He was lightly recruited out of high school and ultimately chose to attend Kansas State, a program that had fallen on hard times. He was turned into a wide receiver, and then went back to being a quarterback, where he sat on the bench and bided his time.
It finally came last year, when he led the Wildcats to the Cotton Bowl, his bruises and bloody elbows and gritty toughness creating something that bordered on a cult following in the heart of the Flint Hills.
There's more to Klein, too, that stands out of the ordinary.
The guy plays the piano and the mandolin—how many college kids even know what a mandolin looks like? He's married to the daughter of one of the greatest players in Kansas State history, but when they gather for the holidays, they prefer card games to dwelling on the pressures of big-time football.
"He's a great story, and it's a story that will evolve over time, as we get old," said Kansas State wide receiver Chris Harper. "It's a story about a guy that was humble, one of the most humble guys you'll ever meet."
Harper certainly knows who would get his vote for college football's most prestigious award, and it wouldn't be Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel or Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, though he admits that both of the other Heisman finalists are deserving of everything that's come their way.
It would be the fifth-year senior who led a ragtag group of guys predicted to finish somewhere in the middle of the Big 12 to the second Big 12 title in school history and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. The kid from Loveland, Colo., with the nickname "Optimus Klein."
"In my vote, he should get it," Harper said of the Heisman Trophy, which will be awarded Saturday night in New York. "Being a biased guy watching football, the dude—he's done some crazy things. I don't understand how he goes out there and has one bad game and he's already out of it. I didn't know it goes off of the last game you play. I thought it went off the whole season."
Yes, therein lays the biggest knock against Klein.
Remarkably consistent all season, Klein had driven the Wildcats to the top of the BCS standings with two games left, a berth in the national championship game tantalizingly close. But he responded with a three-interception game in a loss at Baylor, and all those aspirations were dashed in just one night.
Most people thought Klein's Heisman hopes went with them.
But with Manziel and Te'o having already finished their regular seasons, Klein took the field last Saturday night with a captive national audience, needing to lead Kansas State past Texas to win the Big 12 title. He threw for 184 yards and a touchdown and ran for another 103 yards and two scores in a 42-24 romp on senior night.
"Well, I don't know about everybody else, but I don't know anybody who means more to his football team than Collin Klein," said Kansas State coach Bill Snyder. "I think he's grown in the program over the course of time. He's had a major impact, obviously. I think certainly the quality of play that he brings to the table, but as I've said so many times, the old adage, he's a far better person than he is anything else."
Klein has accounted for 37 touchdowns this season, including at least three in eight games, and became the first quarterback in the BCS era to run for at least 20 TDs and throw for 10 in back-to-back seasons.
The only players to have done it even once won the Heisman Trophy: Auburn's Cam Newton in 2010, Florida's Tim Tebow in 2007 and Eric Crouch of Nebraska in 2000.
"I'm just honored with this opportunity that the Lord has provided me," Klein said. "I'm so proud to represent K-State in this, because I feel like my road is very synonymous and in line with the K-State way. It's been a process; it's been a journey. There have been a lot of ups and downs."
Mostly ups, though: Klein threw for 2,490 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, and ran for 980 yards. He already holds school records for career rushing TDs and touchdown responsibility, is second in scoring and third in total yards, passing efficiency and total attempts.
All the numbers certainly make a compelling case for Klein to do what Michael Bishop could not in 1998—bring home the Heisman Trophy. Bishop, who led the Wildcats to the brink of the national title game, finished second in the voting to runaway winner Ricky Williams, the star running back at Texas.
"He's a great guy, and that's really the highlight of who he is, and his individual success is definitely a tribute to our team," Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown said. "We definitely as a team feel like he's deserving of representing the Heisman candidate, but just having the opportunity is great in itself."