- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Tay Bender doesn't know who shot the free throws in his place. Come to think of it, he's not even sure the officials called a foul.
Bender remembers only leaping for a rebound and taking an elbow between the eyes.
He woke up a day later in the hospital, removed from a medically induced coma after sustaining a second concussion during a stretch of several days in the winter of 2010.
"The unknown in that situation is the worst part," said Dave Gillespie, athletic director at Bender's Lincoln Southwest High School. "It's pretty scary."
Bender hasn't played basketball since. Doctors cleared him to return a few weeks after the injury for the end of his sophomore season but Bender declined. His time in rehab after the scare refocused Bender on his top priority: to play quarterback at the highest level of college football.
Hearing the doctors say I might never play football again motivated me to work harder and believe in myself. I've tried to tell the younger kids that this could be over at any time. That's what I've learned. Take care of yourself and take advantage of your opportunities.
”-- Tay Bender
The 6-foot-4, 206-pound junior accepted a scholarship offer this month from Kansas State, the Wildcats' first pledge for the class of 2012, and it happened right under the nose of a chief K-State rival. Big Ten-bound Nebraska has not extended an offer to Bender, whose high school sits six miles straight south of Memorial Stadium.
The Huskers like Bender only as an athlete -- and he doesn't like that.
"I'm always going to have some Husker in me," Bender said, "but to get the chance to play quarterback, I'm going to make the selfish decision. It was all about being an athlete at Nebraska. If it's athlete, it's not what I want. Quarterback's what I love."
His basketball injury strengthened that resolve.
"Hearing the doctors say I might never play football again motivated me to work harder and believe in myself," Bender said. "I've tried to tell the younger kids that this could be over at any time. That's what I've learned. Take care of yourself and take advantage of your opportunities."
Poised for success
Tavarius "Tay" Bender emerged last fall in his first season as a starter at a high school that has produced four straight college-bound players at quarterback, including Bender. He rushed for 793 yards and threw for 990, accounting for 13 total touchdowns in 10 games.
He ran a 10.8-second 100-meter dash last spring, covers 40 yards in 4.4 seconds and has a vertical leap of nearly 40 inches. Bender nailed a pair of 52-yard field goals as a junior and could make it as a Division I place-kicker if he preferred, said Southwest coach Mark King.
"Athletically, he's there," King said. "You could put him in a gymnasium with every Division I quarterback and he'd stand out."
And now, Bender offers hope as perhaps the next dual-threat star in coach Bill Snyder's offensive system that so heavily relies on a playmaker at the premier position.
Kansas State has never won 12 games in 115 years of competitive football. Six times, it's won 11 -- all since 1997 in the junior and senior seasons of athletic quarterbacks Michael Bishop, Jonathan Beasley and Ell Roberson.
"It's like that at Kansas State more than other schools because we didn't have elite talent all over the field," said Grant Gregory, the starting quarterback on Snyder's 6-6 team in 2009. "Some other elite schools can get away with a good quarterback and win 11 or 12 games because they've got first-round talent all around him.
"At Kansas State, your quarterback has to be your best player."
Snyder appeared optimistic, the quarterback said, that Bender could develop into that guy.
In their recent meeting as Snyder offered a scholarship, the coach told Bender he shared some traits with Bishop, runner-up in the 1998 Heisman Trophy balloting.
"He said I could be even better," Bender said.
The perfect fit
The Wildcats have failed in recent years to build their recruiting classes around their quarterback. Many arrived at Kansas State in unorthodox fashion, like Gregory, who after spending five years at South Florida needed NCAA clearance to transfer to Manhattan, Kan., without sitting out.
In the eight seasons since 1997 in which Kansas State did not win 11 games, it averaged 5.6 victories.
It's a dream to be able to sit in coach Snyder's office and talk to him about football. K-State fits me. I could listen to him talk all day and not get bored.
”-- Tay Bender
"It's a dream to be able to sit in coach Snyder's office and talk to him about football," Bender said. "K-State fits me. I could listen to him talk all day and not get bored."
Bender said he's not concerned about the longevity of Snyder, 71, who spent 17 years at the helm of the program before taking a three-year break and returning in 2009.
"He says he'll be there," Bender said, "and I'm not thinking about it any other way."
Bender may opt to graduate in December and enroll at Kansas State early. In the meantime, he said, he's got plenty on which to improve. He completed 47.6 percent of his throws as a junior and struggled early to command the huddle, King said.
As the season progressed, though, Bender got markedly better. Southwest won four straight games after a 1-3 start in Nebraska's largest classification of football. Bender played well, King said, in a loss to eventual state runner-up Millard South of Omaha in the first round of the playoffs.
"We knew he was good," Millard South coach Andy Means said. "After the game, we thought he was better than his film showed."
Nebraska nearby but out of the picture
As for the specter of the hometown Huskers, it looms large.
Gillespie, the Southwest athletic director, formerly worked as an assistant football coach and recruiting coordinator at Nebraska. Southwest principal Rob Slauson is the father of New York Jets' guard Matt Slauson, a former three-year starter at Nebraska.
Three former Silver Hawks play football at Nebraska, including defensive starters Austin Cassidy and Baker Steinkuhler. Outside Gillespie's door sits Nicole Kubik, a former Nebraska basketball star and three-sport coach at Southwest.
That's life in Lincoln.
And if the Huskers call with a scholarship before next February?
"Too late," Bender said. "I've made the decision. I'm committed to it. I'm 100 percent, and it's not changing."
Bender's father, Jeremy, actually played a stint at Nebraska under former coach Frank Solich as a walk-on receiver.
Jeremy Bender raised Tay in a single-parent home. Tay's grandparents care for him now as Jeremy serves in the U.S. Air Force in Arizona.
"Tay's a tough kid," said King. "He's been through a lot and had mainly male influences in his life. When he's skinned his knee, he's had nobody to feel sorry for him."
It explains Snyder's quick connection with Bender, who may need the coach almost as much as Snyder needs the quarterback.
"He had a lot of interest from a lot of different places, from LSU to UCLA," King said. "Bottom line, he just felt great about coach Snyder. He came off as a father figure for Tay, and that's important.
"And I think he knows they're not going to move him from quarterback. Tay needs to stay right where he is."
Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.