Case Keenum says Broncos can be 'pretty special,' and he wouldn't mind retiring in Denver
Inside the quarterback's move from Minnesota and the mettle that's defined his career
He says it was a joke. (UTEP coach Mike Price caught on quickly considering Keenum's never topped 6-foot-1.) But it's not a stretch to suggest Keenum may have just been a tad overzealous at a time when his home state was already brimming with other future NFL quarterbacks: Andrew Luck in Houston, Andy Dalton in Katy, Ryan Tannehill in Big Spring, Robert Griffin III in Copperas Cove, Matt Flynn in Tyler -- all of them taller than 6-foot-1.
Raised on and around the gridiron in a region of the United States where even Friday nights are as sacred as Sundays, Keenum was under as much scrutiny as anyone to prove he had "it." He wanted as much as his father, Steve, to be the next in Texas' long line of gunslingers to go pro. So if gaudy numbers and a state title at Abilene's Wylie High School couldn't get him more than a two-star recruit rating, then maybe a couple of imaginary inches could.
More than a decade later, getting overlooked is still a familiar story to Keenum.
All 32 NFL teams passed on him in 2012, the same year he left the University of Houston as the all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown throws for all of college football. In 2014, despite sticking with and even starting for the Houston Texans over two years, he was cut four days before the season -- after coach Bill O'Brien told him he'd never be more than a third-stringer. Between 2015-2016, he was signed by the Rams, re-signed by Houston, traded back to the Rams and replaced by Jared Goff. This March, despite leading the Minnesota Vikings to within one game of the Super Bowl, he was replaced again.
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Even after the Denver Broncos guaranteed him a reported $25 million to be their new starter for 2018, pundits chalked him up as little more than a glorified backup. So you can see that Day One of UTEP camp was not the last time Keenum felt overlooked, as if the real Case Keenum -- all 73 inches of him -- wasn't quite "it."
Good thing the man himself stopped worrying about that a long time ago.
A road well traveled
"I would say, for me, man, it's just really about nailing down, being comfortable with, being OK with and being confident in who you are," Keenum said in a phone call from Broncos training camp this summer. "Knowing what your identity is."
That's the core message of his memoir, "Playing For More: Trust Beyond What You Can See," which releases five days before his regular-season Broncos debut. It's also what keeps him in the game.
A journeyman by nature of his career transaction log, Keenum's peace of mind is aided by the fact he's been cast off before. As stinging as it may have been, he wasn't surprised by his relocation from Minnesota to Denver just 59 days after his game-winning "Minneapolis Miracle" touchdown pass immortalized him in Vikings playoff lore. After all, what is a Case Keenum accomplishment without follow-up skepticism?
"I've been kind of plucked and dropped into places quite a few times now," he said. "I know how to do it. My wife knows how to do it. You just maximize your time and make sure you invest in those teams, your teammates, the other guys' lives and so on."
Easier said than done when you're uprooted five times in five years. Then again, maybe not, if you're Keenum.
Faith over fear (and fame)
Like Tony Dungy, who penned the foreword for his book; Kirk Cousins, the man Minnesota paid to replace him; Sam Bradford, the man he replaced in Minnesota; and Nick Foles, the man who ended his lone Vikings season, Keenum is serious about his faith. God gets way more credit than Texas in his memoir. And to him, being a Christian means finding purpose beyond his performance.
It means living through the blindsiding trades, the $25-million deals, the free-agent cold shoulders and the postseason miracles and refusing to let a single one supersede his relationship with God.
"I'm not a football player that happens to be a Christian," he said. "I'm a Christian who happens to be a football player. Faith doesn't leave when I hang up my cleats and put on my street clothes."
Keenum's spiritual side may not be spotlighted as often as that of another certain Broncos quarterback, but it's not for a lack of testimony. He doesn't kneel in prayer after every score as Tim Tebow once did in Denver, but in case you missed it, he already unveiled his big beliefs at the peak of his career, when asked on live TV where the "Miracle" ending ranks in his memory: "It's probably going to go down as the third best moment of my life behind giving my life to Jesus Christ (and) marrying my wife."
Popular or not, it's a reality for Keenum that enables him to be the professional he is. When, for example, his agents first told him in March that "Denver wasn't in on Kirk ... (but) wants you and wants you bad," he sat in traffic on the way to a Houston Rockets game, and he prayed. He writes in his book that he knew "almost instantly that I wanted to be a Bronco" after seeking "God's will."
It might not be a coincidence that guys like Foles, Bradford and former Viking Teddy Bridgewater, another self-proclaimed believer, are some of Keenum's fondest former teammates.
"They're men of faith, their wives are women of faith, and they're there for you," Keenum said. "Iron sharpens iron ... I stay in touch with a lot of those guys. I actually spent some time with Nick and his bride out in California lately."
In Elway's hands
At his core, Keenum is still just a guy who loves football, too.
His faith and his journey, let alone Denver's two-year commitment to him at age 30, may ensure that he's got way too much perspective to fret over silly things like his height these days. His book may paint him as a man more than just another athlete. And he knows that to himself, to his wife, Kimberly, and to his God, he's loved and accepted regardless of how well he throws a ball.
But he's also coming off a year in which he had career numbers (22 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 98.3 passer rating) as a first-time full-time starter. He's finally and unquestionably "the guy," tasked directly by general manager John Elway with reviving the same Broncos team that Elway once quarterbacked to two Super Bowl wins. The AFC West is wide open. And he has the respect of a guy who automatically is Denver's best QB since Peyton Manning won it all in 2015.
This, quite simply, is his year. And even Keenum's quiet, team-first approach can't hide his excitement at that.
After saying he hates comparing seasons and suggesting that 2018 is "more exciting (just) because it's right now," he relents. There's never been a September he's more anxiously anticipated.
"I guess you could say it's the most exciting," he said.
Riding off on a Bronco
Denver went 5-11 and finished at the cellar of the West in 2017. But Keenum sees fresh faces like Royce Freeman and Courtland Sutton, he sees Pro Bowl holdovers like Demaryius Thomas and Von Miller, and he sees himself. It's all too much to deny the Broncos a chance at an instant return to the playoffs.
"I like what I'm seeing right now," he said. "It's been across the board, man. I think it's a great locker room ... we have great chemistry, (and) I think we can be pretty special ... the sky's the limit. I'm a small-picture guy, and I know that's cliche. But we got a chance to be really good."
As for himself?
"I'm not a huge goal-setter," he said. "I like to set a mindset for the year, and here, I'd say it's stepping in and being a leader, being that somebody that people can count on, putting points on the board. But also: Leave a place better than you found it. I'm not saying I'm leaving, but whenever it is, hopefully it's at the end of my career, when I retire as a Bronco."
Barring serious injury, Keenum would probably need to earn a second contract with Denver to retire as a Bronco. That's something he's never done before first being cut. He's only once lasted more than one full season on a team's active roster.
But that thing about leaving a place better than he found it? That doesn't seem so far-fetched.
Not for a man like him.
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