"I hope we can make him proud" | Wartburg plays for fallen coach

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Wartburg football is hurting.

A walk by the stadium on Wednesday shows a team that looks different. Besides the occasional whistle and popping of pads, there's little else but silence on the green grass.

The Bulldogs are hurting.

"I'm pretty sure he knows how I feel about him," Coach Kevin Human says, almost as if he's talking to himself.

This is one of the toughest practices Human has led in his two-year stint as head coach of the Wartburg Central High School football team. He's lost his close friend, confidant and offensive coordinator.

Corey Keathley died Tuesday night after a five-year battle with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. He was 41.

"Corey did a really good job of loving the kids, and the kids loved him," Human said, tears in his eyes. "I was proud to know him as a friend, as a coach. We're going to miss him. "

Keathley and Human were friends since they were kids. Human recalls an 8th grade field trip to Washington, D.C. where the two took a picture together. He says not much has changed, except for the graying of their hair.

The two coached football together at Wartburg Middle School. When Human got promoted to coach the high school team in 2017, he knew he'd add Keathley to his staff.

"I don't think he realized the amount of impact he had on the kids in this football program," Human said. "He pushed the kids hard. His expectation of them every day at practice was to give every play, every snap their best effort."

Human said Keathley was a wonderful husband and father to his family, and also a man of God. Keathley taught Sunday school at the First Baptist Church in town.

"I'm tickled to death he found salvation in Jesus Christ," Human said. "I know that for a fact. That gives me a lot of comfort."

Wide receiver Bailey Craigo said Keathley brought him closer to God and helped him grow closer to his football team.

Craigo said his home life used to be bad, and his parents left for Arizona. One day after practice, Keathley invited him to church, then to dinner with teammate Tyler Davis. Since then, it became a routine, and Craigo found a role model in Keathley.

"I love him to death," Craigo said. "I mean, we were always out here together. I never had a bad day with him."

Keathley also helped convert Craigo into a wide receiver and tight end, even though he had never played on offense prior to the 2018 season.

The late coach's influence - from the church to the football field - is unquestionable.

A number of Wartburg football players would stay after practice to hang out with "Coach Corey."

"He was honestly like a father figure to me," Davis, another wide receiver, said. "Honestly, he was there for me whenever I needed him and he helped me up whenever anyone put me down."

When quarterback Josh Moore heard the news that his offensive coordinator had died, he described it as feeling like a bad dream.

"Corey was like a best friend to me, and he was someone I could always go to," Moore said Wednesday. "During the day I'd go to school and I'd just be sitting there, and my phone buzzed and I looked down and it said 'Corey Keathley.'

"I'd answer and say, 'What are you doing? I'm in class,'" Moore continued. "And he'd say, 'I just want to talk to you, brother. I miss you.' It's just going to be different, not getting the texts or calls or seeing him here and there. It's just going to be different."

Wartburg is 3-4 on the season, on pace for its best football season since 2012. Human credits a lot of that success to Keathley. He said the offensive coordinator got to see a lot of the progress the Bulldogs have made firsthand this season, during their region win against Cumberland Gap.

"He was just ecstatic and elated and I'm just glad he got to experience that here because that's what he wanted for these kids more than anything else," Human said.

Human spoke to the Bulldogs before and after practice Wednesday about how to honor Coach Keathley's memory: by meeting his expectations of giving all they have on each snap of the football.

That begins Friday, when Wartburg travels to play region foe Rockwood.

"Right now, we're all kind of in mourning," Davis said. "But there's two ways you can go about it. We can go mourn and lose this next game, or come back, practice tomorrow and go out to the game and win it for him."