EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Three hours after throwing The Touchdown Tweeted Round the World, Case Keenum was eating a rib eye steak in a private dining room in a Minneapolis restaurant with 50 of his closest friends and family members. He normally has a glass of wine or maybe a beer or two after a game. But on this night he chose water. Why alter the reality he is already living?
“I had a high you can’t buy,” Keenum says.
It’s now nearly 45 hours after throwing the Touchdown Tweeted Round The World and Keenum has settled into a black swivel chair in a small focus room at the Vikings’ facility. It’s an off day for the team, two days after one of the most improbable and emotional endings to a game in NFL history, but there is Keenum, in gray sweatpants and a purple hoodie, hat pulled down low over his eyes, as usual, the last player left on the premises, as usual. He kicks his feet up and leans back in the chair.
It was hard for Keenum to comprehend exactly what happened in the immediate aftermath of the Vikings’ divisional round win over the Saints on Sunday—which, if you don’t follow football, own a TV or a computer, and have no human interaction whatsoever, ended in a miraculous 61-yard walk-off Keenum touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs. But when the quarterback drove from the stadium to the restaurant after the game with his wife, her two brothers and her parents, the gravity of the play and the moment started to set in a little bit more and a little bit more as the drive went on and the discussion continued. As they talked, small realizations of what had just happened and what it meant for him, for his team and for the history of the NFL, began to dawn on Keenum. Like the idea that people will be talking about the play forever, long after he is out of this league.
He wants to save all of that for later, though. Truthfully, he’s already tired of talking about the play. Keenum knows he will be asked about it all week in the lead up to the NFC Championship Game against the Eagles, but he has moved on. He took Monday to enjoy and reminisce with teammates, just a little bit, mostly when they were hanging in the locker room or sitting in the cold tubs. Keenum says he hasn’t made a concerted effort to watch the play, not even once. But he still estimates he’s seen it more than 50 times, just because it has been interminably replayed on every TV he’s walked past for the last two days. He can’t escape it, even if he’d like to.
“I’ve closed the book on the Saints,” he says. “Obviously I have to compartmentalize because I’ll be asked about the play [this week], but we have a job to do. I think [tight end Kyle] Rudolph said it the best—it’d be a shame to waste a play like that, a moment like that, an opportunity like that.”
Just minutes earlier, Keenum had been shooting a promo video for FOX in which, of course, he was asked to relive that play, the play he will be asked to relive by every new acquaintance for the rest of his life. He talked about how he told his teammates in the huddle that they still had a chance, about the feeling he had when the ball left his fingertips, that the throw was high and good and that Diggs might be able to make a play on it, about the image he can still see of Diggs’s white gloves reaching for the ball, about how he was pleading with the receiver in his mind to go out of bounds, then lost sight of him for a split second, then saw him slip and thought the game was over. The next thing Keenum remembers is asking his linemen what had just happened.
That’s a question that one could ask about Keenum’s entire season. What has happened? How do we reconcile the Case Keenum who was branded a journeymen quarterback, an itinerant backup, who was undrafted, stowed away on a practice squad, cut twice by the woeful Texans and again by the even more woeful Rams, then brought to Minnesota and told he would have to fight for a roster spot—how do we reconcile that Case Keenum with the quarterback who has now gone 12-3 this season and has the Vikings on the brink of the Super Bowl, the first team ever to play the game in its own stadium? There are a couple trains of thought: 1) Keenum had been misused and misjudged his whole career, saddled with bad players surrounding him and bad coaches leading him, and now he is showcasing his true abilities as a potential franchise quarterback. 2) This is still the same Keenum that we’ve always seen, but now he has been put in the ideal situation, with the ideal coach and the ideal scheme and the ideal supporting characters; and the Vikings are winning in spite of him, not because of him.
Keenum doesn’t adhere to either of those beliefs.
He sees labels as contrived and facile. He understands that the media likes to use them, but that doesn’t mean he has to believe them. He never thought of himself as a journeymen or career backup, even if others did. Others see his season as an overnight success story, a guy who woke up one day and was suddenly a highly capable and winning NFL quarterback. He sees this as the culmination of years of gradual improvement, of learning more about himself and his process, and what works and what doesn’t. He says that’s only human, and everybody gets better at what they do if they work at it.
