NCAA FB

Keenum's sixth year looks to be special

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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HOUSTON

As Case Keenum sat on the team bus in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl on a balmy night last September, he stared at the stadium's iconic neon sign.

Hours earlier, the University of Houston quarterback had been laying facedown and motionless on the 30-yard line after his right knee buckled as he tried to make a tackle after throwing an interception. After trainers flipped him on his back and examined him on the field, they told him he had likely torn his anterior cruciate ligament.

When Keenum got in a golf cart later and was driven off the field to the locker room, he was expressionless. But once inside, he cried in disappointment and pain in the arms of his father.

A season-ending knee injury in Houston's third game hadn't been part of Keenum's plan for his senior season. He had envisioned winning a Conference USA championship, getting the Cougars into in a bowl game in late December or early January and playing well enough to be selected in April's NFL draft.

He was also a Heisman Trophy candidate after finishing eighth in the award's voting the previous year and had a chance to break the NCAA's career records for passing yards and touchdown passes.

All miraculous for a once-unheralded recruit who accepted the only scholarship he'd been offered coming out of Wylie High School in Abilene, Texas.

But as Keenum sat on the team bus wondering if his college career was over, he turned on his black cell phone. The first text message that flashed across the phone's screen, from a former teammate, was: "His plan is perfect."

A devout Christian, the words resonated with Keenum. They did even more when he read the next text: "His plan is perfect."

The next message said the same thing. So did the one after that and the one after that.

They all had the same message, but different people had sent each of them.

"That was obviously God sharing that with me through those people," Keenum says.

THE ROLLER-COASTER RIDE

After telling the story, Keenum smiles. It's a sweltering 100-degree day in early June and he's about to hit the practice field for a grueling rehabilitation workout with a bungee-type resistance cord attached to his waist.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Keenum couldn't be happier, despite having a 3-inch vertical scar on top of his right knee from the surgery to fix his ACL. Less than a year after the injury, the 23-year-old feels blessed to be back for another opportunity to have the senior campaign he had envisioned.

The NCAA granted Houston’s waiver for Keenum to have a rare sixth year of eligibility in mid-January, and he proposed a week later to Kimberly Caddell, whom he married June 11.

"It turns out my plan wasn't the same as what God has in store," Keenum says. "His plan is better. I believe it. I said that, but more and more I've realized it is better."

And while Keenum's faith has grown, he’s needed it to overcome the overwhelming mental and physical anguish he’s endured the past 11 months to make it back to the field.

"It's been a real roller coaster for him," says Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, whose team had a 5-7 record last season and missed a bowl for the first time since 2004.

The ride started in Houston's second game last season, a victory against Texas-El Paso. After throwing an interception in the third quarter, Keenum tried to make the tackle but ended up being kneed in the helmet by a teammate.

The collision left Keenum with his first concussion. He was so dazed on the sideline afterward that his teammates huddled around him and used towels to try to shield their quarterback from a national television audience.

When Keenum finally came to in the fourth quarter, he didn't understand why he was sitting on the bench.

"What's going on here?" Keenum asked anyone who would listen.

But a concussion wasn't enough for Keenum to stop trying to make tackles after throwing interceptions: Only eight days after his concussion, he tried to do it again after being intercepted near the UCLA goal line by Bruins linebacker Akeem Ayers late in the second quarter.

Still smarting from not scoring a touchdown on the previous play, on which he had scrambled 45 yards to the UCLA 2, Keenum took after Ayers, whom he had the angle on. When Ayers made a cutback move near the Bruins' 30, Keenum tried to turn to make the tackle, but his right knee gave way and he fell facedown to the ground.

"I knew I'd done something pretty bad," Keenum says.

But even after trainers told Keenum he had probably torn his ACL, he was in denial.

"It's one of those things you think is never going to happen to you," Keenum says.

After all, this was his senior season. It was supposed to be his time.

Entering the season, he had been in the best shape of his life. He led his teammates in 7-on-7 drills three nights a week during the summer and even cut back eating Tex-Mex, his favorite cuisine.

"I had all these plans," Keenum says.

Keenum had refused to believe on the field that he had torn his ACL, but reality set in when his father, Steve Keenum, came to see him in the locker room. The quarterback began to cry as his father hugged and comforted him.

"I love you," Steve Keenum recalls telling his son. "I'm proud of you."

THE HARD ROAD BACK

After his knee injury, Keenum started taking hydrocodone, a painkiller prescribed by his doctors. He leg hurt so much initially that he took two of the pills eight times daily.

At first, the combination of the narcotic and pain made him vomit as much as three times a day. By the time he had his knee surgery two weeks later, he had also started taking another painkiller.

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When Keenum tore his ACL, he weighed a hardy 210 pounds. After the surgery, he slipped into the worst shape of his life.

He lost his appetite because of the painkillers and wouldn't even eat the jambalaya, Chinese food and chocolate cake brought to him by family and friends.

All he ate were Wheat Thins.

Keenum's weight quickly plummeted to 183 pounds, and that total included the bulky black knee brace he wore. Typically upbeat and outgoing, he began to feel sorry for himself.

Even with the painkillers, he was in constant pain. His crutches only made it worse.

He did not want to move around. His skin turned paler by the day.

"I was like a zombie," Keenum says. temporarlly

It became so bad that Keenum's friend and team chaplain, Mikado Hinson, almost had to shake Keenum to get him to shave for a national video interview with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Before that, Keenum had said he was going grow a beard until he knew whether he would receive a sixth year of eligibility.

“No, you’re not,” Hinson recalls telling Keenum. “You’re going to look presentable and get out of bed. You’re going to get yourself together."

