The Final Play
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
Case's fiancée Kimberly Caddell also works for FCA as a marketing and event planner in the Houston office. Keenum and Caddell met each other through church when they were kids, but lost touch when they attended different high schools in Abilene. Years later, with Caddell on her way to studying communications at Hardin-Simmons, a Baptist liberal arts school located in Abilene, the two started dating after hitting it off at an event.
Around the same time, Keenum accepted an athletic scholarship from the University of Houston, and it turned out to be the only full ride offered to him. Keenum says that he could have waited to see if more schools would do the same, but didn't bother because he had developed a bond with former UH head coach Art Briles and ex-co-offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Philip Montgomery.
"One of the main reasons I chose U of H is because the coaches believed in me. I really, really liked the coaches that were here at the time," says Keenum of Briles and Montgomery. "I had solid relationships with those guys and I still do."
During Keenum's final high school football game, a quarterfinal playoff match-up in November 2005 at Irving's Texas Stadium, the defending state champion Wylie Bulldogs trailed Gainesville 25-15. In the fourth quarter, Keenum, following a 38-yard touchdown scamper punctuated with an end-zone dive, brought his team to within three points. But on the play, he separated his shoulder, and his team eventually lost by three points.
Even though Keenum was now a significantly injured signee, Houston still honored its commitment.
Keenum, sporting a red Houston Cougars jersey, reaches the ball across the goal line for the go-ahead score against Texas Tech University. Forty-nine seconds later, the capacity crowd, which includes former UH and NBA stars Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, celebrates the Cougars' 29-28 victory that pushes Keenum's name into the Heisman talks.
This moment in September 2009 seemed impossible when Keenum arrived on campus in fall 2006 because he literally had no shot at playing. That's because Kevin Kolb, who began the 2010 NFL season as the starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, had an all-star stronghold on UH's signal-caller position. On top of that, Keenum's bum throwing shoulder, which he re-aggravated during a high school all-star game the previous summer, was in no shape for game action.
In 2007, with Kolb off to professional football, Keenum, a redshirt freshman with a quick release and an ability to extend plays outside of the pocket, would eventually win a tough quarterback competition with Blake Joseph. However, the highs of his new gig would plummet.
On November 28, 2007, Briles and Montgomery, the only coaches in major college football to believe in Case enough to offer him a scholarship, decided to leave Houston for Baylor. The incident made Keenum feel "really bummed." On top of that, his girlfriend of two years remained 350 miles away in Abilene. During those confusing times, the distance felt even greater.
Though disappointed, Keenum says he never seriously considered transferring to another school or moving back home. Instead, the sophomore persevered in 2008 under first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin, guiding the nation's number-one rated offense to a 34-28 victory over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. It was the school's first bowl win in 28 years.
As Keenum became more engrained in the endless routine required to succeed at major college football, the sports administration major became just as obsessed with Texas country music, a genre introduced to him by his old roommate and former Cougar offensive lineman Jordan Shoemaker. To this day, the genre, as well as Jack Johnson and Mumford & Sons, can get the quiet Keenum talking for hours.
Keenum had his breakout year as a junior in 2009 and local sports fans, who had a dire case of the blahs due to years and years of futility from Houston's professional and college teams, finally had something to get behind. The 2009 Conference USA player of the year guided the team to a 10-4 record that included high-profile, come-from-behind wins over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
Matt Jackson, co-host of Houston's Matt & Adam on KBME 790 AM, recalls how Keenum captivated local and national audiences. "Just the fact that he was putting up all of these unbelievable statistics and he was doing it on national TV put him on the map," he says. "It set them up where they were really legitimately thinking about an undefeated season in 2010."
From 2009 to 2010, the University of Houston — a school that, at best, sees middling interest in its sports programs — saw 5,167 in new season ticket sales out of an overall 11,477, an increase of 82 percent, which made UH the largest-growing fan base in major college football.
Keenum and the team's successes also helped new athletic director Mack Rhoades's plans for a stadium upgrade seem like a no-brainer. In October 2009, with the Keenum-led Cougars at their zenith, Rhoades commissioned a feasibility study on improving or replacing crumbling Robertson Stadium, the circa 1942 site originally constructed as a high school venue. The $160 million result, which the board of regents approved in June 2010, will be a new football stadium as well as upgrades to the Hofheinz Pavilion basketball arena.
