Case Keenum is the underdog story you should love, but might be upset about.
That’s because a starting quarterback is probably injured if Keenum, who will make his second start for the Vikings on Sunday, is in the game. Starter Sam Bradford’s short-term future is in question because of a swollen left knee, but this is certain: A loss to the Buccaneers would stir up more anger in Keenum than in you.
“I just want to win, man,” Keenum said after Wednesday’s team meetings during which he prepared to start. “Almost as bad as I want to win, I hate losing more if that makes sense.”
Despite going undrafted and with a career started as a practice squad castoff, Keenum has started 25 games (he’s 9-16) in his six seasons and continues to be trusted as a safety net at the most important position in professional sports.
“I don’t know if I’ve been the guy everybody likes,” Keenum said. “Just undrafted guy, been cut three or four times. I kind of wear that with pride a little bit.”
The Vikings signed him to a one-year deal with the hope he simply would back up a healthy Bradford.
Plan A was thrown out the window by Week 2.
Keenum grew up a winner in the heart of American football — Texas. Yet to get noticed he’s continually had to clench his fists and wring out every ounce of talent.
“I only had one scholarship offer coming out of high school,” Keenum said. “Only had one team that really wanted me after college. A lot of people telling me I can’t do this or that. I like to think I’ve proven a lot of people right — the people that believe in me, my coaches, family and teammates. Prove them right more than I want to prove people wrong.
“But it feels pretty good to prove people wrong, too.”
A need to win
The son of Steve, a football coach, and Susan, an elementary school teacher, Case grew up in Abilene, Texas with a competitive edge evident as early as when he played a laid-back board game with his two little sisters. They couldn’t even pick a game because of Case’s need to win.
“She wanted to play Candy Land, but he wanted to play a game he could control,” Steve Keenum recalled. “He wanted a game of skill. She wanted a game of luck.”
Case’s hatred for losing flourished in sports, where his competitive drive was molded by playing high school football, basketball, baseball and golf, among others. However, there was no doubt in his mind what he wanted out of life, according to the Keenums.
“Fourth or fifth grade, a teacher asked him what he wanted to be,” Steve Keenum said. “[Case] said NFL quarterback and she laughed.”
Russell Perkins, Wylie High School’s former basketball coach, wasn’t laughing when Keenum told him he would one day play in the NCAA national championship. Once Keenum was done quarterbacking Wylie’s football team through another Texas state tournament (they won the state title in Keenum’s 2004 junior season), he joined the varsity basketball team midseason.
After one practice, Perkins rebounded for Keenum as the teenager practiced his shot. Perkins wanted to know if Case was planning to watch the night’s BCS national title game with friends.
“He said coach, no, every year I watch that game by myself,” Perkins said. “I said why? He said because one day, I’m going to play in that game. I just watch it by myself because I want to play in that game.”
The stories of Keenum’s competitive drive seem endless. There was the 1,600-meter relay when Keenum, the anchor leg, took the baton and, while trailing another runner, dived at the finish line onto the synthetic track surface.
“I just wanted to win,” Keenum said. “I dove. We won.”
Then there was the grueling recovery from an ACL tear, interrupting a record-setting college career at the University of Houston. That’s when Keenum said he realized his identity needed to be rooted in something more stable, his Christianity, than just being a football player.
Yet despite losing about 30 pounds in his recovery, Keenum returned for a fifth college season and cemented himself atop the NCAA’s record books. He’s still college football’s all-time leader in passing yards (19,217) and touchdowns (155) from his four-plus seasons leading the Cougars.
‘Where the wind blows’
Keenum knows some of the pressure he felt in Pittsburgh came from his own happy feet. Having not started since Week 10 of last season, his pocket presence and footwork needed attention this week after he was pressured on an NFL-high 51 percent of his dropbacks in the Vikings’ 26-9 loss to the Steelers, according to Pro Football Focus.
Retreating from the pocket at times opened things up for Steelers pass rushers, so “trust” was a focus for Keenum this week as he grows comfortable in Minnesota.
“I want to keep trusting my preparation, trust my offensive line, trust the pocket, trust the play and keep attacking,” he said.
Settling into new situations has become a way of life for Keenum, somewhat of an NFL nomad. The Vikings are his fifth stop after bouncing between the Texans and Rams for his first five NFL seasons.
“I thought he was tough and battled and fought in there,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Short week against a pretty exotic defense, defensive scheme. They are very physical and fast. I thought he battled.”
Keenum has learned to find comfort in many elements, whether scouting out a bowhunting spot for whitetail deer near the old St. Louis Rams training facilities or, now, preparing for his first real winter in Minnesota.
“I don’t even know how to shovel snow,” he said.
So far Minnesota has “grown” on the Keenum family, Case says. He and his wife of six years, Kimberly, sporadically find a new golf course when Case and teammate Adam Thielen aren’t getting together to compete over who can hit the farthest drive or nail a longer putt.
“I thought country people in Texas were nice,” Keenum said. “I can’t get out of the grocery store [in Minnesota] without talking to somebody, and I know their life story and they don’t care I play for the Vikings. They don’t know I play for the Vikings.”
He might get recognized soon depending on how many starts the Vikings ultimately need from Keenum, who strung together a career-high nine starts last season for the Rams.
“We go where the wind blows,” he said.
Right now, the wind has blown him into the middle of the Vikings huddle.