Kalamazoo — John Keenoy was snapping the ball to Jon Wassink in sixth grade while the youngsters were growing up in Grand Rapids.
Now, Keenoy will be snapping the ball to Wassink at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Saturday afternoon as Wassink makes his debut at quarterback for Western Michigan. The defending Mid-American Conference champion Broncos play No. 4 USC and Heisman Trophy front-running quarterback Sam Darnold.
“I have 100 percent confidence in whatever Jon does, he’s a great leader,” Keenoy said. “I’ve played with Jon back in sixth grade for our Little League team, so I’ve been playing with Jon and known Jon for a long time.
“He’s a quiet guy, but when he’s competing you don’t want to get in his way. He’s very competitive in what he does, more of a lead-by-example type guy. The way he works and the way he leads, we can all get around and follow him.”
So, what does Keenoy remember about his time back in the sixth grade playing with Wassink?
“We played for the Gators, it was a Christian League team and his dad (Mark) was the coach,” Keenoy said. “I remember my mom (Melissa) has pictures of me and Jon under center back then so it will be really cool to see from there to (the Coliseum) against the USC Trojans.
“It’s going to be an awesome experience. We’re going to go out there to win the football game. It will be sweet to go out to L.A., I’ve never been to California. Then, they’re one of the top teams in the country, have a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback (Darnold) who is a stud, so it’s going to be cool.”
Keenoy’s mother, Melissa recalls the time when Wassink and her son played in sixth grade.
“The public school league had a weight limit and John was over the limit in fifth and sixth grade, so we were kind of out of options,” Melissa said. “Our neighbor coached the Christian school team with Jon’s dad and said they would love to have John because they needed a center. Weight didn’t matter. They had different rules. So we played one year with the Wassink’s grade school Christian team and then John went back to playing with his buddies in Kentwood’s middle school program.”
Keenoy became a member of The News Dream team his senior year at East Kentwood High School, then has gone on to become an All-MAC second-team center, and now named to the 2017 Outland Trophy Watch list.
Meanwhile, Wassink led Grand Rapids South Christian to a pair of Division 4 state championships and came to WMU as a three-star quarterback.
While Wassink was learning the ropes while watching one of the MAC’s all-time best quarterback Zach Terrell work the previous two years, Keenoy has been snapping the ball since his freshman year.
In fact, Keenoy will be able to tell Wassink what it’s like in his debut, making his own debut against No. 5 Michigan State at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo as a true freshman two years ago, then playing at No. 1 Ohio State in the Horseshoe two weeks later.
“I remember my first game was against Michigan State, so I can help bring him along because I know what’s it’s like to go up against a top five team in his first game,” Keenoy said. “As he gets going and gets more experience, he’s going to be really good.
“I think we’re going to be maybe a little more uptempo this year. We pushed it last year, but we’ll probably push the tempo up a little faster this year. We ate up a lot of the clock last year and if we run the ball as successful as we did last year we should be good again.”
WMU will have one of the premier running games in the country with two-time 1,000-yard rusher Jarvion Franklin joined by Jamauri Bogan, Levante Bellamy and former Michigan recruit and four-star back Matt Falcon.
They’ll be running behind Keenoy and senior tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, who could be the Broncos next NFL first-round draft pick. Corey Davis finished his All-American career with the Broncos last year, then was the No. 5 overall pick by the Titans.
WMU will be handed a $1.15 million payday for playing at USC. WMU athletic director Kathy Beauregard got the deal done with an assist from alum Alec Gores, the billionaire brother of Pistons owner Tom Gores.
Gores, who played for the Broncos in the mid-1970s, put on a 40-year reunion tailgate before the WMU-MSU game two years ago. He will entertain the Broncos’ team Thursday night at his mansion in Beverly Hills.
“We talk about how we like to play great institutions, and this was a really unique opportunity, going back to Alec Gores wanting us to come to California,” Beauregard said. “He’s a really proud alum, a really proud Bronco. He’s going to be entertaining the team Thursday night at his home, having dinner and having the opportunity to get together so that will be an incredible experience.”