Two weeks after his surgery, Keenum started to wean himself off the painkillers.

“He was definitely in a dark place for a short period of time,” Hinson says. “He didn’t know about his future. He couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

As he lowered his daily dosages, Keenum began vomiting again and also had trouble sleeping.

"It was a weird deal," Keenum says. "I had never experienced anything like that. I can see how people could have problems with painkillers. I hate the stuff."

After his surgery, Keenum stayed temporarily at his future wife's garage apartment. They had been dating for five years, and though he had been saying for some time he wanted to marry her, he didn't have a timetable.

Yet, during those weeks after his surgery, Keenum began to understand just how much she loved him. She helped him get out of his bed in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, handed him the television remote when he needed it and assisted him in getting dressed.

"I realized there's nobody out there that's better for me," Keenum says. "She took care of me when I absolutely needed it the most and was at my lowest."

WOULD IT BE COLLEGE OR THE NFL?

Keenum's injury had also left him in another precarious situation. Houston had applied to the NCAA in early October for Keenum’s sixth year, but if rejected, he would face the daunting challenge of trying to get his knee healthy enough to work out for scouts before April's NFL draft.

But what he wanted most was to have another senior season. Over the next four months, Keenum prayed incessantly that the NCAA would give him another year.

Case Keenum

This season, Keenum needs 3,487 passing yards to move ahead of former Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang as the NCAA's career passing yards leader (17,072) and 28 touchdown passes to top former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell's career touchdown passes mark (134). He's one of only two players in Division I history to have multiple 5,000-yard passing seasons.

Brett Davis

He prayed after waking up in the morning, before going to sleep at night — even during television commercials, which he muted. At the end of every prayer, Keenum said the same thing.

"I'm going to trust in what Your plan is for me," Keenum recalled praying.

Meanwhile, Keenum went to work on his rehabilitation. His first goal was to be able to lay down without his leg hurting.

Once that was accomplished, Keenum's next goal was to be able to move his leg without pain.

"It was tough," Keenum says. "Really tough."

But Keenum wasn't optimistic about playing college football again. Several times he believed the NCAA was about to make its decision, but the ruling didn't come.

He kept telling his father to be ready to meet with agents. But, finally, on a Friday in mid-January while out running errands with a friend, Keenum got a call from Houston coach Kevin Sumlin.

"Well," Sumlin told Keenum. "We got it."

"What?" Keenum replied. "No, we didn't."

"Yep, we did," Sumlin said.

Keenum was so thrilled by the news he started calling and texting every family member and friend he could think of. Within 30 minutes, his cell phone was dead.

"It was definitely an answer to prayer," Keenum says of the NCAA's decision.

A week later, while on a date with his girlfriend, Keenum took her to Houston's Robertson Stadium. They walked onto the field, where Keenum's family and friends had set up a walkway of candles leading to a table covered in rose pedals at midfield.

At the table, Keenum bent down on his left knee and asked her to marry him, as the couple’s families and friends watched from the press box. After she said yes, the song "Better Today" by Coffey Anderson was played over the stadium's speakers, and Keenum presented her with a Bible engraved with her married name.

“It was seriously the best day of my life,” Kimberly Keenum says. “I never thought it was going to happen. I would love to relive that day every day because it was so wonderful.”

Case Keenum is proud to admit both he and his wife were virgins until they got married.

"That's something that's definitely difficult," he says. "But we're glad we did."

While he and Kimberly were dating, Keenum says, he spoke openly with his teammates about the couple's decision to wait to have sex. He says many of his teammates didn't believe him.

"I've gone from having the least amount of sex on the team," Keenum says with a laugh, "to the most."

FINALLY BACK ON THE FIELD

But when Houston started practice this past spring, doctors hadn’t cleared Keenum for action. By the end of the sessions, however, he had progressed all the way to participating in some passing drills.


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Since preseason camp started earlier this month, Keenum has been taking his normal first-team repetitions. He has sat out just one practice, the first of two in a day, which coach Sumlin says was only as a precautionary measure.

Keenum insists he feels "pretty good," but more important, he's sworn off trying to make tackles ever again.

"I learned my lesson," Keenum says.

And just in case there were any doubts about Keenum's comeback, he addressed them last week: On the first play of Houston's first preseason scrimmage, he threw a 65-yard touchdown pass.

"What can I say, he's a special guy," Sumlin says.

Yet every day, Keenum is still asked by someone, "How's your knee?" Not that it bothers him, because he, too, once wondered, as well.

Since his surgery, Keenum has also become accustomed to strangers rolling up their shorts or pants leg to show him their scarred knees.

"Look at this," they say.

Keenum's knee injury has opened his eyes in many ways. Last season, he says, he became so caught up with football that he put it before anything else.

He’s still as dedicated as ever, but now he makes sure his focuses are God, family and football — in that order. He’s already made small changes, like missing a workout to arrive a day early for his wedding and taking his wife out on Sunday night dates.

"As awful as everything that’s happened with his knee — and I wouldn’t want it to happen to anybody — it was seriously the best thing for Case and even our relationship,” Kimberly Keenum says. “It really helped him put his priorities back in line.”

Keenum has also made his injury a major part of his Christian testimonial.

Before his injury, he told FCA youth groups how athletes can use their talents and influence to glorify God. Now, he also tells them how he cried in a Rose Bowl locker room and eventually realized God's plan for him is "perfect."

"I'm sure there's more reasons why I came back," Keenum says. "I'm looking forward to those."

But, now, Keenum isn't trying to plan them out as much anymore.

Tagged: UCLA, Houston, Case Keenum, Akeem Ayers

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