Playing With Heart: A Case Study By Lindsey Young

The sack seemed inevitable.

Case Keenum took the snap, dropped back and almost immediately faced Pro Bowl pressure.

Rams outside linebackers Connor Barwin and Robert Quinn got around the edges and headed toward Keenum. Fullback C.J. Ham, supporting in pass protection, shoved Quinn behind Keenum but saw the defender bounce back just as Barwin closed in. Meanwhile, interior lineman Michael Brockers broke through and ran up the middle.

“I saw Keenum was still standing right there, so I went to hit [Quinn] again,” Ham recalled. “And at the same time, I saw [Barwin] coming to hit him, and right away I thought, ‘This is probably going to be a sack, because I can’t block two people. And there’s two guys in his face.’ ”

But Keenum didn’t lose focus.

As Barwin barreled down on him, Keenum ducked, slipping underneath and through the defender’s grasp. He ignored Brockers, next in line to take down the quarterback, and set his sights downfield.

Just before the next and biggest collision, Keenum let loose a spiral to Adam Thielen, who made the catch for a 12-yard gain.

“That play was unbelievable,” Ham said. “I hit my guy, and all of a sudden the crowd’s cheering, and Adam’s running down the field. I look up at the replay, and Case, this whole year he’s made some Houdini plays – and that was one of them.”

That play – which helped the Vikings drive the field in what became a statement win over the Rams – marked perhaps the most impressive evasion by Keenum but certainly not the only. At Carolina, he somehow managed to dip beneath the arms of 5-foot-9 Captain Munnerlyn. Against the Lions on Thanksgiving, he made tough throws under heat throughout the afternoon.

Following the Rams game, Keenum called the play “crazy” but shrugged off his role in pulling it off.

“I just kind of ducked and did the ‘get small drill,’ ” Keenum said. “I’m just playing. Adam did a great job finding some space.”

Throughout his life, Keenum has faced challenges – and he’s taken each in stride, usually standing tall above adversity.

When he asked to be the ball boy for his father’s Division III team, Steve Keenum told his son that he had to first be able to throw an NCAA football from the sideline in to a referee standing at the hash mark.

Steve was worried that Case wasn’t big enough to be unattended on the sideline during a game, and he thought the caveat would buy him some time.

“That was kind of the carrot – ‘I’m going to throw this out there, and when you get big enough to do that, OK,’ ” Steve recalled. “I didn’t know he was going to be able to do it as soon as he did. But the little rascal worked at it, and the next thing I know, he’s throwing the ball that far. So, he was our ball boy.”

(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.

(Thomas Metthe/Abilene Reporter-News)

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.

Keenum was a standout at the University of Houston, located 350 miles from his hometown of Abilene, TX. While with the Cougars, Keenum set NCAA records in both passing yards and TDs.

But Keenum’s confidence level remains the same now as it did that day when he knew he could kick a championship-winning field goal.

“I’ve prepared, I know what I’ve done, and I want it,” Keenum said. “And that’s just part of who I am, part of what makes me, me. It’s why I love playing the game.”

It’s a quality that earned Keenum an early trust from his teammates and helped him to succeed in games since stepping in for an injured Sam Bradford in Week 2.

Sandifer said he sees the same confidence in Keenum at the professional level that he witnessed on the high school field.

“You want a guy who believes in himself, but you also want a guy who’s a teammate – and he’s a great teammate. He understands that it takes everybody, very humble, not a talker. His actions are what lead,” Sandifer said. “When he steps in the huddle, those guys believe they’re going to be successful.”

While it’s expected that a quarterback will gain rapport with the offense, Keenum has become a leader for the entire locker room in his first season in Purple.

Defensive tackle Tom Johnson said he appreciates Keenum’s tenacity.

“I think it’s just that chip on his shoulder, that grit, him being aggressive and being confident in himself,” Johnson said. “You see it’s very contagious. [The offense] being more enthusiastic in plays and being more aggressive, also. It’s something they’ve been playing off of, and it’s been going well for him and the team.”

Defenders who spend each game pursuing a quarterback are impressed by Keenum’s calmness under pressure.

Eric Kendricks called Keenum “cool as a cucumber.”

Ask Danielle Hunter, and he’ll tell you that Keenum is the type of quarterback that’s hard for a defense to game-plan for: “He’ll act like he doesn’t see you coming, but at the last second, he’ll dodge you.”

Brian Robison, also a Texas native, said he was well-aware of Keenum’s success during his time at Houston. When the quarterback went on start his NFL career with the Texans, Robison said he was “a big fan of his.”

Robison feels that Keenum’s career has been a tough one that didn’t present an ideal situation for him to thrive.

“But I think the great thing about Case is, every time he’s gotten an opportunity, he’s tried to make the most of it,” Robison said. “And this year, even though it probably wasn’t really the way he wanted to get the starting job, once he got that opportunity, he took advantage of it and finally was able to show people what I’ve been actually seeing for years.”

What exactly has Robison seen?

The veteran defensive end, who has played against – and with – countless quarterbacks since joining the Vikings in 2007, said that Keenum stands out by his ability to keep a play alive. He compared Keenum to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“Aaron’s a guy who has great escapability, but he’s not so much looking to make plays with his feet as much as he is trying to extend the receivers’ routes, give them an opportunity to get open and then make the throw,” Robison said. “So that’s what I see out of Keenum – that he’s able to extend plays. When there’s a good rush up the middle, he’s able to get outside the pocket and really still keep his eyes downfield to be able to make those plays.”

Keenum’s poise under pressure, mobility and leadership of the offense have enabled him to play a part in Minnesota’s 13-3 regular season that on Sunday has a chance to extend further into the playoffs.

When fans see Keenum’s No. 7 jersey streak out of the tunnel at U.S. Bank Stadium, the warm welcome is deafening.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Keenum. The quarterback has faced outside criticism for years; he doesn’t listen to the naysayers, however, choosing instead to prove right those who have believed in him.

Sandifer recently was able to attend one of Keenum’s NFL performances in person for the first time, when he traveled to Minnesota for the Dec. 17 matchup against the Bengals. There, Sandifer became a Vikings fan – “I’m hooked!” – and watched Keenum lead the team to a division-clinching victory.

“To watch the success that he’s had this year is something that you’d always hoped could happen, that you knew could happen in the right setting,” Sandifer said. “And I just think this year it’s kind of all fallen into place for him, and that is what’s fun.”

Keenum doesn’t know what will come next, but he’ll continue to take things as he has all season: one week, one game, one snap at a time. When he breaks down the huddle and lines up across from the Saints defense on Sunday, he won’t be rattled. Because he’s prepared, he’s ready, he wants the ball in his hand.

And because above all else, Case Keenum has heart.

“The one thing that people don’t see is what beats in his chest,” said Keenum’s father. “They don’t see that until the game starts.”

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