WASKOM -- It was a moment nearly 18 years in the making. And it was almost only a dream.

When Whitney Keeling arrived in Waskom prior to the 2010 season, his stepson, Dylan Harkrider, came with him and was immediately assigned to the role of starting quarterback for the junior high's seventh-grade team.

It wouldn't be long before the two shared the same field. That's not to suggest there weren't a few stumbling blocks along the way.

Before Harkrider could assume the varsity's quarterback job, he had to wait his turn. Trace Carter was a year ahead of him, and busy piloting Waskom to a 29-2 record in his two seasons in charge, including the 2014 state championship.

Once the shine wore off last season's triumph, the job was finally Harkrider's.

Not so fast.

 

CATCHING A BACK BREAK

"HIs sophomore year (of football) he played all JV, and he's playing baseball his sophomore year and he's complaining about his back hurting him," Keeling said of Harkrider. "We thought that he might've pulled a muscle or something."

In an effort to make sure he was ready for summer 7-on-7 duties, Keeling made the decision to shut him down once baseball season ended.

"We come out and start doing 7-on-7 and it's killing him, right there in his lower back," Keeling said. "I finally said that we need to go get him checked out and see if there's something wrong with him."

Waskom quarterback Dylan Harkrider attempts a pass during the Wildcats' practice Tuesday.

Initial tests didn't discover any structural damage, and Harkrider was placed in a brace for three months. After that didn't work, Keeling sought out a back specialist, and was put in contact with Dr. Andrew Gossett in Dallas, the man who performed surgery on Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

There he was diagnosed with a broken Lower Lumbar Vertebrae, and put in a brace once again. He played all the way through the baseball season with limited pain, before running into problems again last summer.

"So they put him back in the brace, and that was all summer long," Keeling said. "So we were going into the season and we didn't know if he was going to be able to participate or not."

But to everyone's amazement, Harkrider was able to get through most of this football season -- his first as the starting quarterback for his stepfather's team -- pain-free.

Until the second round round of the playoffs when the injury flared up. And at the worst possible time.

"Before the Arp game he couldn't hardly walk," Keeling said. "We did an X-ray and there wasn't anything broken, and they think he just misaligned it. I took him to the chiropractor Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (of that week). By Friday, he was like, 'man, I feel good!'"

And now, Harkrider will finish his high school career with a state championship on the line.

"So that makes it real special," Keeling said. "To see him participate when we didn't know if he was going to get to."

FAMILY MATTERS

As far back as Harkrider can remember, he always had a ball in his hand.

At first it was baseball, a sport his biological father Tim Harkrider and uncle Kip Harkrider played at the University of Texas after their time at Carthage High School.

"I was always throwing a ball, hitting a ball, and as I grew older I was always in baseball practice, football practice, soccer practice," Dylan said. "I just grew up playing sports, and I never stopped."

Football soon peaked the interest of Dylan, and what better man to learn the game from than Keeling.

Waskom quarterback Dylan Harkrider scores during the Wildcats' 57-28 regional championship win over West Rusk on Dec. 4 in Longview.

"He's out here teaching me on the football field, and when we go home, we can watch film there, too," Dylan said. "But whenever we get on the field, he's not really a family member. He's more of a coach to me.

"He doesn't always want to admit when I'm right," he quipped. "But it does get tough sometimes because he's always on me, and I've got to do things right."

It's a tough balancing act for Keeling as well.

"I do my very best to not take work home with me," the coach said. "When I go home I don't tell my wife what's all going on, on the football field. I try to leave everything that I possibly can at work because I do have a daughter and another son that need time with me. I would feel like I was neglecting them if I went home and (surrounded) myself with football."

But the two work well in tandem keeping football between the lines.

"Really the only time we ever talk about football is on Sunday nights when I come home from work," Keeling said. "And he'll just ask, 'what's the game plan?' Our offense is our offense, we don't change a lot from week to week. We're not sitting there with a TV remote going through every play. He's not that way, and neither am I."

HIS TIME TO SHINE

A quick glance at Waskom's season stats, and it'd be difficult to know anything was ever physically wrong with Harkrider. While the Wildcats still run the ball most of the time, they are throwing it more this season with Harkrider behind center.

Harkrider has passed for 1,116 yards and 20 touchdowns with only three interceptions in 111 attempts ahead of Thursday night's Class 3A Division II state championship game against Franklin.

Waskom had four 1,000-yard rushers a season ago, and Carter only passed for 481 yards and six touchdowns in 47 attempts in 2014.

"Last year we had two good running backs and we were just running the ball," Harkrider said. "But this year, we kinda needed an extra dimension, and that made defenses honor the pass, and that opened up the running game more, too."

Waskom head coach Whitney Keeling has compiled a 44-2 record since 2013. HIs team enters Thursday's 3A Division II championship game on a 30-game winning streak. (Mark Martin, ETSN.fm)

While Harkrider probably has more natural ability as a passer than his predecessor, the Waskom quarterback sees his time away from the game last season as a blessing in disguise now.

"When I watched as we went through the playoffs I was still able to go to practice and stay in the offense mentally," he said.

And stepdad couldn't be more proud of the way Harkrider has handled everything in stride.

"It's really an emotional story because he has persevered so much, and at one point he just wanted to say, 'I'm done, I don't want to go through it anymore,'" Keeling said. "We talk about character a lot, and of course he's a high-character kid. Without me, he's that way. I think he's a natural-born leader, and I think that's just his genetic makeup. He takes control of the huddle, takes control of the sidelines. And to see that is special, it really is."

And now with stepdad and stepson nearing the end of their days on the field together, there's only one thing left to accomplish.

"I would mean the world to us because we were doubted early, and we kinda wanted to create our own legacy," Harkrider said of potentially winning the state title. "Last year they were 15-1 and this year we're 15-0 going into the last game. It would mean not only the world to us but also the town to have a perfect season."

Waskom's head coach Whitney Keeling accepts the Class 3A Division II, Region II championship trophy after a 57-28 win against West Rusk on Dec. 4 at Longview's Lobo Stadium.