ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The distance between the top two high school quarterback prospects of 2012 was much greater than the few miles that separated Jameis Winston and Gunner Kiel on Monday afternoon.
There was Winston, sitting atop a convertible and waving to the crowd as the grand marshal of St. Petersburg’s MLK Dream Big Parade. Since his days as the top dual-threat quarterback in the 2012 recruiting class, Winston has won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship at Florida State. He has been drafted No. 1 overall in the NFL, signed a $25 million contract and thrown 50 touchdown passes in his first two seasons as the Bucs’ starter. With a strong showing next season, he could further establish himself as one of the best young passers in the NFL.
Two miles northwest of Monday’s parade, there was Kiel, practicing alongside players from Manitoba and Idaho before a girls soccer team took over the field at St. Petersburg (Florida) High School. Since his days as the top pro-style quarterback in the 2012 class, he has committed to two colleges, signed with a third and transferred to a fourth. He has been named a starter, thrown 50 touchdown passes in his first two seasons as Cincinnati’s starter and lost the starting job again. With a strong showing in today’s East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field, he might work his way onto an NFL roster.
The gap seems large between Winston and Kiel, and what Kiel could have been and what he has become.
But Kiel doesn’t see it that way. He smiles widely. After everything — the humiliation and the humility — he still has a chance to fulfill his dream of becoming a pro quarterback.
“Just waiting for someone to give me an opportunity,” Kiel said, “because I’ll make the best of it.”
It wasn’t long ago that such an opportunity seemed like a given.
Kiel had the size (he’s now 6 feet 4, 225 pounds). He had the talent. ESPN’s cameras spent enough time in his hometown, Columbus, to make a community known for racing (Tony Stewart) and basketball (Chuck Taylor) talk more about football.
He had the bloodlines. His father and two brothers were college quarterbacks, and his uncle Blair was a Notre Dame quarterback drafted by the Bucs in 1984. He even had the name; is there a better name for a passer than Gunner?
But things didn’t work out. Kiel committed to Indiana, then decommitted. He committed to LSU, then decommitted, prompting then-coach Les Miles to say that Kiel “did not necessarily have the chest and the ability to lead a program.”
Kiel signed with Notre Dame, redshirted during the Fighting Irish’s run to the January 2013 national title game and eventually transferred to Cincinnati, 90 miles east of where he grew up.
“It was a long process,” Kiel said.
And it kept going.
Kiel earned honorable mention All-American Athletic Conference honors in 2014 and finished the next year among the nation’s top 25 passers. But he missed the bowl game after the 2015 season for personal reasons, then was hurt for most of the next spring. He was demoted to third string, promoted to starter and demoted again during the Bearcats’ 4-8 2016 season.
“I’ve been humiliated and humbled through the process,” Kiel said. “At times it’s tough, but it’s okay. God has a plan.”
And the plan that led a can’t-miss recruit to the bench also led him to a football field teeming with pro scouts.
Kiel’s final college season was a disappointment, but his two productive years were enough to get him an invitation to this all-star showcase. His name doesn’t show up on lists of the 2017 NFL draft’s top quarterback prospects, but a Canadian Football League scout is eager to chat after practice.
It’s far from the world Winston knows. But Kiel doesn’t care — not about where he has been or how uncertain his future looks.
“No complaints at all,” he said.
Gunner Kiel is still smiling. His dream remains alive.
What: East-West Shrine Game
When: 3 p.m. today
Where: Tropicana Field
TV/radio: NFL Network; 1040-AM