Family, Faith & Hidden Heroes Help Case Keenum Lead a Huddle

Posted Oct 30, 2017

Even before a football fit in his hand, Case Keenum knew it would be a big part of his life.

Keenum was born into the sport. Some of his earliest memories are of hanging around the field at McMurry University, where his father, Steve, coached the Division III football team.

He remembers watching in awe inside the weight room or from the sideline, later riding along on the team bus for trips during which players weren’t permitted to cuss.

“Those guys on his team might as well have been Joe Montana or John Elway or Troy Aikman – they were my heroes as well, but those guys on the team were huge impacts on me,” Keenum says. “[My father] recruited good players, too, that were good people. He demanded men of character.”

Keenum leans forward in his chair, rests on his elbows and glances up at the freeze frame of his just-finished film study. He tugs absent-mindedly at his gray stocking cap as he recounts specific names from his childhood: Braxton Shaver; Rory Peacock; Keidric Dixon – names he says “no one else will recognize” but who helped shape his future.

“And Johnny Golden.”

Keenum interrupts a follow-up question, smiling. “Put Johnny Golden on there, if you’re naming. He was awesome.”

“I wanted to play like them, I wanted to be like them, I wanted to walk like them, I wanted to talk like them,” he continues. “That’s the reason I do what I do. I know we’re role models, and I think that’s an important part about the game of football.”

Keenum once asked his father if he could be a ball boy for the War Hawks. The response? Not until he was able to throw the NCAA football from the sideline in to a referee standing at the hash mark.

“So I practiced,” Keenum says matter-of-factly. “That ball was, like, bigger than my head.”

But he learned how to throw the pigskin, and he learned to throw it well. While it wasn’t a conscious decision at that point to pursue the quarterback position, Keenum fell into the role naturally and never looked back.

It takes a certain presence to command a huddle, and Keenum had it.

“I was competitive, and I was good, and I wanted the ball in my hands,” Keenum says. “That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s what I played; that’s what I always wanted to play. Nobody ever told me not to, so I just kept going to the quarterback group.”

Taking it to the next level

Keenum went on to be a standout at Wylie High School in Abilene, 110 miles northeast of even deeper football roots in Mertzon, Texas. There, in a town of fewer than 1,000 people, Keenum’s maternal grandfather, Orlie Wolfenbarger, coached six-man football through 1976. To this day, O.K. Wolfenbarger Field bears his namesake.

“I still talk to people that have been blessed through the character that my parents and grandparents have instilled in their programs,” Keenum said of his family’s football legacy in the Lone Star State.

Keenum remained in Texas after high school, going on to play collegiately for Houston. There, he finished as the NCAA’s all-time leader in total passing yards (19,217) and passing touchdowns (155) and twice received the Sammy Baugh Trophy (2009 and 2011), which is awarded annually to the nation’s top college passer.

The 2012 NFL Draft came and went without a phone call for Keenum. And yet shortly after, he fulfilled his childhood dream when he signed with the Texans – again staying in his home state – as a rookie free agent.

When asked at what point the NFL became a reality for him, Keenum pauses for a second.

“You always dream of it as a kid in the front yard,” Keenum says while tipping his head back a bit, remembering. “You’ve always got the ball with five seconds to go in the fourth quarter, when the game’s on the line, at the Cowboys stadium or wherever you grew up.

“But for me, getting into college when I started playing well and started having success [was when it hit home],” he adds. “ ‘I did this in high school, I did this in college, why not? Let’s keep it going. Let’s see what happens.’ ”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

Now with five-plus seasons of NFL football under his belt, Keenum’s professional career has been one of ups and downs.

He’s gone back and forth between the Texans and the Rams twice, including a period of unpredictability on the Rams practice squad, where very little is guaranteed. Keenum also has held the role of backup quarterback and starter. Not to mention, criticism he faced at an early age has followed him to the highest level.

But Keenum has never been rattled by it.

“I’ve had people tell me every step of the way that I shouldn’t be able to do this, or I can’t do this – I’m too short, I’m too slow, too whatever,” Keenum says. “I try not to play to prove those people wrong. Instead, I try to play to prove people right who have believed in me – whether it’s coaches, family members, friends.”

