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Keller spreads gridiron gospel

MIKE Keller is a man who would like Scotland's sporting public to take to American football with the same committed degree of feeling that he has for their country.

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The 46-year-old arrived in Edinburgh a year ago to spearhead the transformation in fortune of the Scottish Claymores, the World League franchise which represented the NFL-FoxTV partnership's greatest gamble in their masterplan to spread the gridiron gospel in Europe. Having been named Claymores' general manager last July in place of the affable Sandy Waters, the much more innervated Keller had an administrative track record and the dedicated demeanour that suggested failure was an unacceptable option. And so it proved. ``I knew what I was getting into when I accepted the job,'' he said. ``I had plenty experience in getting new operations off the ground in football, I felt confident in my own ability, and I believed in the enormous potential of the Claymores.'' Fulfilling as the job is, in the administrative sense - ticket sales doubled, sponsorship allocations trebled, a key role in the signing of Gavin Hastings, and Claymore Awareness mushrooming - it has now become a labour of love for the archetypal American go-getter. ``I know this could sound corny, but Scotland is a wonderful place to live and work,'' Keller went on. ``The people, the countryside, the towns, the cities - I love them all. ``I am determined to put down some roots here. I'm looking at properties with a view to settling down because I see myself and the Claymores as an enduring relationship.'' Talking of relationships, which the single and very eligible Keller is so keen not to do, he and ``a beauty'' from Newcastle, Anna Clark, may also have long-term plans. A Geordie? Ah well, closest thing to a Scot they have south of the Border. But more of that perhaps in the society columns . . . Born in Chicago and brought up in Michigan, Keller has been a ``football type'' as long as he can remember. He was a promising defensive end at Michigan University in the late sixties, was named to the All Big Ten conference team from 1969-71, and nominated an All-American selection in the latter year, his last at college. A career in pro football beckoned when the Dallas Cowboys, then the predominant power in the NFL, drafted him in the third round in 1972. But, although he made the starting line-up, injury ended his playing ambitions two years later and he moved into the ``front office.'' Football's loss was administration's - and ultimately the Claymores' - gain. He first made his mark as scout, then assistant general manager of the then expansion (newcomer) NFL team the Seattle Seahawks. In the early eighties, he became involved with the ``rebel'' United States Football League, a swashbuckling, anti-establishment adventure - involving, among others, maverick millionaire Donald Trump - to promote a spring league rivalling the NFL. Keller helped ``to put together'' the Michigan Panthers, who won the championship once under his direction and went to the title game twice more. He moved on to become to become director of football operations for the USFL Oakland Invaders in 1985, but that was the year the league folded. The postcript to that stanza in the American sporting odyssey was the multi-million-dollar USFL suit for damages against the NFL, defended by present NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, which the USFL ``won'' - with the award of $1. Keller was a consultant charged with evaluating potential franchise placements before the World League's first incarnation in 1991, with nine teams from Europe and the United States. He was instrumental in building Sacramento Surge - present Claymores' head coach Jim Criner was an assistant coach there - into World Bowl winners in 1992. After the league's two-year sabbatical Keller streamlined the Frankfurt Galaxy - with Claymores' defensive co-ordinator Ray Willsey on the coaching staff - into World Bowl winners in 1995. Success breeds success. And now? ``I'm home,'' he said with feeling. ``Winning on Sunday before 35,000-plus would be the perfect reward for everyone on the Claymores' staff - front office, coaches, and players. And for our superb fans.''

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