At the conclusion of every season, the football coaching staff selects the recipient of the Woody Knapp Memorial Trophy, given to that outstanding member of the football team who best typifies the cheerful disposition, leadership qualities, and unselfish devotion to others that characterized Woody’s life and accomplishments at Yale. Coach Siedlecki’s staff couldn’t have chosen a more worthy recipient at the end of the 2001 season: James Francis Keppel ’02.
Jim, as most people knew him, was a friend of mine who passed away in his sleep suddenly and unexpectedly of an undiagnosed heart arrhythmia May 9 at the tender age of 23. A spectacular athlete and physical specimen, Jimmy directly affected any number of football games during his short life. More importantly, Jimmy was a friend both to his teammates and to Yale who left an indelible mark on the heart and mind of anyone whose life’s path was fortunate enough to intersect with his.
Undoubtedly, the winner of this year’s Woody Knapp award has already laid the groundwork for his distinction over the past few weeks during preseason two-a-days if not before, during untold hours spent lifting in the weight room or running sprints in the hot summer sun, just like Jim did a few years ago. Jimmy was the consummate leader by example, an athlete who remained in New Haven during the summers to train alongside his teammates.
That’s not to say that Jimmy wouldn’t have been every bit as effective a player had he summered while working in New York City or had stayed home on his parents’ farm in Easton, Pa. Football was a game that came easily to Kep, at least for a time. He was an instrumental cog in the machine which unexpectedly won a share of the Ivy championship in 1999, during his sophomore year. And for his efforts, Jimmy earned All-Ivy recognition as well as a place in the pantheon of recent Yale football greats, alongside the likes of Joe Walland ’00 and Eric Johnson ’01.
Indeed, Jim’s athletic resume compares well with anybody’s. A four-year varsity letter-winner, Jim holds Yale’s records for catches by a running back in a season (32 in his all-Ivy 1999 season) and career (65). In addition, although he would assuredly downplay his role, Jim almost single-handedly won the Penn game his sophomore season with a Yale record-tying nine catches in the 23-19 victory.
Jim embodied that determination which any football coach seeks in a player. While he had the ability to make defenders miss, Jim’s game was not predicated on elusiveness. Rather, Jimmy personified tenacity in running the ball, relishing contact with would-be tacklers, churning his legs and fighting for every inch. Rick Reilly once wrote that Eric Dickerson “never met a sideline he didn’t like.” The same can be said about Jimmy and collisions.
Everything changed, however, a few days before Jim’s junior season when he tore his meniscus playing pickup basketball and underwent surgery the day he was supposed to report to training camp. Jim worked as hard as ever during rehab and returned to the field ahead of schedule, midway through the 2000 season. Sadly, though, the injury diminished his effectiveness and for whatever reason he was never quite the same player. Throughout, however, the respect of his teammates remained undiminished.
Coming back from injury was a trying experience, and Jim was indeed frustrated that he never recaptured the magic of his sophomore season. But he was anything but one-dimensional, finding ways to contribute to the team off the field. Smart, witty and charming, he had a penchant for making any of his friends laugh no matter their mood. Football aside, as a young man full of character and integrity, there was no limit to what Jim could accomplish as he made his way in this world.
Perhaps that is what is so difficult about coming to grips with Jim’s passing. When he was unable to join several of his friends in Las Vegas this past January, most of us believed there would be ample opportunity for future revelry. He’d be playing fantasy football with us, hosting us on visits to New York, and making us laugh when we saw him at The Game for years to come.
I, personally, took some solace in the words spoken at his standing-room only funeral this past spring. For the over 1,000 people packed into the Holy Family Church of Nazareth, Pa. — 1,000 people lucky enough to have known Jim as a friend or teammate — the eulogies in his memory were well more than a lamentation of his death. Instead, they exemplified what a remembrance should be, an ideal to which we should all aspire. Even in death, it seems, Jim had something to teach us.
It comforted me afterward at his parent’s home, surrounded by pictures of Jim smiling and laughing, that those around me could also smile and laugh, just as Jim would have wanted. And it still seems right that his grandfather, Steven, a former player himself at Lafayette who came to all of Jim’s games and many of his practices, proudly wears Jim’s Ivy League championship ring to this day.
I asked Jim’s parents, Steve and Brenda, if there was anything they thought Jim would want people to know. Their response was that first, everyone should understand how much Jim loved Yale, that “he was happy literally every day he was there.” Secondly, although he originally thought he’d end up at Notre Dame like most of his family, when the Ivy League came calling Jim finally chose Yale because he wanted to help build a championship team. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that that is exactly what he did.
Kep, you are missed by all. We are all better people for having known you. May you rest in peace.
Alex Taylor ’00, a former Yale Daily News sports editor, lives in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.