(Thomas Metthe/Abilene Reporter-News)
When Keenum started youth sports, he caught the eye of Hugh Sandifer, longtime head coach of the Wylie High School Football team. Sandifer’s daughter and Keenum were the same age, so Sandifer witnessed Keenum’s skill set early on.
One instance especially stuck in the coach’s mind.
Sandifer attended a junior high track meet where Keenum lined up to run the anchor leg of the 1,600-meter relay. As the runners approached the finish line, it appeared Keenum would come in second.
“[But Case] wouldn’t even let the guy in front beat him in junior high,” Sandifer recalled with a chuckle. “I just remember seeing him flat-out dive to win that race. Not many people think of doing that. And it wasn’t a trip, and it wasn’t a run-out-of-gas – it was a full-blown, ‘I’m going to dive to beat that guy to the finish line.’
“And I’m thinking, ‘This guy’s a competitor. He’s a winner,’ ” Sandifer said.
Observations of the young quarterback proved even more accurate at the high school level.
Sandifer noticed that Keenum demonstrated a “maturity in the game” that wasn’t always common in 15 and 16-year-old athletes. He was impressed by Keenum’s field vision and also his mobility – early evidence of the movement that Vikings fans have seen from the signal caller this season.
“He got out of a lot of bad calls that I would make,” Sandifer quipped. “Just being able to make plays when something wasn’t there. Whether that be in non-district games that really weren’t meaningful, or all the way to the state championship game – tied game, pass play, just a knack to scramble out for about 50-60 yards to get us into position to win the game with a field goal.”
And when Sandifer called a timeout with four seconds left in that game, Keenum wanted to be the guy to finish it out.
Sandifer explained that, back in the first game of the season, he hadn’t yet named the team’s kicker. But when the team stalled out on the first drive and faced a field-goal situation, Sandifer looked at Keenum and gestured for him to take the kick.
“And he goes out there and just coolly kicks a 47-yarder – our first points of the season!” Sandifer said.
So fast forward to the 2004 state championship, the game is on the line, and Keenum is, well, making a case for himself.
“He was looking at me like, ‘I can do this. Put me in to kick this winning field goal.’ And I was like, ‘Hey – we’ve got a guy who can kick it,’ ” Sandifer said. “Keenum was, whew, he was like, ‘I’ve got us this far. I want to finish it.’
“That’s just the way he was,” Sandifer added. “He wanted to be the guy under pressure when the game’s on the line.”
When the moment is brought up now, Keenum laughs at the memory.
“At the time, I wanted the ball in my hands,” Keenum admitted, cracking a smile. “We had a great kicker who did a great job, and we obviously won the game. But it’s part of my DNA – I just want the ball in my hands.”
Steve recalled a conversation he had with his son about performing under pressure, no matter the situation.
“ ‘Son, if you’re going to stand here on the mound and everybody’s going to be watching you, and you give up a home run, what can you do the next pitch? Or you strike a guy out, what can you do the next pitch?’ ” Steve asked. “ ‘Can you not worry about what just happened – can you focus on this?’
“And he developed that ability – because it’s what he wanted,” Steve added.
It’s been more than a decade since the Wylie High School Bulldogs won the Division 3A-1 State Championship in 2004. Keenum went on to star at the University of Houston, where he set NCAA records in passing yards and touchdowns, join the NFL as an undrafted free agent and spend five up-and-down seasons with the Rams and Texans before signing with the Vikings for the 2017 season.