MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A.J. Klein holds a unique position on the Iowa State football team as the only player from Wisconsin.
Based on further investigation, Klein’s uniqueness extends beyond the Cyclones’ football roster.
“I’m the only guy in the Big 12 (from Wisconsin), I think,” said Klein, a native of Kimberly, Wis., which is 20 miles south of Green Bay.
“They came out with something last year that said I was the only guy in the Big 12,” Klein said of an ISU sports information note. “Wisconsin is recruited mostly by Big Ten teams, not Big 12 or SEC or any of those conferences outside of the Midwest.
“I was lucky to get into such a great conference.”
While Klein being the only player from Wisconsin in the Big 12 is noteworthy, he’ll be remembered for a lot more in the Iowa State history annals.
A regular for the Cyclones since the day he set foot on campus, Klein played in every game as a true freshman in 2009, recording 17 special team tackles. He moved into the starting lineup at middle linebacker in 2010 and hasn’t left it. He will make his 40th consecutive career start Monday when Iowa State (6-6) takes on Conference USA champion Tulsa (10-3) at 2:30 p.m. in the 54th Liberty Bowl at Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tenn.
“His name will be loudly spoken in Iowa State football history, I would sure say,” Cyclone head coach Paul Rhoads said of Klein.
Often linked with his fellow all-Big 12 teammate Jake Knott, Klein will finish his career ranked in the top five in career tackles at Iowa State and is already the NCAA career leader in interceptions returned for touchdowns (4).
“I think he and Jake are the road pavers,” Rhoads said of his standout linebackers, both projected to go in the middle rounds of the 2013 NFL draft. “But you’ve got a guy (Klein) who ... he has twice got honored by the Big 12 for what he has accomplished and anytime the coaches in this league honor you it makes people notice.”
Klein, the 2011 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and two-time Cyclone captain, is one of the most respected players on Iowa State’s roster.
“When he’s in school and in football, he’s locked into it,” running back Jeff Woody said. “Everything he does on the field looks like it happens naturally, but he spends hours watching film.”
Klein committed to a Gene Chizik-led Iowa State program, and when Chizik bolted for Auburn, Klein almost became an Iowa Hawkeye, where his cousin, Aron, played.
“I had pretty much told everybody off once I committed and I felt a little out of the game as far as recruiting,” Klein recalled about Chizik leaving. “When Chizik left for Auburn, Iowa did make a late rush.”
Rhoads, however, after being hired, did everything he could to keep Klein committed to the Cyclones.
“As I’ve told before, he was one of the first phone calls I made and he was the first young man that I went and visited when I legally, NCAA-wise, could go on the road.”
Rhoads’ trip to Kimberly assured Klein he had made the right decision all along.
“It was real quick (after Christmas),” Klein recalled of Rhoads’ visit to his home. “He came up to the high school and saw me, did dinner with my parents and told us his plan with the program and everything he told me than he has delivered on.
“I couldn’t be more happy with how things turned out and my decision to come here to Iowa State.”
While Klein saw action in all 12 games of his freshmen season, Rhoads said the 6-foot-2, 244-pound senior’s play really took off last year.
“When he became focused that Wally Burnham (ISU defensive coordinator) could make him a better football player,” Rhoads said when askedwhen he really saw Klein emerge as a great player. “A.J. is a very intelligent young man and anytime you’re intelligent you have your own insight and think you can do things this way or that way.
“Every great football player at some point lets go of that and says ‘coach, coach me’ and I think when he really finally did that a year ago with coach Burnham, and I think his game really improved.”
Klein has continued to follow what his coaches say and sacrificed personal comfort when Knott was injured and missed ISU’s final four games, by switching from middle linebacker to Knott’s spot at will linebacker, a position he had never played before.
But after a Big 12 slate full of spread offenses, Burnahm believes his defense will play more base against Tulsa, meaning Klein will see more time at the sam and mike linebacker positions, two spots he’s played most during his career.
“The defensive staff and head coach asked a little bit more of me,” Klein said. “I had already played two positions and they asked me to learn and play a third.
“It was a challenge for me, but Jake has been there as a mentor. I’ve been in this defense for three-plus years, so I’m comfortable for wherever they put me. I’ll do whatever they ask.”
“I’d like to see him line up more at the two positions he played most of the year and that is at the sam and mike spots,” Rhoads added.
While Klein is focused on the Liberty Bowl and ending his career on a high note, he’s aware of the NFL talk and even if that doesn’t happen he has a plan.
A Kiniesiology major with an emphasis on physical therapy, Klein eventually wants to follow in the footsteps of his father, Leonard, a physical therapist, and eventually will go to graduate school and earn his Ph.D. in Physical Therapy.
“I grew up around it,” Klein said. “He’s (his dad) done it for 20 plus year, I’m not exactly sure how long, but its always been appealing to me just being able to help others and give back to others.
“It is the small things you can do to make a difference in people’s lives. That is why I like PT and mostly attracted to the medical field.”