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'Another championship': Dragons earn prestigious national award in honoring memory of superfan Joe Keller

Minnesota State Moorhead recently received the NCAA's highest non-athletic award in an event that honored Joe Keller's memory.

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Kayla Keller, left, Gary Keller, center, and Joni Keller were part of Minnesota State Moorhead's annual Make-A-Wish night to honor Joe Keller in February 2022. Gary and Joni are Joe's parents and Kayla is his sister. Joe died at age 21 in May 2021. MSUM's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) partnered with the Kellers to honor Joe last winter. MSUM recently received a national award for the event.
Sean Rice / MSUM Athletics
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MOORHEAD — Joe Keller always wanted the best for the athletic teams he followed. The Fargo Shanley graduate, who later attended Minnesota State Moorhead, was well known around the area sports scene for being the Deacons' "Superfan."

Keller, diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 5, died at 21 in May 2021, but his impact has endured and his memory recently led to national recognition for MSUM.

“He always wanted championships for his team,” said Gary Keller, Joe’s father. “This was just another championship on top of everything. For Christmas he never wanted presents, he wanted championships.”

MSUM was selected as the 2023 recipient of the NCAA Division II Award of Excellence for its work with “Joe’s Heroes” and Make-A-Wish North Dakota. The honor is the highest non-athletic NCAA-sponsored award a school can receive. MSUM was one of 22 finalists for the D-II honor to recognize schools and their athletes for community engagement.

Shanley won the North Dakota Class 11AA football state title last November prior to MSUM winning this award.

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“He got one (championship) from Shanley, the football team, and now MSUM getting this national award is icing on the cake,” Gary said.

MSUM’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) created an event at a basketball doubleheader in February 2022 that helped raise $4,385 for Make-A-Wish North Dakota and honor Joe, who had previously been granted a wish. Joe was also an MSUM athletics intern.

Rachel Schumacher , a former president of MSUM’s SAAC, helped organize the event to honor Joe for Make-A-Wish and it was a way for her to pay it forward. A former Dragons track and field athlete, Schumacher’s brother Bobby — who had a brain tumor — was granted a wish in late 2001. Bobby died in May 2002 at 8 years old. Schumacher was 4 at the time.

“I’m happy to continue to give back,” said the 25-year-old Schumacher, from Bismarck.

Schumacher said the family went to Disneyland for Bobby’s wish.

“It’s not only giving hope to the child, but it’s definitely giving hope to the family,” Schumacher said. “Make-A-Wish really does a good thing for people.”

The Kellers were honored to be part of MSUM’s annual Make-A-Wish night, which was also done in memory of Joe. Joni Keller, Joe’s mom, said “Joe’s Heroes” granted two wishes through fundraising efforts when Joe was in elementary school and junior high.

“MSUM was special to him so we were really thrilled that they wanted to honor him,” Joni said.

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Joni said Joe was a fan of multiple sports, but especially basketball. Former Dragons women’s basketball player Natalie Steichen was one of the many local athletes who formed a strong bond with Joe through athletics.

“He loved being around people and in the sports atmosphere,” Steichen said to The Forum in May 2021. “Every game he would be sitting courtside.”

Dragons head women’s basketball coach Karla Nelson is also the advisor for MSUM’s SAAC.

“Everybody knew Joe,” Nelson said. “It was a great combination of the Kellers and Make-A-Wish. He was just a huge sports fan. It’s crazy to me how many people knew him and how he knew so many people. … You could ask him a stat on any of our players and he would know the stats.”

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Former Minnesota State Moorhead women's basketball player Natalie Steichen said she will always remember Joe Keller's smile and positive attitude. Steichen and Keller shared the same birthday. Submitted photo

MSUM’s Make-A-Wish event for this school year is scheduled for Feb. 18 when the Dragons host the University of Mary in a basketball doubleheader at Alex Nemzek Fieldhouse.

“For us it’s just knowing that he had such an impact on so many people it just continues to baffle us how widespread it was,” Gary said. “This is kind of overwhelming.”

Joni and Gary said Joe’s legacy was more than sports.

“Athletics was important to him, but it really was an avenue for him to meet people,” Joni said. “Joe was about people and relationships.”

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Gary added: “Some of the biggest impacts he had on people were not athletes. He was a lot bigger than just the ‘Superfan.’ That’s what he’s known as, but for us, much bigger than that.”

Peterson covers college athletics for The Forum, including Concordia College and Minnesota State Moorhead. He also covers the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks independent baseball team and helps out with North Dakota State football coverage. Peterson has been working at the newspaper since 1996.
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