Stanford coach, Jim Harbaugh. And with the goal of staying in his beloved San Diego past his current contract, Keiser knows now the time to make a statement.

“Careers in the NFL are fleeting, and guys who aren’t quarterbacks or kickers don’t play past [the age of] 34, so you have to make the most of it,” he said. “This year is a huge opportunity to go out there and say I’m here to stay.”

And this time around, if the Chargers head for the playoffs, there may be a little more good will coming from Blair County.

“I have a lot of love for Central Pennsylvania,” said Thomas. Whenever we go fishing and camping we still drive through Hollidaysburg and see some of our old spots. The area holds a special place in my heart.”

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Her column appears on Tuesdays.