The Final Play

After traumatic knee injury, Case Keenum has one more season to prove his talents.

It's the Houston Cougars' first scrimmage of the 2011 spring season, and Case Keenum extends his arms over his head and into touchdown formation. The team's star quarterback, wearing his number 7 jersey, is fired up that the offense has scored yet again on a defense that's been run ragged by the team's relentless attack.

As several out-of-breath defenders cast downward looks into the Robertson Stadium turf, Keenum, the team's best player, slowly ambles toward several wide receivers and offensive linemen to give them job-well-done fist bumps. He's not suited in full pads. Instead, Keenum wears a protective black sleeve, which sticks out inches below his knee-length shorts, in order to keep his surgically repaired limb from further trauma.

The University of Houston's All-American quarterback has arrived at this point due to a devastating tear to the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, a life-altering injury suffered in a game against UCLA at the beginning of the 2010 season. Rather than sprinting around the field making plays, Keenum, since last fall, has been spending a majority of his waking hours in a training room.

Case's parents came with their own athletic pedigrees. At Abilene's McMurry University, Susan played three sports and Steve was on the offensive line. They recently attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event in Abilene with Case's sister Allison.
Tim Nelson
Case's parents came with their own athletic pedigrees. At Abilene's McMurry University, Susan played three sports and Steve was on the offensive line. They recently attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event in Abilene with Case's sister Allison.
Even though Keenum won the Texas Class 3A Division I state championship in 2004...
Photos by Tim Nelson
Even though Keenum won the Texas Class 3A Division I state championship in 2004...

Before Keenum, 23, lay helpless on the Rose Bowl Stadium turf, the lightly recruited signal caller from Abilene was on track, in terms of statistics, to become the best college quarterback the state of Texas — and the nation — has ever seen.

Not only that, but the national media had given the under-recruited six-foot two-inch, 210-pound Heisman Trophy hopeful the rock-star treatment. Several college-football pundits even predicted that 2010 would be the Cougars' first shot in decades at a national championship run.

Keenum had helped lead the Houston Cougars program (as well as Houston's dormant sports scene) out of the doldrums. From the 2009 to 2010 seasons, UH saw the country's largest increase in season-ticket sales, quite the feat considering that the public university is a commuter school that can't brag about epic tailgates and school spirit like the University of Texas and Texas A&M.

People turned out in droves to see the golden-armed quarterback, who was on pace to break NCAA career passing records for yards and touchdowns. During last season's home opener, played against a second-rate opponent, the Cougars recorded the largest crowd in Robertson Stadium history. Two weeks later, Keenum's nightmare began and the team suffered through a directionless losing season.

Because Keenum was a senior, his college career looked to be over. However, in January, the NCAA granted the quarterback, who endures hours of grueling rehab every week, a medical hardship waiver. This means that he'll have one last shot to try and return the program to greatness as well as prove his worth to NFL scouts.

It won't be easy. Reconstructive knee surgery, a science that's highly advanced compared to three decades ago, is serious business. Though studies show an 85- to 90-percent rate for successful surgeries, the likelihood that an athlete can sustain the same level of pre-injury performance is a much dodgier proposition, even if he or she takes the recommended full year to recover.

In other words, there aren't any gimmes that Keenum, who is getting married this summer, can recapture the magic and help the University of Houston push toward achieving across-the-board tier-one status.
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With less than a minute to play in the 2004 Class 3A Division I state championship, Abilene Wylie High School quarterback Case Keenum rips off a 39-yard run. The score is tied and Keenum, a junior who has guided his overmatched Bulldogs to a fourth-quarter comeback against an undefeated Cuero squad, is trying to help the school win its first football state title in history.

Two plays later, Wylie's placekicker drills the game winner. The Bulldogs' 17-14 victory means that Keenum is a Texas high school championship-winning quarterback.

Keenum arrived at Wylie High molded for greatness, due in part to his parents' athletic pedigrees. Case's father Steve played on the offensive line at Abilene's McMurry University while his mother Susan was a three-sport athlete at McMurry. Before settling in Abilene in 1994, the couple moved all over west Texas so that Steve could coach at various high school and college programs.

Casey ("Case") Austin, born in Brownwood in 1988, became magnetized to football at a young age because, as a coach's son, he was perpetually around the game. "There's so much about it," says Keenum in his accent that's peppered with a rural West Texas drawl. "The smell, grass, sweat and sounds. It's just home for me."

Keenum also excelled on the hard court at Wylie. Steve Keenum says that his son would have been offered a basketball scholarship by an NAIA school had he shown some interest. But Case, who to this day "misses playing basketball a lot," never once pursued a future in the sport.

For a while, it looked like the wrong choice. For being a Texas state championship-winning quarterback, Keenum only garnered ho-hum interest from the religious-minded Baylor, and the state schools University of Texas-El Paso and North Texas. It also didn't help that Keenum received just a two-star rating (out of five stars) by player-evaluation services Scout.com and Rivals.com.

Unlike athletes with troubled pasts, recruiters had no reason to balk at Keenum's off-the-field activities. When he was young, his parents, lifelong Christians, introduced Case to Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). The interdenominational organization, which provides spiritual support for student athletes, remains huge for Case, who has become a prayer leader at the UH chapter. His father Steve stopped coaching in 2004 and is now an area director with FCA in Abilene.

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2 comments
Chris Lawless
Chris Lawless

OK I am in a giving mood. NCAA TD career record is 131 by Hawaii's Colt Brennan. ( Case has 107)Hawaii's Tommy Chang holds the passing yardage record, with 17,072 ( Case has 13,586).

No QB has 3 5000 yard seasons ( Case has two).

All reachable, and attainable last year too before injuries, but under-reported then too.

MGL_COOG
MGL_COOG

Cougar fans, get ready for an entertaining season. Get your tix while they last!!

 
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