Leading up to Keenum's senior season in 2010, the national media went nuts over his chances of shattering multiple NCAA marks, leading his team to an undefeated season and vying for a dark-horse run at the Heisman Trophy. In early August, a few weeks before the Cougars' 2010 season opener, Keenum took a tour to New York City and Bristol, Connecticut (Keenum's first to that part of the country) and interviewed with The Wall Street Journal and the Sports Illustrated Web site.
Keenum was also shown off during a four-minute-plus television spot on ESPN's College Football Live. After a brief highlight reel and on-air chat, show co-host Erik Kuselias closed the segment by saying, "We're already looking forward to an awful lot of touchdown passes this fall from Case Keenum and the Houston Cougars."
Case Keenum, decked out in workout clothes, limps down an upstairs hallway of the University of Houston athletics center. Today is the middle of spring break so the building is devoid of most of its occupants, including Keenum's teammates, who are visiting family or yukking it up on the beach.
Keenum, meanwhile, has just completed another rehabilitation session. He's doing something every day, ranging from exhausting leg exercises four times a week to general strengthening, in hopes of returning to 100 percent.
The quarterback experienced an explosive start to the 2010 season. On September 4 against Texas State University, Keenum broke school marks for completions and passing yards while leading the Cougars to a 68-28 win in front of the largest crowd ever to see a UH game at Robertson Stadium.
After suffering a concussion the next week during a home victory over UTEP, Keenum's head would clear in time for the Cougars' first road test of 2010 on September 18. With his team down 21-3 to the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl Stadium, Keenum's 45-yard scramble to the UCLA two-yard line shifted the game's momentum, and the classic Keenum-led comeback seemed to be on.
On the next play, Keenum's errant throw was intercepted by Bruin defensive star and future NFL Draft pick Akeem Ayers. As the frustrated quarterback tried to tackle Ayers in the open field, Keenum missed, landed face mask first and lay motionless.
"When Case fell," says Mikado Hinson, the University of Houston's chaplain, FCA campus director and one of Keenum's best buds, "I literally found myself three or four steps on the field yelling, 'No! No! No!' and screaming, 'Get up!' I wasn't even thinking about the season. I'm thinking this is my buddy, this is my guy and he's down. I really keep my emotions in check about a lot of things, but I found myself crying."
Keenum would eventually make his way to the sidelines, but with a life-changing injury and a struggle that continues to this day.
A week and a half later, Dr. Walter R. Lowe, the team physician for the Houston Cougars, Rockets and Texans, performed successful reconstruction surgery on Keenum's torn ACL. When an ACL ligament ruptures, which it did in Keenum's case, the rubber-band-like stabilizer tears in either the middle of the knee or from the top or bottom bones, according to Dr. Steven Flores, an orthopedic surgeon at Memorial Hermann Sports Medicine Institute/UTHealth.
Flores explains that rather than sewing the torn ligament back together, the sophisticated procedure requires a ligament reconstruction with the aid of a patient's own tendon, such as a hamstring graft, or materials from a cadaver. For younger athletes like Keenum, "The return-to-play rate is fairly high, but the question always is if a player can get back to the same or higher level that they were at before," says Flores. (To date, there aren't any studies on successful return-to-play rates for college athletes and only a few for NFL players. The doctors whom the Houston Press spoke with for this story say that those results are flawed because they don't account for factors such as a player's age and injury history.)
On top of fighting back from such a serious injury, there was the added complication of Keenum's eligibility.
College athletes are entitled to participate in four seasons of their respective sport during a five-year eligibility period. At the time, Keenum had technically exhausted both of these clauses. However, under special circumstances, such as unforeseen injury, waivers are sometimes granted to extend that period to six years. In most cases, the appeal process is long and unpredictable; it often takes the NCAA up to six months to make a decision.
So with a shredded knee, a looming unknown on his athletic future and the fact that he couldn't get out of bed or feed himself without assistance, Keenum was in a rotten emotional place. "The first two weeks after the surgery were pretty terrible," says Keenum.
It also seemed plausible, in Keenum's jumbled mind, that he had become a burden to his surrogate family. "I felt like I let down my teammates and coaches. I know it's God's plan and that's the way it is, but sometimes you just can't help but feel like that sometimes."
Then came rehabilitation, which can be very painful, with doctors pushing down on trouble areas. During certain sessions, "[Case] was nearly in tears," recalls Hinson.
T.O. Souryal, M.D., currently in his 18th season as the head team physician for the Dallas Mavericks, explains that no matter how advanced sports medicine becomes, there will never be an easy out with the recovery process.
"Rehab is tough, it has always been tough, it's always going to be tough," says Souryal, who adds that some athletes have returned to play within four to five months after surgery, but a bona fide recovery takes a full year.
