Commentary

Case Keenum on verge of history

Originally Published: October 19, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- Don't get Case Keenum wrong. The Houston quarterback appreciates the fact that he is on track to set the NCAA career records for total offense, passing yards and touchdown passes. Keenum should take the first of those three Saturday, when the No. 19 Cougars play Marshall.

[+] EnlargeCase Keenum
Thomas Campbell/US PresswireCase Keenum's knee brace is a reminder of what he's been through in the last 13 months.

Keenum, who leads the FBS with 2,333 yards of total offense, needs only 130 yards to break the total offense record of 16,910 set by Timmy Chang of Hawaii (2000-04).

But with all due respect to the 142 seasons of quarterbacks who have played before him, those records aren't the most significant achievement of Keenum's senior season.

Playing is.

Only 13 months ago, in the third game of his fifth year with the Cougars, Keenum tried to correct a mistake and created a bigger one. After throwing an interception to UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers, Keenum took off after Ayers to make the tackle. Keenum tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Yet there Keenum was in the starting lineup on Aug. 30, when Houston defeated UCLA 38-34, and there he has been in every game this season. There is no discernible difference in the quality of his play, either. Keenum, in six games, has completed 170 of 238 passes for 2,309 yards and 17 touchdowns with only two interceptions. His passing efficiency rating of 174.81 is the best of his career by 15 points.

Those aren't even his best statistics. The Cougars, at 6-0, are one of 10 unbeaten teams in the FBS.

"I haven't felt my knee at all the last couple of games," Keenum said. "It's hard to say what percent I'm in. I felt 100 [percent] each time. But I've felt better each game mentally and physically."

The American sports fan takes for granted the miracles of modern medicine. Injuries that used to spell the end of a career now mean an interruption. Rehabilitation that once took two years, if it took at all, is now measured in months.

When the bell rang to open the season, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Keenum answered it. But that doesn't tell his story. That doesn't capture the 27 pounds he lost after surgery last fall, when the pain medication he needed for his knee left him uninterested in food.

That doesn't reveal the doubt that overtook him as he watched practice on crutches last fall, or the guilt that weighed him down as the Cougars, preseason favorites in Conference USA, finished 5-7.

That doesn't soothe the panic that consumed him when it looked as if his college career had ended and his knee wouldn't let him show the NFL what he could do.

"Going through December," Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin said, "he was like, 'OK Coach, I'm not going to be ready to go for the combine. I'm going to graduate. What am I going to do with my life?'"

Houston and Keenum applied for a sixth year of eligibility (A shoulder injury convinced the Cougars coaches to redshirt him as a freshman in 2006). NCAA rules necessitated that for Keenum to be eligible in the fall, he had to enroll in the spring semester in January.

On Jan. 14, only days before the first class, the NCAA gave Keenum his sixth year.

"You sit there and think about timelines," Keenum said. "I wasn't sure if I was getting another year back. 'Oh my gosh, I've got to be ready for this and this. Am I going to be able to have a pro day?' I had no goal to work toward. My goal was just trying to get healthy. Then we heard [from the NCAA]. OK, now there's a goal. It's nice to have a picture in your mind of where you're going to be headed."

That answered Keenum's long-term concerns. But he still had to pay the toll of rehabilitation.

"Most people think, well, he got a sixth year. Here we go," Sumlin said. "The reality of it is … you're in February, and rehab is not a team sport. It may be the ultimate individual sport. It's long. It's painful. A lot of guys get frustrated."

[+] EnlargeCase Keenum and Kevin Sumlin
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesKeenum and coach Kevin Sumlin have led Houston to a perfect start to the season.

"I'm used to working and seeing results," Keenum said. "It's like hitting your head against the wall, waking up every day doing the same thing. For a month at a time, it's like, 'Oh, I'm not getting any better.' There were those weeks and even months, the same thing every day."

By May, Keenum had had it. His doctors told him he was improving. All he knew was that nothing changed. He did the exercises. He got the massages. His knee hurt. The expectations wore on him. Do you know what it feels like to be 23 years old and have one good knee with an entire athletic program on your back?

The trainers and the medical staff decided to make the rehab work on Keenum's mind.

"He's a guy who does well with reinforcement by numbers," Sumlin said. "'This is how I practiced. I completed this many balls out of this many throws.'" The doctors and trainers set up a program in which Keenum did a specific number of reps of each exercise so that he could measure his progress from week to week. From there, he took off."

Keenum set a goal of being ready for the Cougars' practice in August. He missed three of the 29 workouts, two because the coaches sat him out. He set another goal, too. He envisioned coming off the field after Houston's first touchdown of the season.

"I envisioned seeing everybody there that's been there for me: coaches, trainers, from every trainer that's given me countless massages on my knee, to all the guys I've done rehab with, to doctors, to everybody," Keenum said. "That was one of the biggest challenges, to be there and play for all the guys and people who had supported me and been there."

At the top of the list were people who wouldn't be on the sideline, his parents in Abilene, Steve and Susan, and his longtime girlfriend, Kimberly Caddell. She listened to his doubts. She nursed him when he couldn't get around. She nurtured him when his spirit waned. In June, she became Kimberly Keenum.

"It's one of the big reasons we're married today," Keenum said. "I realized how much she loved me. She showed it. I don't think I could have gotten that from anybody else. Here's a picture of her right here. She got her bridal portraits done at the stadium. That's pretty funny, isn't it?"

Her photo is inside the clear plastic sleeve on the cover of his Houston playbook. Her dark hair and white dress are set off by the green grass of Robertson Stadium.

On the Cougars' opening drive of the season, on that same Robertson Stadium grass, Keenum moved the offense 80 yards in 16 plays, converting four third downs. When he came off the field, Keenum wrapped his orthopedist, Dr. Walt Lowe, in a big ol' hug.

Houston won that game 38-34, and it's won the rest of them, too. In the days following the last game, a 56-3 rout of East Carolina in which Keenum completed 30 of 37 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns, he noticed something. Actually, he noticed the absence of something. His knee didn't hurt.

"I just woke up the next day and thought about the journey I've been on," Keenum said. "Last year at this time, I was struggling to get out of bed. The path that God's brought me on has been pretty cool. He's been the same God for me in the valleys as he is now that we're hopefully climbing to the top.

"Golly, think about where we were and where we are. Pretty incredible journey."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com