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The Randy Keller Fighting Heart Baseball Scholarship, AISD’s largest, keeps spirit of gritty player alive

Dr. Avery Rush felt drawn to the doorstep of Don and Carol Keller on a December evening in 1992. Christmas was in the air, but that was not what pulled the Amarillo ophthalmologist to the Keller home.

He had to do something, felt compelled to go beyond concern and condolences after the Keller’s loss of their youngest child, Randy. On Dec. 11, the 17-year-old died in a one-vehicle accident in the Ridgecrest neighborhood.

“I can’t tell you the feeling I had, but I just knew I needed to go over there and be with them,” Rush says. “To me, it felt like I had lost my own son. I don’t know if I could give a reason other than I was motivated to help.”

Rush and Don Keller became friends a few years earlier when both were coaching their sons in YMCA baseball. They had practice fields adjacent to each other at Southwest Park. Rush was new to coaching baseball, and he asked Keller for a few tips and suggestions.

Keller was more than happy—flattered even—to share what he knew. They developed a connection, this eye surgeon and the general manager of an equipment company.  It continued as sons Jave Rush and Randy Keller aged into high school.

Then came the numbing news of Randy’s death. The Kellers made the decision to donate their son’s organs. Just a few days later, Rush performed a corneal transplant, giving Randy’s corneas to two recipients who were blind.

All of that—the Kellers’ generosity, friendship, Randy—welled within Rush as he rang the doorbell. Between hugs and tears, he had an offer for the Keller family.

“Avery said that he had a gift for us,” Carol says. “He wanted to keep Randy’s spirit and name alive. Oh my goodness, we couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t because it continues to grow.”

And so was born the Randy Keller Fighting Heart Baseball Scholarship. There was nothing like it in Amarillo at the time, and even today, few like it anywhere else.

‘Watch what I do and follow me’

One of the lures of baseball is that it offers a place for a player of almost any size. Randy Keller wasn’t going to hit a baseball 380 feet or throw a baseball 90 mph. But he found ways to help his team win, from those early YMCA baseball days through his junior year at Tascosa.

He had always been a second baseman. He had a sure glove. He could lay down a bunt, move a runner over. He could steal a base, start a rally. He was a pain to the opponent. It was rare if Randy’s uniform wasn’t dirty by the second inning.

“A lot of times he was the smallest guy on the field,” says Tim McLemore, Randy’s teammate and best friend. “He was gritty. Typical leadoff guy—just dirty all the time. He could make things happen. He was a spark plug, a coach’s dream. It was ‘watch what I do and follow me.’’’

The previous year as a junior, in the 1992 baseball season, Randy won Tascosa baseball’s Fighting Heart Award. He had become a leader, matured into a more outgoing personality.

He’d been a quiet kid in elementary and junior high. Words almost had to be pulled out of him. Not at Tascosa. He was funny, a prankster, and got the most out of each day.

“He found his voice in high school,” McLemore says. “He was loyal to his friends to a fault. If you were to grab the people from the ’93 class and ask, ‘Did you like Randy Keller?’ Every single one would tell you they loved him, that he was the funniest guy, the greatest guy to be around.”

McLemore, Randy and others were about two months away from their senior baseball season in December 1992.  It was the second Friday of the month, and Tascosa had just hosted a dance. A group had a room at a hotel off I-40 near Coulter. 

Right after McLemore whipped beneath an underpass and headed east on the I-40 access road, he pulled into the hotel parking lot. He saw his older brother, Brent, along with some other friends. That was strange. What was his brother doing there?

“As I got closer, I could see the look on his face and instantly I knew something was bad. I had not seen that look before,” Tim says. “He told me to get in the truck, and then he told me Randy had passed away in a car accident. That’s one of those things that’s just seared into your brain.”

Tim went immediately to the Keller’s house. “That was my second home. I was there all the time. Carol was like another mother to me. I hugged her for what seemed like forever. That’s seared into my brain, as well.”

There would be a memorial service, a burial, a stream of friends and family at the home. Through the fog of almost unbearable grief stepped Avery Rush.

An enormous legacy

In 2024, the Randy Keller Fighting Heart Baseball Scholarship celebrated its 31st anniversary. The pool of applicants is small, and the reward is great—so great, in fact, that it is the largest single scholarship given within Amarillo ISD.

