It’s been said there are no coincidences in life, only destined experiences. Keith Downing can vouch for that. Two decades removed from a decision that affected him profoundly, the former Fairport High and Syracuse University quarterback has come to realize he was destined to pursue a higher calling than signal-calling; that he was meant to make a career as an M.D., not a QB.
Sure, Downing occasionally wonders what he might have accomplished on the football field had then-SU coach Paul Pasqualoni named him rather than Donovan McNabb the starting quarterback before the 1995 season. He would have welcomed the challenge of keeping the Orangemen’s bowl streak alive and maybe even garnered an invitation to an NFL training camp. Alas, that was not to be. But Downing didn’t stay down long after that fateful depth chart was released. Even he could see that McNabb was a special talent who gave Syracuse the best chance to win.
“Things worked out the way they were meant to,’’ said Downing, a surgeon who teaches in the obstetrics and gynecology department at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. “We all made out quite well as far as realizing our dreams.”
That they did. McNabb went on to establish himself as the greatest quarterback in Syracuse and Philadelphia Eagles history. Kevin Johnson, who was in a three-way battle for the SU quarterback job, converted to wide receiver and played seven seasons in the NFL. And Downing has made a name for himself, specializing in reconstructive female pelvic surgery.
“I stay in touch with a bunch of the guys, and a handful of us try to get together at least once a year,’’ he said. “We’ve shared many of life’s seminal moments. We’ve been to one another’s weddings, things like that. It’s neat to see where everybody has landed. You connect on LinkedIn, and you see that they have good careers and families. That was a special group.’’
And it can be argued that Downing has had the most impactful life of the bunch. The man his teammates called “Doc” was drawn to medicine for that very reason—to be able to make a difference in people’s lives. Since graduating from University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry in 2002 (after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from SU), Downing has worked in Boston, New York City and done several stints in Haiti and West Africa.
Along the way, he has delivered babies, performed reconstructive surgeries and helped ease the pain of many.
“Certainly the science of medicine always appealed to me, but I think there was something deeper that ultimately drew me to this profession,’’ he said. “At the root of it was the desire to be someone who could be helpful to others. My 5-year-old is a big fan of the cartoon character, Thomas the Tank Engine. There’s this whole theme about being a useful engine. Boiled down, that’s how I view medicine. How can I be a useful engine?’’
Sports have always been a big part of Downing’s life. The former three-sport standout was blessed to play for legendary high school coaches Don Santini, Dave Lanning and Jeff Fitch—high-character men who taught lessons that extended well beyond the football field, baseball diamond and basketball court.
“In many ways, the football experience was the most intense,’’ he said. “Two years after failing to pass an athletic achievement test to play freshman football, I’m a 15-year-old sophomore on the varsity, trying my best not to be intimidated by the older guys. Coach Santini was my guiding light. He looked at me and said, ‘You might not be ready at this moment, but I want you because you are going to be ready before you know it.’ That meant an awful lot to me.’’
When Downing’s moment arrived, he seized it, accumulating more than 1,400 yards and scoring 24 touchdowns his senior season to lead Fairport to the mythical state championship. In his final game, he rushed for 168 yards, passed for 72 and scored five touchdowns. Downing would earn All-Greater Rochester honors in both football and basketball, and was All-County in baseball – not surprising, considering his baseball bloodlines include Uncle Al Downing, a flame-throwing pitcher for the New York Yankees in the 1960s.
Football, though, is where Downing made his lasting Rochester sports mark, and on April 6 he will join 12 others who will be inducted into the Section V Football Hall of Fame at the RIT Inn and Conference Center.
“It’s a wonderful honor and also a reminder of how much time has passed,’’ said Downing, who turned 41 in November. “It causes you to pause and makes you feel good that someone believes you had an impact on the game.”
He remembers a high school football practice when the energetic Santini told his players he would give anything to strap on the helmet one more time. Downing thought the comment was kind of odd. But with the passage of time, he’s come to understand his coach’s sentiments completely. For he, too, now feels that way.
“The game is still in my body, and I don’t think I’ll ever lose that,’’ Downing said. “The reality, of course, is that your body can’t do it any more. Your time to play has passed. But the spirit of the game never leaves you.”
He still occasionally ponders what might have been had Pasqualoni chosen him instead of McNabb to start all those summers ago. But Downing can see clearly now that everything happened the way it was supposed to. He is doing what he was destined to do.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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