The story of Keanon Lowe, former Oregon receiver turned hero

Editor's note: This story on Keanon Lowe was originally published on Aug. 2, 2019. After the 2019 season, Lowe left Parkrose High School to become head coach at West Linn High School.

JEN LOWE USUALLY doesn't check her phone at work. But on the afternoon of May 17, she saw a text from her niece, asking if her eldest son, Keanon, was OK.

There had been an incident at Parkrose High School, where Keanon, a former wide receiver at Oregon, coaches football and track and serves as one of three campus security guards.

Jen immediately called. Keanon answered and told her what happened: how he had wrestled a shotgun away from Angel Granados-Diaz, a Parkrose senior, inside a classroom at the school located on Portland's northeast side.

Earlier that day, Keanon Lowe had been called to find a student in the school's fine arts building -- the kind of call he sometimes gets 30 times a day. When Lowe arrived, a teacher told him the student wasn't there. About 20 seconds later, Granados-Diaz entered the classroom, clutching a shotgun under his trench coat.

Lowe's instincts kicked in within a fraction of a second and he tackled the 19-year-old, wrestling the gun away. Lowe then held Granados-Diaz until police arrived.

When she heard her son recount the story, Jen broke down.

"The thing I said was, 'That's the reason you're there. That's why you're at Parkrose,'" she said. "A lot of times we don't know why we are where we are, but everything happens for a reason. It's amazing all of it happened and his life leading up to it prepared him for that specific moment. He acted. Instinctually, he acted."

During the media blitz that followed, from "Good Morning America" to many local outlets, the 27-year-old Lowe said his life had uniquely prepared him for that moment. Lowe, who was finishing his first year at the school, had taken standard seminars on active shooters but had never worked security before Parkrose. His life and his time in football, though, helped him respond when needed. He knew what to do, not only during the critical seconds but also the minutes that followed.

"Everything lined up for me to be in that room on that day and make that play," Lowe told ESPN. "It was like, 'All right, Keanon, you say you want to change lives. You say you want to do all this. You say you want to be here for the kids. Well, prove it, right there, in that instant.'"

JEN LOWE ALWAYS taught her children that there's no randomness in life. Everything is intentional. You are where you're supposed to be, all the time, she told Keanon and his siblings, older sister Alisa and younger brother Trey.

Keanon put his own spin on her lesson.

"He says, 'When the universe knocks, you've got to answer it,'" said Trey, now a wide receiver at Washington. "The universe is going to test you. You've got to answer those tests."

Keanon's tests began early. His parents separated when he was 9, and divorced several years later. Jen, an accountant, raised the kids on her own. Keanon and Alisa did the math -- three kids, one hard-working parent -- and, as Alisa puts it, "just grew up fast." They saw the gaps in their home life and filled them.

Keanon took on an especially active role with Trey, eight years younger. Keanon taught him how to ride a bike and play sports. He made sure Trey woke up on time and didn't miss the school bus.

"He felt very responsible for Trey," Jen said. "He did a lot of things for the family that not all teenagers do."

Keanon's connection to Trey traced back to the very beginning, on Jan. 25, 2000, at a hospital in Gresham, Oregon, the Portland suburb where the Lowes lived. As Trey's arrival neared, Jen asked both Alisa and Keanon if they wanted to be in the delivery room.

Alisa hid in the bathroom. Keanon remained at Jen's side.

"I can't believe he did that," Alisa said. "Those two were inseparable from the moment Trey was born."

Wherever Keanon went, Trey followed, but not as a drag. Keanon wanted to include Trey in everything. Trey attended games and team dinners, and served as a ball boy for Keanon's high school football squad.

"He was my father figure, my role model," Trey said. "He became the man of the house at a young age."

One day, Keanon and Trey were shooting baskets outside and didn't realize a beehive had formed behind the backboard. After Trey took a shot, bees swarmed the 6-year-old, who, like his older brother, is allergic to them.

"It felt like 100," Trey recalled. "[Keanon] runs from the other side of the street and picks me up, runs through the bees and runs me inside the house and shuts the door. Just trying to look out for me. He would put himself in harm's way. He always would help other people. That's what he wanted to do in life."

KEN POTTER HAS coached Jesuit High School to four Oregon 6A state championships, but he'll never forget what happened in the 2009 title game defeat.

After standout tailback Jordan Talley left with a back injury, Lowe, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound slot receiver/safety, rushed for 310 yards and six touchdowns on 40 carries. Jesuit rallied from a 21-point, third-quarter deficit before falling 50-43 to Sheldon High.

