MOORHEAD — Minnesota State Moorhead starting point guard Natalie Steichen was a sophomore in high school when she first met Joe Keller.
Keller, widely known in the area sports scene for being the Fargo Shanley Deacons super fan, introduced himself to Steichen at a traveling basketball tournament in St. Cloud, Minn.
“Hey, you’re Natalie Steichen,” said Steichen, recalling the conversation. “He of course knew all my stats and everything.”
Keller, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 5, died Saturday, May 22. The Fargo Shanley graduate and MSUM student was 21.
“He fought so hard and so courageously, and passed peacefully this evening with his family and the best possible care team by his side.” wrote Kayla Keller, Joe’s sister, on his CaringBridge page.
Steichen said Joe won’t be forgotten.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is a smile on his face,” said Steichen, who went to high school at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton. “He always had a smile on his face. He always brought happiness into every single room.”
Steichen shared the same birthday with Joe. Both turned 21 last summer. She said she will cherish the photos taken at that celebration.
“We are birthday buddies,” she said. “That will forever be my favorite picture of us.”
Steichen said Joe knew that she loved unicorns so Joe gave her a stuffed unicorn for her birthday last summer. He also recently gave Steichen his own drawing of a unicorn.
“I will forever keep that,” Steichen said.
Joe was an avid supporter of all Deacons sports teams and graduated from Shanley in 2018. He was recently inducted into the Shanley Athletic Club Hall of Fame. His love of sports continued at MSUM.
“He loved being around people and in the sports atmosphere,” Steichen said. “Every game he would be sitting courtside.”
During his senior year at Shanley, Joe scored a touchdown for the Deacons football team in his wheelchair, rushing for a 65-yard touchdown. Shanley head football coach Troy Mattern said that remains the most memorable touchdown in his more than 20 years of coaching.
“He was just as part of our football program as anybody else,” Mattern said during Dom Izzo’s Hot Mic sports show Monday. “He lifted us up. … He truly was an inspiration to us all.”
Mattern said Joe was like an advanced NFL scout and had scouting reports for each of Shanley’s upcoming opponents that he would share with Mattern. If you wanted to know any information about the North Dakota sports scene, Mattern said Joe would know.
“He was kind of like the Sid Hartman of North Dakota, “ said Mattern, referring to the former longtime Star Tribune sports columnist. “He had insight from everybody.”
Joe was studying for a career in sports journalism and broadcasting at MSUM. Jon Wepking, an MSUM assistant athletic director for marketing and production, said Joe was planning to intern for the Dragons sports information department next school year. Wepking had Joe in a couple classes for sports marketing and sports journalism.
Wepking said when Joe decided he was going to attend college at MSUM, it almost felt like a signing day announcement for an athlete.
“It’s really rare when you have someone come to a university and you already know who they are,” Wepking said. “I knew he would be in my office sooner or later. … It was just a pleasure to have him be a part of our lives.”
Steichen said the overwhelming response of people supporting Joe and his family on social media over the past week shows how much of an impact Joe had on so many people. He was well known among Dragons athletes and the MSUM campus, Steichen said.
“He touched so many people’s lives,” Steichen said. “We were all there fighting with him, behind him. ... He's just something special."
Steichen said she’s thankful she got to know Joe and his family, including his parents, Joni and Gary Keller.
“Joni and Gary truly raised a legend.” Steichen said. “I think his legacy will live in all of us forever.”