If there is an upside for Keenum, whose father Steve says he had lived "a pretty charmed life" up until his injury, it's the time-and-place benefit of his situation.
According to the Mavericks' Souryal, ACL surgery has never been better than it is today. In terms of where Keenum is rehabbing, he's got that working in his favor, too, because the University of Houston is unequivocally linked with the Texas Medical Center, which is among the tops in the country. The once-anxious Keenum experienced this days before his procedure when Dr. Lowe told him, "Well, let's just say that I'm not going to have to study up the night before on how to do ACL reconstruction."
Additionally, former UH teammate and current St. Louis Rams wide receiver Donnie Avery, who tore his ACL three weeks before Keenum's mishap, has been back in Houston often to seek medical care. Keenum and Avery have rehabbed together, and that's made the healing process seem less arduous to Case.
In some ways, the surgery and the hours of rehab pale in comparison to Keenum's wait for the result of his sixth-year appeal to the NCAA. He felt like his grunt work in the training room, which his friend Hinson says really took off after he doled out some tough love to the depressed Keenum, didn't have a tangible goal because he didn't know if he was rehabbing for another year in a Cougars' uniform or an uphill-climb shot at the NFL.
On January 14, the NCAA granted him one last chance at collegiate greatness. The expectations have grown ever since.
Even though Keenum has yet to suit up in pads since his injury, the university is placing high hopes on the 23-year-old, who is the centerpiece of the school's 2011 season ticket renewal campaign. (Final sales won't be released until after this piece is published.) Keenum is expected to return as the starting quarterback for Houston's first game of the 2011 season, scheduled to take place at home on September 3 against the UCLA Bruins, the team Keenum was competing against when he got hurt.
Then there's the new stadium, which as of March had raised only half of the approximately $80 million needed to break ground. The state-of-the-art project, which UH athletic director Rhoades hopes will be fully funded before the summer, would help the university earn the all-encompassing tier-one designation that they've desperately been pushing toward. (The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recently gave tier-one kudos to UH. However, Carnegie's thumbs-up isn't the all-encompassing classification that Rice, the University of Texas and Texas A&M can boast.)
In terms of a professional football future, which Keenum says would be his "dream job," he'll need to show zero ill effects from his repaired knee to be invited to the NFL combine, a prove-your-might camp for draft-eligible players. According to Lance Zierlein of Houston's 1560 AM, he'll also be required to boast a stronger arm, a bulkier frame and the ability to operate out of a pro-style offense.
As for another run at the Heisman Trophy, Zierlein says that's next to impossible. "[In 2010], there was a sense that he had some momentum built up," he says. "Now that that's been wiped out, it's going to be very, very difficult to get all of that back in just one year."
A week after learning that he would don a UH uniform one last time, Case and Kimberly decided to get married. The wedding is slated to take place on June 11 in Abilene.
"Kimberly and I definitely got closer [after the injury], just with how she took care of me," says Keenum, who admits that playing football isn't the most important thing to him anymore. "I'm lucky to have found somebody who would love me that much and be there for me like that."
Caddell says that she used to feel pushed down on the priority list, but that the injury and Case's new viewpoint on life brought the two closer. "Prioritywise, everything changed," she says. "Football was everything without him even really realizing it. Now, he's learned that football is a game and it's fun and he loves it, but it's not his everything."
Though a pro career as an NFL quarterback is what Keenum is striving toward, he's not fixated on the possibility. That's why Keenum, following a hoped-for pro future, is targeting a career in coaching. According to UH head coach Kevin Sumlin, Keenum is already becoming a well-minded football tutor. "He stands back there and we have a lot of good conversations about what should happen [during football practice]," Sumlin tells the Press after a recent spring scrimmage.
Meanwhile, Keenum is enjoying his final moments in Houston, where he's taking nine credit hours toward a graduate degree in sports administration, attends Westbury Baptist Church on Hillcroft and chows down on "the best beef fajitas you'll ever have in your life" at Lupe Tortilla. He's also into music more than he's ever been, and he recently took up the acoustic guitar. "I'm no good," says Keenum, who can't be accused of hoarding a pompous, Kanye West-like attitude about his musical ability.
Once Keenum's trajectory is a bit more defined, he'll start a family with Kimberly. For Keenum, having at least one sports-playing son "would be awesome."
Says Keenum, "I'm going to try to teach him to throw with both hands and switch hit [in baseball], but I also want to teach him tennis or golf or something with a little less contact."
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