Each of the four Amarillo ISD high schools—Amarillo High, Caprock, Palo Duro and Tascosa—nominate two players from their baseball program. In addition to a scholarship application, the candidates meet with a committee which asks questions and learns more about the applicant.

The first recipient four months after Randy’s death, fittingly, was Randy’s best friend, Tim McLemore, a former catcher turned outfielder. The amount was initially $1,000, but had increased to $5,000 by the time McLemore graduated from West Texas A&M University in 1998.

“I was extremely honored,” he says. “Randy had a lot of really good friends on that team that loved Randy like I did. I was an above-average player at best. I joked that my speed turned triples into singles. But I loved baseball and played hard like Randy did. I was going to college regardless, but to be the first name on that plaque was super special.”

In 31 years, a total of $406,750 has been dedicated to the scholarship. Six times the scholarship has increased—to $6,000 in 2003, $10,000 in 2007, $15,000 in 2009, $20,000 in 2011, and the current $25,000 last year. The amount is payable over eight semesters as long as the recipient remains a full-time student and carries a 2.0 GPA.

“Tragedies are going to occur,” Rush says, “but you can bring some positivity out of tragedy. This is not going to bring back Randy, of course, or take away the tragedy, but it helps to take a positive stand when you can.”

Rush established the Keller Foundation and funds the majority of it. Another major contributor is an unlikely but symbolic link to the Keller family and baseball—a talent agent in Hollywood.

In the early 1970s, the Kellers lived in an Albuquerque apartment complex. John Williams, an 8-year-old boy, lived in the same complex. He lost his father in a car accident. Williams was cut from another team, and his mother asked Don Keller if he would coach a team with her son on it. Don agreed, and it was the start of 46 years of baseball coaching, from 1972 to 2018, the past 39 years in Amarillo.

Williams, who counts comedians Jeff Foxworthy and Larry The Cable Guy among his clients, never forgot his first coach and his willingness to help him grow. He has sent several $50,000 checks to the scholarship fund over the years.

“To begin with, the financial part was not the biggest motivating factor,” Rush says. “It was more about honoring the name and memory. But I also never thought it would grow and be as big as it has become. In other words, the financial part is important and I don’t want to downplay it, but the honor is receiving it.”

The scholarship recipient each year is determined by a committee that interviews the applicants. The process causes mixed emotions for the Kellers, as it’s hard not to think of that December night, but it also gives them a chance to talk about their son.

“I look forward to that but also dread it,” Carol Keller says. “I was so grateful for it then, but even more now. So many we know have lost children, and for us to do this every year and I get to talk about Randy because I want the candidates to know him, is just a blessing. It’s the biggest gift we’ve received.”

The interviews often leave the committee with not only a difficult decision, but also a restored faith in the future.

“When you’re in that room, you walk out feeling better about yourself,” says Lance Lahnert, former sports writer and sports editor for the Amarillo Globe-News, who covered the scholarship while employed by the newspaper. “Everyone is concerned about our youth, but you come out impressed and hopeful for the future. Everyone comes out going, ‘Wow, that was amazing.’”

Among the 42 recipients—there have been years of co-recipients—Tascosa and Amarillo High have had 17 and 16 recipients, while Caprock has had six, and Palo Duro three. The scholarship has been awarded to two brothers from Caprock, Andrew Kennedy in 2003 and Tim Kennedy in 2005.

And then came May 2024, when the committee elected to give the scholarship to a center fielder from Amarillo High. He’ll be headed to Richland Community College to play baseball. His name is Max McLemore, and his father, Tim, had been Randy Keller’s best friend. Thirty years after Tim received the first scholarship in Randy’s name, the honor has swung full circle.

“It means the world to me,” Max says. “It really hit home with me. I knew how close my dad was to Randy. The money is great and everything, but it’s more about getting your name associated with it.”

Actually, Max McLemore has been associated with that name long before this spring. It’s right there on his birth certificate: Max Keller McLemore.  

Author

  • Jon Mark Beilue

    Jon Mark worked at the Amarillo Globe-News from 1981 until his retirement in 2018. He spent 17 of those years as sports editor, and the last 12 as the newspaper’s general columnist. Beilue received 16 statewide and national awards for his work. He has written five books—two are collections of his columns, and the other three are on Amarillo lawyers Wales Madden and Robert Templeton, and Canyon girls basketball coach Joe Lombard. Beilue is a native of Groom and graduate of Texas Tech University. He and wife Sandy have two adult sons.

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