As free agency officially opened on March 14, former University of Houston quarterback Case Keenum signed a two-year deal worth a reported $36 million to become the new quarterback of the Denver Broncos.
“He’s a great fit for us and is coming off a tremendous season. Excited to add Case’s leadership, competitiveness and experience!” tweeted Broncos General Manager John Elway at 4 p.m. EST, the very minute free agency opened. The move came after Keenum led the Minnesota Vikings on a storybook ride through the playoffs earlier this year.
Denver marks Keenum’s fifth team in five years. It’ll be a new offense to learn, a new team to lead, new fans, coaches and front office to answer to—but that’s nothing new at all for Keenum.
“Adjusting and adapting—those words would imply that this is a new situation for me. They’d imply that anything in football has ever come to me easy.”
Let’s take a trip back to the 1990s. It’s board game night at the Keenum household in Abilene, Texas, where Susan, a physical education teacher, and Steve, a football coach, live with their three children: Case and his sisters Lauren and Allison. But there is one particular game that just won’t make it out of the box without protest from their son.
“Candy Land, no. He did not like it,” recalls Susan. “He didn’t like games of luck.”
In 2018, it’s easy to see why Case Keenum realized early that Candy Land was not the game for him. It involves zero strategy, skill or decision-making. The players simply follow directions, and the winner is predetermined by the shuffle of the cards. That’s not how Keenum has ever played any game—then or now.
“I guess you could even argue, in an ironic way … that I almost came to the NFL more prepared than anyone,” Keenum wrote in an open letter to fans in early January, as his team was making its way toward the NFC Championship game. “Because they say this is a ‘prove it’ league. And proving it—over, and over, and over again—is all I’ve ever known.”
Winning the 2004 Texas Class 3A Division I title at Abilene Wylie High School resulted in only one scholarship offer for Keenum. Seizing the opportunity at the University of Houston, he went on to become the most prolific passer in NCAA history. Even so, pro teams were not knocking down his door.
“I watched him for four years. I knew he was a special player. I tried to tell everyone, ‘You need to draft him, he’s gonna be good,’” said his former coach Kliff Kingsbury, the former UH offensive coordinator and current head coach at Texas Tech.
But just as he’d done following high school, he’d have to prove himself … again.
“I’ve been getting, ‘If you were only a few inches taller’ … or, ‘If you were just a few ticks faster’ … or, ‘If that arm was maybe a few yards stronger, son’—basically my whole life. Heck, the only time in my life I think I’ve ever been overestimated was at the NFL draft. The experts said I’d be a late-round pick,” said Keenum. “I went undrafted.”
Keenum’s journey through the NFL has been much like Candy Land—a windy path backward and forward. But unlike the board game, Keenum’s course has not been driven by luck. It’s been propelled by his own talent, an incredible sense of confidence on the field, perseverance and belief. And he’s done it by staying true to himself and his roots as a Houston Coog, becoming a familiar face this spring at UH basketball and Houston Rockets games.
“A lot of guys would have quit,” said Kingsbury. “Being a guy who went through a similar path in that league, it’s hard to keep your confidence, keep your belief in yourself and keep seeing what’s out there. He did it. He let it make him a better, stronger player.”
Luck, no. Lucky, maybe.
“When you’re on the fringes, man—you’re almost lucky in a way,” said Keenum. “Sure, there’s less job security. And sure, the paycheck is smaller. And sure, you could be packing your bags at a moment’s notice. OK, on second thought … maybe ‘lucky’ is the wrong word. But still, I’m telling you—there’s something about that life. You learn things on the fringes.”
Keenum says he doesn’t play to prove people wrong. He says he plays to prove people right—the people who have believed in him: coaches, family members and friends. So when the Minnesota Vikings lost starter Sam Bradford to injury in the first game of the 2017 season, and with Teddy Bridgewater still out nursing an injury from the previous year, Keenum was poised to prove himself, again.
And he did. Keenum says it was the right team at the right time. He went 11-4 as the Vikings’ starter and catapulted from journeyman quarterback to MVP candidate. He took his team to the NFC Championship and pulled off the Minnesota Miracle to get there, perhaps one of the best plays in NFL history. His QB Rating when pressured was the highest in the NFL. So was his QBR when facing a blitz. Keenum amassed 3,500 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Some people are calling him the surprise of the NFL season. But those close to him aren’t surprised in the least.
“It was a lot of ‘I told you so’ from me, which is awesome,” said Kingsbury. “He’s a great, great quarterback. He always has been. He got into a system where the players, the coaches, the organization believed in him. It was built around him with good players, and this is the result you get.”
Elway and fans are hoping for a similar result, which means Keenum will need to prove himself yet again. This is the National Football League—the moves here are high stakes, and Keenum wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, he was never a fan of Gumdrop Mountains or Lollipop Woods.
“You learn the value of having people who believe in you—and the value of proving them right. You learn how to block out the noise. You learn how to really call plays. And you learn how to cherish every opportunity, right down to the last one … because you never know how many you’re gonna get.”