"You could tell he was just exhausted, but he would never stop," Potter said. "The second half, he was a monster. That's who he is."

Lowe came to Jesuit High for the athletic and academic opportunities it provided. A cousin, Michael Lowe, had been a standout football player there. Keanon became a star athlete in football and track, but his impact went further.

"Everybody, from the guidance counselor to the janitor to the math teacher to students, was talking about him," said former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who recruited Lowe to play for the Ducks. "And it was all about his character. Not like, 'Oh, you're here to see Keanon. He's fast and he's this,' which he certainly was. I haven't had that many kids in my coaching career, when you walk into a high school, everybody raves about them like that."

Lowe was a biracial kid from a middle-class family, attending a mostly white school where students lived in big houses and received swanky cars on their 16th birthdays.

But Lowe found his crowd. He met Dominique Forrest, nicknamed Domo. "We're both men of color with white moms, single moms," Forrest said. They soon bonded with other teammates, including Taylor Martinek, a linebacker and fullback. Martinek's father, Brian, was an assistant chief for the Portland Police Bureau and also helped coach at Jesuit. The Martinek house, walking distance to the high school, became a second home for Lowe and Forrest.

The boys even had their own shelf in the pantry, where Taylor's mom, Brenda, stacked boxes of Pop-Tarts.

"The first time we met them, they opened their house and opened their arms to all of us," Lowe said. "That's the spot we'd go to after the dances. They'd be picking us up and yelling at us for doing something dumb late at night. They were another extension of my own family."

LOWE WENT ON to play at Oregon and finished his college career with 68 receptions, 19 kickoff returns, 11 touchdowns, 23 tackles, a forced fumble and 1,288 all-purpose yards. But the numbers don't fully tell what he did for the Ducks between 2011 and 2014.

"Our hardest worker, our best special-teams player, he would bust up the wedge on kickoff," said Matt Lubick, who coached Oregon's wide receivers during Lowe's final two seasons. "He was fearless."

"He always found ways to spring a big run, or spring touchdown runs by running backs," said Marcus Mariota, Oregon's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who played three seasons with Lowe. "[He] was unselfish, did everything he needed to do to help our team win. Every single day, he brought energy."

Lowe saw blocking as his path forward in the program. He went at the necks of defensive backs in practice, then on special teams, and eventually as a starting wide receiver.

"Be physical, talk my s---, back my s--- up," he said. "A lot of times, blocking and smacking somebody in the ear, getting up and talking s--- and setting the tone in the first series of the game, that was my job in that era of Oregon football."

"He would put himself in harm's way. He always would help other people. That's what he wanted to do in life." Keanon Lowe's brother, Trey

One of Lowe's most memorable blocks came in 2013 against Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, an All-American and eventual NFL first-round draft pick. Lowe knocked Bucannon to the Autzen Stadium turf and into another defender, allowing Thomas Tyner to race by for a 66-yard touchdown. Tyler Johnstone, a Ducks offensive lineman, called Lowe "the best blocking receiver in the FBS."

Lowe was the anti-diva at a position often known for them. Sometimes, when wide receiver Dwayne Stanford's targets dropped, Lowe would switch positions so Stanford could catch bubble screens, with Lowe blocking for him. As a senior in 2014, Lowe mentored dynamic freshman Charles Nelson, whose receptions spiked as Oregon reached the national championship game.

"He literally taught Charles Nelson how to take his position," Stanford said. "Charles would take his plays and K-Lowe didn't mind it at all. That's a true team-first guy, to the max."

Stanford learned that firsthand during his own freshman year. Lowe, then a sophomore, had told the younger guys to call him if they ever needed a ride. One day shortly after fall camp, Stanford realized he would be late for morning meetings. He lived about 10 minutes from the facility and had no ride.

So he called Lowe.

"I was in a panic, and he came and got me," Stanford said. "We were like five minutes late to meetings, and we still had to run. We did the punishment together. After that, I said, 'This dude, he's a man of his word.' He didn't throw me under the bus. He didn't say I'm the reason he was late. He took it on the chin."

CHIP KELLY LEFT Oregon for the NFL after the 2012 season, but he kept track of Lowe. After Lowe tried out with the Arizona Cardinals in May 2015 but didn't make the team, Kelly called with a question: Have you thought about coaching?

"We hired him immediately," Kelly said.

