Tom Mix, Published January 12 2014
Deacons devotion: Eighth-grader with muscular dystrophy known as Shanley's No. 1 fan
Both venues are where Keller’s heroes call home, and given the countless hours he spends at both locations, the venues are his home, too.
Keller, an eighth-grader at Sullivan Middle School, is widely known as one of the most fervent supporters of Shanley High School athletics and he has the ticket stubs to prove it.
“Shanley is the only school I follow,” Keller said. “I really enjoy watching all the sports at Shanley. Everyone is a part of the game and that is what I like. It’s fun to be a fan and fun to watch the players do well.”
At age 5, Keller was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy – a group of muscle diseases characterized by progressive weakness and degeneration of skeletal muscles that control movement.
After the diagnosis, Keller needed the assistance of leg braces and by the time he entered fourth grade, he began using a motorized wheelchair fulltime.
Actively competing in his favorite sports was off the table. Cheering and supporting his friends that could play was not.
“He is a special guy,” Shanley junior all-state linebacker Alex Berg said. “He is always talking to the football players and loves watching the sport. I know he wants to be out there so bad, but he is there every game cheering us on. No one compares to him. He is our No. 1 fan.”
“Even though Joe can’t play sports, he takes a great interest in them and has passion for them,” added Joe’s father, Gary Keller. “That is a great feeling and I’m proud of him.”
Keller’s sister Kayla is a senior at Shanley and plays soccer. When the Deacons girls soccer team defeated Bismarck St. Mary’s in a shootout to capture the 2012 state championship, Keller took a lap around the field with the Deacons’ team flag in hand.
“He never misses a game and always puts in the extra effort to get to all of them,” Kayla Keller said. “He has formed friendships with my teammates and other players, too. Whenever we play Fargo Davies, some of the girls from the team who play on my travel team come over and give Joe a hug. The friendships he has made are bigger than the game.”
“Joe brings a lot of passion to Shanley athletics,” added Carly Mickelson, a former three-sport athlete for the Deacons and 2013 Shanley graduate. “A lot of people can cheer and be supportive at games, but he is totally joyful and positive. As a player it was always great to know he was at our games.”
Keller is a student manager for the eighth grade boys basketball team at Sullivan. His job description is to dish out encouragement.
“We are sort of an all-star team,” Keller said of the team. “I look forward to every tournament and every game.”
Since Keller began following Shanley athletics, three games – the 2008 boys soccer state championship, the 2012 girls soccer state championship and the 2013 boys basketball state championship – stand out.
Keller said the 2013 boys basketball title is his favorite. Following the victory, every member of the team came up to Joe to thank him for being in Bismarck that night last March.
“Even though Shanley might lose a game here and there, I’ll think about last year’s state championship game,” Keller said. “I know that might sound like I’m living in the past, but I’m just so glad we got that state title.”
Keller never shows up to a game without Deacons gear. He has a specific hat for every sport, but his lucky hat is one that he has worn since 2011 – the year the Shanley girls basketball team made it to the state championship game.
Keller said the hat has a lot of sentimental value and is autographed by players on that 2011 squad as well as Shanley players in the seasons that have followed.
Shanley athletes also support Keller. Every year, the boys basketball team designates one home game to wear T-shirts that read “Joe’s Heroes” during warmups and also join the Keller family at Fargo’s annual Walk for Wishers fundraising event for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“It definitely gives our team a sense of pride, knowing Joe has our back,” Shanley basketball standout Patrick Strom said. “We have his back, too. We love seeing him at the games, giving him high-fives and going to the Make-A-Wish events the Keller family participates in. We love supporting him and we are glad to have his support as well.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Tom Mix at (701) 241-5562