The Life Behind Katie Keller: Penn State’s First Female Football Letterman
A fall Saturday in State College just isn’t complete without football. Thousands of students, alumni, and fans converge on Beaver Stadium, all in support of their Nittany Lions. The 50-yard line holds the family ticket section, where mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers cheer on their children.
For the last four years, the Keller family hasn’t been concerned with how many yards, how many catches, how many sacks their favorite player gets. In fact, their child won’t even step foot on the field. Katie Keller holds a camera instead of a ball and wears a polo instead of a jersey, but the lack of a uniform didn’t stop her from becoming Penn State football’s first female letterman.
Keller’s journey to becoming a letterman didn’t begin in Beaver Stadium, or even at Penn State. It started in the halls of Dallastown Area Senior High School. As a freshman, Keller had to decide whether to pursue a second language or video production as an elective during her high school career. She chose video production.
Her interest in video was sparked by a desire to be on the school’s morning announcements. Unbeknownst to her at the time, this fascination would transform into something much more. By her junior year, with the help of her fellow students and her teacher Joseph Klinedinst, Keller created a video production club.
The goal of the club was to provide students the opportunity to attend student television network conventions. At the convention, students are placed in groups and challenged to produce quality videos under limited time constraints. “It’s hard to make the videos good, but it’s so fun,” Keller said. “It’s such a great experience and it gets you to fall in love with making films.”
The more time she dedicated to film, the more advanced she became. She dedicates her improvement to Mr. Klinedinst and how he structured the class. He allowed his students to gain experience with equipment, learn basic videography skills, and fall in love with video in the most innocent way. When the school district was questioning funding the video program, Mr. Klinedinst fought for Keller and the students that weren’t in search of a typical career path.
“Katie was an outstanding student that always came to class with a smile,” Mr. Klinedinst said. “She was always willing to help in any way she could to improve the broadcast program or the after school video production program.”
“If I hadn’t been in his class, I never would have found that film is something that I enjoy,” Keller said. “He was the person that started that opportunity for me.”
By the time she reached her senior year, Keller was elected president of the video production club and had set her sights on colleges. Coming from a family that bled blue and white, Keller stubbornly rejected the idea of attending Penn State at first. Eventually she gave in and signed up to attend while majoring in business, which was the wish of her parents. Although she wasn’t intending to major in film, she knew she couldn’t give it up.
“All I knew was that even though I had to do a business degree, I still wanted to hold a camera in my hand for the next four years,” Keller said. “I couldn’t just stop.”
When looking at video opportunities at Penn State, Keller first turned to what was familiar. Her sister, Chrissy (Keller) Smith, was a manager for the Blue Band at the time. From her experience as a manager, Smith knew someone was producing videos for the band — a perfect chance for her sister to get involved.
With the help of her sister, Keller emailed the Blue Band expressing her interest in joining their video production program. She never heard back. Although disheartening, Keller wasn’t totally discouraged. Then, she found a second chance. Jevin Stone, the video director of the football team, sent out an advertisement for fall video interns. Smith saw the ad and passed it along to Keller, who immediately submitted her résumé.
This time, she found success. Within 24 hours, Keller received a response. Stone was impressed with her resume and wanted to schedule a Skype interview.
After getting to know Keller better, Stone took a chance and hired the 17-year-old from York, PA. Before she knew it, Keller visited spring practice to better understand the position she would be taking.
Keller officially began working with the team in August 2012, becoming the first female video manager to ever be hired by Penn State football. She and four other video managers were tasked with filming practices under the newly-hired head coach Bill O’Brien.
During the week, Keller was responsible for filming practice from a lift where she primarily focused on the defensive sideline. She knew little about football, but learned quickly. With the help of her friends and other staff members, she was an expert in no time. On game days, Keller traded her position on the scissor lift for a handheld camera. She used the camera to help shoot game highlights that would be shown after every win. She worked every home game and alternated traveling with the team for away games until this past year, when she attended every one.
When Keller became a sophomore, Blake Newsock joined the video program as the assistant video director, specializing in production. As Newsock developed the production department, Keller progressed into assisting him more. “We decided my efforts would be better off the field and in the room editing, and I’ve been in there ever since,” Keller said.
While working with Newsock, Keller helped make videos that were shown internally to the team as motivation, as well as content that was sent out through social media.