Lowe worked on Kelly's staffs with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015 and the San Francisco 49ers the following year. This was 300-level football, intricate verbiage that Lowe tried to absorb as quickly as he could. He also became a resource for players, since he knew how Kelly operated.

"You could tell relationships mattered to him," said current Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who worked on Kelly's NFL staffs alongside Lowe. "Just a fun guy to be around. He had a good combination of understanding football and intelligence, but also could relate to the players."

The 49ers fired Kelly after the 2016 season, but Lowe's future remained promising. He had a chance to stay on staff. Then, on Jan. 14, 2017, Forrest called. Taylor Martinek, their best friend from Jesuit High, had died from an accidental opioid overdose. He was 24.

"That," Lowe said, "changed everything in my life."

"He said he wanted to be a part of something where kids are struggling. He just wants to help and make a community strong." Keanon's sister, Alisa

Martinek had developed addiction disorder and mental health issues while in college at Portland State, where he played football. Lowe knew about his friend's struggles, but always thought Martinek would pull through. After a tough month, Martinek would emerge with a new job or a new car, always with a smile.

"As the behaviors got worse, a lot of [Taylor's] friends gave up on him and left and, in his mind, deserted him, but Keanon never did," said Taylor's father, Brian. "He never saw the negative, even when Taylor was really struggling with his addictions and his mental health stuff. He could have easily lost touch with Taylor, who wasn't on the same positive trajectory."

Taylor's family learned of his death on a Saturday night. By Sunday morning, Lowe was the first person to show up at their front door. He stayed with the Martineks for the next week, in his second home, where Taylor had brought them together.

"Keanon and Domo both made a commitment to my children and to us that they would never leave us," Brian said, choking up. "They have held true to that commitment. They have remained in our lives. They're busy with their lives, too, but they haven't forgotten."

Taylor's death forced Lowe to reassess his own life. The NFL suddenly didn't have the same appeal. Taylor had always looked out for others. Lowe decided he would rededicate himself to the same mission. He moved home and helped coach at Jesuit High during Trey's senior season.

Lubick tried to hire Lowe at two colleges. When Kelly got the UCLA head-coaching position, he reached out. "I wish he was still on our staff," Kelly said.

But Taylor's death convinced Lowe that he was needed elsewhere.

"I feel like I'm doing my best friend justice," he said, "by giving away all my energy to all these kids and people that need it."

KEANON LOWE WASN'T Parkrose High School's first choice. Parkrose had cycled through football coaches. Molly Ouche, the school's principal, had seen two coaching changes in her first three years on the job.

The Broncos hadn't won a game since 2015 -- 23 consecutive losses.

"The program was crap," said RJ Artis, who played for Lowe last fall. "Our freshman year, sophomore, junior year, no kids would show up to practice, or they'd show up whenever they wanted to. Even Thursdays before the games, we'd have walk-throughs, nobody would show up. Nobody would come to study halls, summer workouts, none of that."

Parkrose's administration needed to get the hire right. It formed a seven-member search committee. "Probably way overdone because we were overcompensating for past choices," Ouche said. Assistant principal Drake Shelton, a former high school coach, remembered Lowe from his prep career. Shelton learned Lowe was back in town, helping with Jesuit's team, and asked him to apply.

"He said he wanted to be a part of something where kids are struggling," Lowe's sister, Alisa, said. "He just wants to help and make a community strong."

Lowe had played for Oregon and worked for Kelly in the NFL. But he was just 26 and had no head-coaching experience.

Parkrose considered offering him an assistant coach position. Then, their first choice for the top job fell though. Shelton asked his fellow committee members to trust him about Lowe.

"People should want to hug the kids who need the most love. Spread love and give love and save people and provide hope." Childhood friend Dominique Forrest

"A lot of it was [Lowe's] response to the questions around, 'Why Parkrose?'" Ouche said. "He really talked about the diversity and giving back to his community and really wanting to be here."

Gresham, where Lowe spent most of his childhood, isn't far from Parkrose. Lowe needed no introduction to the school or its struggles.

"I've always known that Parkrose, they don't really win at much of anything," he said. "That's the way people feel about Parkrose in this whole city. It's a small, forgotten school. Not a lot of winning, not a lot of tradition, not a lot of great things from an athletic standpoint in the last 30 years.

"That's what attracted me to the place."

Lowe connected immediately to Parkrose athletes by sharing his story. He wasn't much older than them. Shelton was struck by Lowe's work with less-gifted athletes. One boy, small for his age, had been bullied before Lowe arrived. The boy then began playing football and running track for Lowe at Parkrose.

