During his junior year in high school, Keegan Kush applied to attend six-day summer programs at military academies — and received rejection letters from the Navy, Army and Air Force.
The letters questioned his “academic competitiveness.”
Oh, he is competitive, and he is a good student. Those rejection letters became Keegan's inspiration.
“I put 'em up in my room,” he said. “They really fueled my desire to prove them wrong. I'm not the smartest guy by any means, or the most athletic, but I feel like I work the hardest.”
A year later, he received appointments and was accepted for admission at all the military academies — not for a weeklong visit but for four-year scholarships, courtesy of taxpayers.
He reports at 7 a.m. next Thursday to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
“I'm excited and a little nervous,” he said. “Life will change a lot, and it's time to grow up. But I'm ready for it, I'm prepared.”
Upon arrival, he will get his head shaved, don a uniform, learn to salute, swear an oath of allegiance, say a brief goodbye to his parents and begin the seven-week “Plebe Summer,” followed by his plebe (freshman) year,
As the Navy says, there is no gentle easing into military routine. The “frantic, exhausting pace” this summer is designed to “turn civilians into midshipmen.”
For Keegan, getting this far wasn't easy. A chronic cough through childhood and a broken vertebra in his back from freshman football at Papillion-La Vista High School — which required him to wear a brace for six months — raised questions on his applications.
So did his score of 22 the first time he took the ACT, which apparently is what led to his rejection letters from academies for their high school programs, known as “summer seminars.”
But through study, practice tests and retaking the exam, he eventually scored an impressive 31.
And he graduated fourth in a class of 360 at Papillion-La Vista, where he also served as captain of the football and wrestling teams and president of the National Honor Society.
His college counselor, Ann Herbener, said she was puzzled about his first ACT score and never doubted Keegan.
“In my 28 years as a teacher and counselor,” she said, “he is one of the most focused students I have ever worked with — and yet still so likable. All of the kids and teachers liked and respected him.”
He took advanced-placement courses, she said, and was inquisitive in class. He took part in many school activities, but not merely to build a résumé. “He's always trying to improve himself.”
Getting into a military academy, she said, is as difficult as being accepted at an Ivy League school. The Naval Academy, for example, received 19,000 applications for its 1,100 spots.
It's a three-step process. A student needs acceptance from an academy, an appointment by a congressman or U.S. senator and medical clearance.
Though turned down for six-day summer programs by the Army, Navy and Air Force academies, Keegan was accepted by the Coast Guard. He attended its grueling seminar in Connecticut and returned home for his senior year.
At 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, he was an undersized linebacker in Class A football but finished second in the state in tackles.
As a wrestler, he qualified for the state tournament as a junior but came up short as a senior. Though it was a big disappointment, he kept attending practices and encouraging teammates going to state.
His parents are Kevin and Lynne Kush; he is the longtime Boys Town football coach, and she is a literacy teacher.
At 8 years old, his dad recalled, Keegan made his bed on his own and always kept his room in order. He would triple-check his book bag before heading to school.
When he was 9, brother Christian, then 7, forgot his mittens. Keegan said, “That's OK, I have a spare set in my bag.”
Kevin's nickname for Keegan is “Structure.”
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“He's never been a partier, and he's mature beyond his years,” Dad said. “When you visit these academies, the kids who go there are all grinders and overachievers. They've all got the right stuff. That's encouraging to me. I think this country will be in pretty good hands.”
Once he reports to Annapolis, Keegan is allowed only three phone calls all summer. He won't return home until Christmas.
He would have been honored to attend any of the military academies, he said, but chose the Navy because of its variety of options, such as aviation, submarines, ship command, the Marines and — his current interest — the SEAL program.
He has been swimming, running and lifting, and his weight is closer to 170. He is ready to go.
But before reporting Thursday to the campus on Chesapeake Bay, he and his family will leave Omaha on Sunday for a place he has never visited — Washington, D.C.
He wants to tour the Capitol and all the monuments, museums and other sites, and he especially wants to visit Arlington National Cemetery.
“I'll get a great education at the Naval Academy,” he said, “but the main reason I want to go is to serve my country. That's No. 1.”