By GREG BISHOP
Published: November 27, 2008
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Executives left their offices at the Jets' headquarters on a recent afternoon, drawn to a hallway by the sounds of trash talk and bouncing Ping-Pong balls.
With his body coiled into position, Keller turned on the ball and smacked a forehand. The ball bounced over the head of the rookie running back Jehuu Caulcrick and echoed down the hallway. As Caulcrick retrieved the ball, Keller hollered, "It's not even fun anymore, is it?"
Keller turned to table tennis as a hobby back in grade school because he found that dominating basketball games at the local Y.M.C.A. in Lafayette, Ind., came too easily.
Reminding himself of Forrest Gump, Keller beat his brothers at table tennis until they refused to play him. While in college at Purdue, he bought a table for his apartment. He told his coach he might go pro after he destroyed teammates so badly they broke his paddles.
"Ping-Pong is like most games," Keller said. "People just don't want to play me anymore."
It is this kind of confidence that allowed Keller to brush off the boos he heard on draft day to become at once the Jets' table-tennis champion and one of Brett Favre's favorite targets.
Keller does not exhibit confidence so much as he exudes it. He reminds his brothers that he dunked on Greg Oden, the Portland Trail Blazers center, in high school, twice. He talks constantly while competing, in table tennis and pool and video games.
Even at age 8, when Dwight, his older brother by 10 years, played pickup basketball with friends, Dustin always tagged along. Dwight remembered that his brother held his own against high school seniors, never turning the ball over, always jumping in the older players' faces.
"Confidence is pretty much a family trait," Dwight said.
Sandwiched between two older brothers and younger twins, Keller needed that confidence to be noticed.
The boys were a basketball-playing bunch, all point guards except for the middle child, who was the tallest at age 15. Most evenings, they gathered at a neighbor's basketball hoop, where they would play until those neighbors came downstairs and told the boys they were trying to sleep.
"Each and every one of them will tell you they're the best at basketball," Keller said. "But I will, definitely, without a doubt, say it's me. And I'm going to be correct."
Maureen Keller raised them as a single mother who went to college and sometimes worked two jobs. Yet she still shuttled five children to games and practices, still found time to bake cookies and cook pots of chili for them and their friends.
Sometimes, she returned home to find the walls marked up from a mattress that the boys had been riding down the stairs. Once, she noticed the laundry chute had been damaged. Apparently, Dustin had become stuck while sliding down. Instead of removing him right away, his brothers tickled his feet.
"All kinds of mischief went on," she said. "They didn't tell me until it was too late to punish them."
During tough times, Maureen Keller turned to a familiar saying: One day we'll look back at this and laugh.
She said it when they ate tuna casserole for the third night in a row. When she accidentally bought one of the boys women's basketball shoes. When she took them to school in her old car with a drooping ceiling held together by thumb tacks.
"Looking back on it, I really don't know how she did it," Dustin Keller said. "I don't know when she had time to sleep."
In high school, his mother brought him to volunteer at homeless shelters and to her job working with people with developmental disabilities. Those experiences exposed another side of this confident middle son, a tender one.
He befriended one man with Down syndrome. Each year on that man's birthday, Keller escorted him to Purdue's football offices to meet the players and the coaches. Another woman who also had Down syndrome accompanied the family to every football banquet, calling Keller and his brothers her bodyguards.
"These people we had the opportunity to get to know, they don't care how much money you have or what you look like," Maureen Keller said. "They know immediately if they can trust you. They know what you're all about."
If the boys learned caring from their mother, they took their confidence from their father.
Willie Keller Jr. was a playground legend in Lafayette, a basketball star who Maureen said would be the first to tell everybody so. They divorced when the boys were young, and not long after, Willie Keller Jr. died. Hundreds of locals, including the mayor, attended his funeral.
The family prefers not to talk about the events that led to his death. Maureen Keller said that people sometimes overcome mistakes and sometimes succumb. "Unfortunately," she said, "that's what happened with him."
Keller experienced his share of loss. In high school, his good friend died from cancer. They had played together on different teams, in different sports.
Maureen Keller guided her son through the losses, reminded him that he was his father's legacy, that he would accomplish all the things Willie Keller Jr. did not.
Even now, when she looks at her middle son, she sees his father, all outgoing and charming and athletic. But the confidence, the kind that would not allow Dad to admit he had lost to one of his sons in basketball, stands out more than anything.
It was there when some fans booed Keller back in April after the Jets had traded up to draft him. It was there against New England in overtime, when Keller caught a 16-yard pass on third down that led to the winning field goal. And it was there against St. Louis when he gained 107 receiving yards.
"I wish I had him when I was younger," Favre said. "He's going to have a lot of 100-yard days, a lot of big plays. He has no idea how good he can be."
Earlier this week, after her sons bought her an iPhone, Maureen sent Dustin a text message. She reminded him of the dandelions he used to pick for her, and of the dozens of cards that she kept from him over the years.
Even though her son had been invited for Thanksgiving at the home of a Jets employee, she considered sending food overnight anyway — turkey and ham, stuffing and mashed potatoes and Dutch apple pie, Dustin's favorite.
For his part, Keller has been paying her back. He is covering the cost of graduate school, so she can teach students with special needs.
And earlier this year, after church around Mother's Day, the boys took their mother outside and pointed to a shiny silver fully loaded BMW. Dustin remarked at how nice the car was, and his mother made a mental note to remind him not to become too materialistic.
Again, the boys pointed at the car. Then Dustin handed her the keys.
"She might have just now stopped crying from that," he said.
Mostly, when the Kellers look back now, they laugh — the way Mom always said they would.