One of the individuals forever in his corner is Keenum’s wife, Kimberly. The two have been married since 2011, and Kimberly has been more than just a supportive spouse.

The transition from college to the pros was a significant one for Keenum, who was accustomed to Houston’s no-huddle offense run by signal only.

“Coming to the NFL and having to talk through a wordy play that’s 10, 15 words long, was tough. And I needed some help early on,” Keenum explains. “So [Kimberly] would help read off plays. I was hearing it, understanding it, studying it that way. It just kind of stuck.”

The two don’t go over the playbook quite as much anymore, but it still happens from time to time. Keenum beams with pride as he describes her knowledge of protections and traits of offensive systems.

While he’s extremely grateful for the constant support of his family, Keenum also credits his Christian faith for his confidence in the huddle.  

“My faith is the number one thing that makes me, me. It is what my identity is in; it’s not in this game,” Keenum says. “So I know that, although I do put everything I have into this game, it’s not a life-or-death thing for me.

“I want to do the very best I can, all the time, and I want to honor God when I do that,” Keenum continues. “And I think I do when I leave it all on the field.”

After signing with the Vikings during the offseason as a free agent, Keenum has done just that.

Playing in Purple

Minnesota signed the Texas native as a backup behind Sam Bradford, who joined the Vikings in 2016 after Teddy Bridgewater suffered a season-ending knee injury. Bradford started his second season in Purple with a bang, putting up career numbers in Minnesota’s season opener against the Saints. He suffered a knee injury, however, and Keenum was given the nod in Week 2.

Keenum has since been the Vikings starting quarterback, with the exception of the first two quarters at Chicago, when Bradford attempted to return but was unable to finish.

Keenum has helped lead Minnesota to a 6-2 record before heading into the second half of the season, and it comes by no surprise to his teammates.

Jarius Wright said that Keenum meshed with the locker room soon after joining the team.

“He was really outgoing, and he fit in really, really well with us. After just the first couple days of running routes, throwing passes and just getting a chance to be around him and getting to know him a little bit, we could tell already that he fit right in,” Wright said. “And he’s come in to work each and every day as if he’s going to be the starter. And as an NFL player, that’s how you have to approach it.”

Keenum has continued to roll with the punches, weathering the loss of rookie running back Dalvin Cook to an ACL tear in Week 4 and missing Stefon Diggs in Weeks 6 and 7. Keenum hasn’t missed a step, however, having completed passes to five different wide receivers thus far.

“From top to bottom, they’re all really talented,” Keenum said. “And that’s what I said this offseason, getting to work with the twos most of the time – that I was really excited to work with those guys, because they’re really talented.

“I didn’t have a ton of time with Adam [Thielen] or Diggs or those guys, but now that we’ve worked into it, I’ve worked with all of them, and I’ve got complete trust in all those guys,” Keenum continued. “I think they all care, they all really want to invest into this game, and they all want to put the best product they can on the field. It’s easy when you’ve got guys like that.”

Vikings Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said Keenum has earned trust in the locker room not only through his attitude but by delivering on the field.

According to Shurmur, the proof is in the pudding.

“He’s come in and helped us win ball games. Whether you thought of him as a second or third quarterback, that is the reality of it,” Shurmur said. “Over time, because you see it happen, you develop more and more trust that it is going to happen again. I think that is credit to him. Super pleased with what he’s been doing. [He’s a very] competitive guy.

“The thing I like about Case is along the way, within a game or in a practice, a mistake may occur. Case will readily say, ‘Hey, that’s on me,’ and quickly find a solution, make the correction and move on fast,” Shurmur continued. “Because he’s willing to do that, I think the players around him realize, ‘Hey, here’s a guy that’s trying to do the best he can, and we need to do the same.”

So what’s next?

The Vikings preach taking it one game at a time, and Keenum demonstrates that mindset. Halfway through the 2017 season and with a four-game win streak in the rearview mirror, the southern signal caller believes there’s “no telling” what Minnesota’s ceiling is. But he’s excited to see.

“We’ve got a talent in a lot of areas, and I think we’re playing really well together. We’re really well-coached,” Keenum says. “I haven’t been around this league too long, but I’ve been around a little bit, and I know this is a special team.”