Keller is proud of the work she has produced during her four years with the team. She is also proud of the relationships she has made. One of the most important people to her was another video manager, Anthony Magliaro, whom she affectionately called “Mags.”
“If it weren’t for Mags, I absolutely wouldn’t get through it. He was my best friend throughout this whole thing,” Keller said.
Mags wasn’t the only one who helped Keller throughout her four years with the program. Being a manager for the team requires a serious time commitment, one that hindered Keller from making friends as a typical freshman would. Since she began the summer before her fall semester, the majority of her friends came from football.
“Marty [O’Donnell] was one of my first friends here. During training camp he would give me a tour of campus and he showed me where my classes would be. Then we’d just sit in the Hub and play chess,” Keller said.
Despite her limited free time and against her better judgment, Keller decided to double major in marketing and film. Film classes are notoriously long and usually scheduled for inconvenient times. For someone like Keller who wasn’t allowed to schedule classes past 3 p.m, this proved to be a challenge.
“I had a scheduling issue when I first joined the major. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do film and football. But that wasn’t the case. I just talked to my advisors and professors and Jevin [Stone] and figured it out,” Keller said.
Double majoring wasn’t the only problem Keller ran into when trying to balance her time. Committing to the football team means having to compromise on a lot of other aspects of college. Managers typically aren’t allowed to study abroad, can’t join time-intensive clubs, can’t work a second job or accept certain summer internships. Keller had to make some sacrifices to be part of the team, but it’s nothing she regrets or wouldn’t do again.
“Looking back, these are the things I gave up for this,” Keller said. “But obviously it’s worth it because I love Penn State football so much. It makes it worth it.”
At the end of her four years at Penn State, Keller may have given up a lot, but the result is something no one else can say — she was named the first female letterman. Before Keller, just one woman, Michaelene Frazetta, had been included in the letterman club on an honorary basis. Keller, however, is the first woman to be inducted based on her work with the team.
The video manager program she committed to allows students to become lettered after working four years with the team. Keller wasn’t the only video manager to receive the status of letterman this year. Mags, her best friend, did too.
Keller’s last game working in Beaver Stadium was the Michigan White Out. As is tradition, each graduating senior was honored before kickoff. In addition to some of the other managers, Keller was included in the pre-game walk across the field.
Fittingly, Keller’s parents walked her across the field — at her side just like they were through her four years at Penn State. Any time her confidence in herself wavered or she felt overwhelmed, her parents were there to reassure her that she could continue.
“They were the ones that, when it got really hard, reminded me, ‘Katie, this is what you’re a part of and it’s so cool. Being a letterman is your goal, and you’re going to get there. You’re going to reach it,’” Keller said.
Her last game on the field was bittersweet. As she heard the alma mater play one last time, tears came to her eyes. She was sad to say goodbye to her position with the team, but this was in no way the last time her feet would touch the field.
She spent the remainder of spring practice training interns and helping out where she could between job applications, finishing classes and preparing for graduation. Also, as a letterman, Keller is given access to the field before and during home games. It’s an opportunity she plans to take advantage of when she visits State College after graduation.
Training interns is something Keller enjoys. For almost two years, she has been mentoring interns, helping them fall in love with film just like she had. “That was my favorite part of all four years. I loved working with interns,” Keller said. “It made it so rewarding.”
In a way, she turned into the teacher that helped spark her own film career. She practiced patience and understanding and allowed interns to feel safe enough to constantly ask questions. Keller believed it was the people that made her experience with the team worth it, and she unknowingly became that person for many of her interns in the process. (I know. I was one of them.)
Her last day at the office didn’t occur until a Monday in April. It was a long day, as many at Lasch are. As Keller packed up to leave, she looked behind at the room she grew up in. She had spent countless hours of her college life in that editing area, but the enormity of leaving it hasn’t hit her yet.
“I feel like it hasn’t sunk in yet,” Keller said. “I don’t know when it will.”
When it does sink in, Keller will have her friends and family supporting her just like they have for the last four years. Many people have helped her get to where she is now, and she constantly reminds herself of that. Although she is too humble to ever admit it, a large part of her success is based of her own personal strength and perseverance as well.
Being the first female letterman, Keller has created a path for other women to follow. The video department now has four female interns. While no one will ever fill Katie Keller’s shoes, she has paved the way so that others can try.