When he walks into any stadium, Kyle Kempt takes a moment to himself. He'll reflect. He'll look around and take in the gray cement, metal beams and plastic seats stretching into the sky.
Saturday was a little different for the Iowa State quarterback.
Cyclones passing game coordinator Jim Hofher checked in with his first-time starter on the field before the game. Kempt smiled.
"Coach, this is so much fun,' Kempt told him. "I can't believe how much fun it is."
That was just the beginning. By day's end, in his first career start, Kempt had thrown for 343 yards and three touchdowns, including a 25-yard game-winner to Allen Lazard to beat No. 3 Oklahoma and give the Cyclones one of the biggest wins in school history. They hadn't won in Norman since 1990 and had never beaten a top-five team on the road.
"A little surreal in a sense," Kempt told Sports on Earth this week.
Kempt did it all in his first career start, but the win was more than 60 minutes in the making. The Cyclones' walk-on spent almost five years working with no one watching. When his time finally came and the eyes were on him, he was ready. But he's been ready for a long, long time.
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Before Kempt had ever made a high school start, then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh offered him a scholarship, thanks to a standout performance at a camp. It came as little surprise for a football family: Kempt's brother, Cody, played quarterback at Oregon before transferring to his parents' alma mater, Montana State. There, Mychal, his father, played linebacker and Marlene, his mother, was a heptathlete. His younger brother, Jake, plays cornerback for Dayton.
After Kyle Kempt's freshman year of high school, the family moved from Oregon to Ohio, and he grabbed the starting quarterback job at Massillon, one of the nation's biggest and most successful high school programs, a nine-time national champion that served as the subject of a 2001 documentary.
By the time his high school career was over, Kempt was the school's all-time leading passer, and he became Butch Jones' first commit in his 2013 recruiting class at Cincinnati. In December 2012, Jones left Cincinnati for Tennessee and Kempt's scholarship offer evaporated, leaving him scrambling for a new home just months before signing day. He decided to go back home to Oregon and play for Oregon State, turning down interest from a young Matt Campbell, who wanted to bring him to nearby Toledo.
"It didn't work out," Campbell said, "but we stayed in touch."
Kempt never saw the field in two seasons as a Beaver, and he experienced another coaching change when Mike Riley left for Nebraska. He wasn't a good fit for new coach Gary Andersen's spread offense and decided to transfer. With no new game tape, he struggled to gain serious interest from Division I programs. He decided to go Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, try to reboot his career and find a new home after a season on the field.
When he didn't win the starting job, he spent his lone season in junior college on the practice squad.
"That was an interesting point in my life," Kempt said. "I don't know if I'd call it a low point, but it was a low point in my athletic life. It was a really humbling experience for me. But that wasn't going to deter me."
Every time he'd hit a road block, his father asked him the same questions. Are you sure you want to keep going? Are you doing this for you?
"As hard as it got, I never felt like I wanted to quit," Kempt said. "I loved the game."
Realistically, though, he was running out of options to keep playing it. He hadn't thrown a single pass since high school and had done nothing recent to convince Division I programs he was worthy of a scholarship.
Kempt drove to Toledo to visit the Rockets on Thanksgiving weekend, reconnecting with Campbell, who initially wanted him to become a Rocket three years earlier.
"He was the only guy I could realistically have a shot with," Kempt said.
Toledo lost to Western Michigan, and a day later, Campbell took the Iowa State job. The two connected after the news and Campbell told him he'd love to have him walk on in Ames, too.
"Kyle's been a steady force as we've tried to change the culture here," Campbell said.
He was a fourth-year junior, but he felt like a freshman. As Joel Lanning and Jacob Park battled for the quarterback job, Kempt quietly embraced a new identity as a selfless teammate, trying to do anything he could to help without getting wrapped up in playing time.
"The quarterback position, it's such an alpha male type of mindset," Kempt said. "I really tried to get away from that. I'm still going to be competitive, but I'm not trying to one-up anyone."
Kempt got to throw two passes in a blowout win over San Jose State and completed them both. By season's end, he was the offensive scout team's player of the year.
In the offseason, Campbell moved Lanning to middle linebacker, where he's become a starter and one of the team's most talented and consistent contributors. Offensively, Campbell was building his offense around Park, a four-star juco transfer who initially signed with Georgia before landing at Iowa State.
Still, Kempt was closer than ever to the field.
The Tuesday before the Cyclones' trip to Oklahoma, coaches told Kempt he'd be starting against the Sooners. Park took a leave of absence for "personal medical concerns," and though Lanning would be contributing some at quarterback on top of his linebacker duties, the starting job belonged to Kempt.
"He has elite worth ethic," Campbell said. "He's always attacked the game of football and his preparation is as good or better than anybody. He's an extremely intelligent young man. He's taken some of the times when we say here's some things you can work on and gotten a lot better at them."
Last week, it finally paid off.
Friday, news of Park's absence on the team's road trip went public. Kempt and his parents got some time together at the team hotel that night, but his head was buried in his iPad, squeezing in some extra time looking at Oklahoma film.
"We didn't have much dialogue," Mychal Kempt said. "He's prepared his whole life for stuff like that. It's just never had to be put into application like it was on Saturday."
Saturday morning, Kyle Kempt thought about the anger and confusion of losing a scholarship and the panic of having to chart a new course. He thought about the frustration of having a new coaching staff bring a system aboard that meant leaving was a better option. He thought about the hopelessness of being buried on a junior college practice squad when playing time was supposed to come easy.
He just couldn't think about it too long.
"I've tried to stay away from it," Kempt said, "because this is the beginning point of a new journey."
Kempt's first two passes at Oklahoma fell incomplete, and by the time he attempted a third, the Cyclones were already down 14-0. He thought about a clip he saw early in his career that he thinks about often. It's Aaron Rodgers, and he's talking about the importance of staying calm on the sidelines.
"He doesn't want to look upset," Kempt said. "It sends a message to the team that things aren't going the way they're supposed to."
Consider that mission accomplished. Talk long enough about Kempt to anyone and "calm" is the word that comes up most often.
"He might be the calmest person I've ever met in my life," Cyclones running back David Montgomery told reporters on Tuesday.
Kempt's first real action was going the way everyone but Iowa State expected. Then it wasn't. His first career touchdown pass went for 28 yards to Marchie Murdock. He followed it up with a two-point conversion to Lazard to tie the game and send upset alert sirens blaring.
He threw another on a short screen to Trevor Ryen for 57 yards to give the Cyclones the lead. And with 2:19 left to play, he found Lazard for a 25-yard score on third-and-seven to provide the final 38-31 winning margin.
"You see him make a decision and then make another decision and he starts stringing together the right kind of decisions based on the plays that were called," Hofher said. "If you were on the sideline, you could develop an appreciation of his poise and his ability to communicate on the sidelines. The clarity in his responses and his remarks to us and his teammates. The calmness. Maybe he was like a duck with his feet going crazy below the surface, but above the water he was so calm."
Kempt went from anonymous backup, even to most Cyclones fans, to an immortal program hero in just a few hours, responsible for the biggest upset of the season. Behind those few hours were five years of work with zero payoff. And his "new journey" isn't over yet. Park still hasn't returned to the team, and Kempt could be in line for another start against Kansas this weekend.
For Kempt, football has been work for a long, long time. Finally, it's fun again.
"He loves football more than it's loved him," his father said. "Saturday, that game loved him back a little."