“I always felt I could play in this league,” he says. “But every experience I’ve had has made me end up who I am and has helped me in every situation I’ve been in.”
He’s not sure if he could have had this same success earlier in his career, if all the other factors were in place. Would he have been ready then? Maybe. Maybe not. In earlier years he would put great amounts of pressure on himself. He always had confidence in his abilities, but when you’re fighting for a job and trying to prove yourself to coaches who may not believe in you, you tend to not play your best football.
“That was one of the lessons I had to learn—just relax and play,” he says. “Don’t worry about what’s happened in the past, don’t worry what’s going to happen in the future. You are playing a game you dreamed your whole life about playing. There’s no sense in ruining it by worrying or doubting.”
That’s partly why Keenum ended up signing with Minnesota last spring. It was his first experience as a free agent, finally able to choose his own team. And the coaching staff wanted him in Minnesota. “It felt good to have somebody want to sign me,” he says.
He believes there are a lot of differences between Case Keenum the quarterback who lost eight consecutive games for Houston in 2013 and Case Keenum the quarterback who won eight consecutive games this season. He’s smarter, his knowledge of the game has improved, he knows how to read and attack NFL defenses better, his throwing mechanics are crisper, his pocket movement is more polished. None of that happened overnight. Most importantly, he has a greater understanding of himself and how he needs to prepare and how to deal with the doubt that creeps in every once in a while.
That’s human nature, he says. Is he confident in himself? Heck yeah. But everyone has doubts and worries at times. When he wasn’t drafted, when he was cut, and then cut again, and again—sure, he wondered if the phone was ever going to ring, if he was going to get another opportunity. He wasn’t making any post-football plans, but those were the times his mind opened up and he thought maybe there were other things for him in life besides the sport he loves, and if that was God’s plan he was confident that it would all work out.
He had those same creeping doubts after his first start this year, in a Week 2 loss to the Steelers in which he looked very much like the Case Keenum the football world expected to see when Sam Bradford got injured. Maybe in previous years that would have affected him, eaten at him and harmed his psyche and his play. But he knows himself now, and he’s confident and self-aware enough to not let that doubt creep in.
“The mind is a funny thing in how it works,” he says. “Sometimes you have to tell yourself what’s really true. If you don’t, your mind starts trying to tell you lies.”
Keenum’s mind has no desire to take a look at the NFL’s leaders in QBR this year, an ESPN stat that measures all factors of a quarterback’s performance, even when he’s told that he ranked No. 2 in the league, one spot ahead of Tom Brady. He’s played the stat game before. When he was breaking NCAA records at Houston, he remembers several games where he’d throw for 500 yards and multiple touchdowns and no interceptions, and the team would lose. He doesn’t worry himself with those numbers anymore.
“There is only one stat that matters,” he says, referring to wins.
An iPad is proffered to him. It shows a local Philadelphia-area newspaper headline that reads, “Are Eagles going to let Vikings’ Case Keenum—Case freakin’ Keenum!?—keep them from Super Bowl 52?” He doesn’t want to read it. “Is that my middle name now?” he jokes, before adding that his skin has to be pretty thick at this point and he’s not going to let anything like that get to him now.
What he does want to talk about is that dinner after the game, and that rib eye—“It tasted good, man.” As they sat around the table that night, he and all of his family and his friends huddled to watch his sister’s Snapchat story on his phone. She had filmed the group’s reactions throughout the game, and Keenum enjoyed seeing how excited his loved ones were; if he couldn’t enjoy the moment as much as he’d like, because he still has two more games to win, at least he could enjoy them enjoying it.
Five hours after the Touchdown Tweeted Round The World, when a whittled-down group of 10 returned to his house around midnight, they turned on the TV, flipped to the DVR and put on the Vikings game that they’d recorded. As they got to the end, they realized that the recording cut off before the final drive. But maybe that was for the best. Keenum knows this isn’t a time for reminiscing. He’s asked to pick out the best moment of this season, the one that embodies this remarkable run he has taken the Vikings on. He leans forward in his black swivel chair with a wry grin.
“Maybe it’s still out there,” he says.
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