"You see this enthusiasm now," Shelton said. "He didn't have a place before, but now he's strutting around, he's here, he's kind of arrived. And Keanon treats him like he's his No. 1 star athlete. This kid may never step foot on the varsity field, but he just believes in Keanon so much and the work that he puts into him."

Artis was a different type of underdog: athletic and smart, but short-tempered. Ouche didn't know if he would graduate. A week before the season opener, Artis got into an argument with a coach at practice, threw his helmet and stormed off the field.

He later met with Lowe and apologized. Lowe said his attitude had to change and suspended Artis four games.

"Heartbreaking," said Artis, who watched games and practices from the bleachers. "But getting a chance to come back was a blessing."

Artis returned against Milwaukie High School. An outside linebacker, he made several big tackles, but his most memorable moment came while blocking a Milwaukie defender on a Parkrose run.

"After the whistle, the dude started socking me, he threw me to the ground and I just laid there," said Artis, who graduated in June and will play football at College of the Siskiyous in California. "The past me would have tried to fight back or something. Having the experience with Coach Lowe to leave the attitude off the field, I just laid there and let the kid hit me and he got ejected."

Parkrose beat Milwaukie and finished the regular season at 5-4, earning its first playoff appearance since 2014 and just the sixth in school history. Lowe thinks the Broncos can win the Class 5A state championship this fall.

"He knew the situation at Parkrose had not been great, but he knew he could make a difference," Potter said. "Man, he stepped in and made a huge difference."

THE MEMORIES OF May 17 remain stark, the emotions still raw.

Shelton made the 911 call. Lowe, who didn't have his walkie-talkie, used his cell phone to call Shelton after he disarmed Granados-Diaz, saying, "I got him. Let the police know I'm in here." Shelton went over to the fine arts building, where he waited at the door for Lowe to come out.

"I'll never forget this moment," Shelton said. "He looked at me, almost like he was in a football game, and he said, 'That's why you brought me here!' And he banged his hand against his chest. Me and him both do that to each other. It was one of those things, almost like he scored 10 touchdowns.

"Because he'd just been in the fight of his life."

Alisa had been told her brother was OK, but she still needed to "see with my own eyes." She went to Keanon's house, in time to see him pull up.

"This happens like every other day, and usually the first person in contact with that gunman dies," Alisa said. "I was just so happy that he's alive and he saved this kid and other kids."

Kelly got through to Lowe later that afternoon. The coach first asked Lowe if he was OK.

"Was it a shoulder-leverage tackle?" Kelly then asked. "He kind of walked me through. His analogy, which was awesome, he said, 'It was kind of like you taught us on kickoff, coach. It may not be pretty, but we've just got to make sure we get him to the ground.'"

"A lot of times we don't know why we are where we are, but everything happens for a reason." Keanon Lowe's mom, Jen

No one will forget what Lowe did after getting Granados-Diaz to the ground. Instead of pinning him, Lowe hugged him. Instead of yelling at him, Lowe comforted him.

He looked into Granados-Diaz's eyes and didn't see evil.

"It wasn't in me to beat him up or hold him down or hurt him, even though it was seconds after this crazy thing happened," Lowe said. "I felt his vibe, I felt how scared he was, I felt it all. I'll never forget that conversation I had with him. I told him I cared about him, that people care about him. He was really surprised. He said, 'You do?' I said, 'Yep, I just met you and I care about you. It's going to be OK.'"

Lowe hopes that conversation isn't his last with Granados-Diaz, who in May pleaded not guilty to charges of possessing a firearm in a public building, discharging a firearm at a school, possessing a loaded firearm in public and reckless endangerment. (His lawyer said in court that depression played a part in Granados-Diaz's decision to bring the shotgun to school.)

Ouche thinks that if the public saw the video of Lowe talking to Granados-Diaz on the floor of the fine arts building, they would be even more impressed with his response.

"That's the most, most impressive part," she said. "Where he stands above others."

The May 17 incident, 16 months after Taylor's death, reinforced Lowe's mission to never let a day go to waste. He plans to coach "for a long, long, long time," especially at places where he's needed, like Parkrose.

"He's an example of what people should be doing," Forrest said. "People should want to go to the schools and help where they're needed the most. People should want to hug the kids who need the most love. Spread love and give love and save people and provide hope in environments like that. That's Keanon.

"His life prepared him for that, and is preparing him to do more."