- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 31, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) - Case Keenum leaned on his crutches and pondered his future as he watched the final minutes of Houston’s loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl last Sept. 18.

Houston’s star senior quarterback was approaching several NCAA records when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against the Bruins and was lost for the 2010 season.

Before Keenum could sink too far into depression and self-pity about his lost opportunity _ before he even left the stadium, in fact _ his mother came down from the stands and put everything in perspective.

“She said, `This is peanuts,’” Keenum remembers with a smile. “She said, `There are people out there right now protecting our country, giving up their lives, so that we can do the things we do. What’s a knee injury in the grand scheme of things?’

“She was right,” he said. “And looking back, a lot of good things have come out of it.”

The best things may be coming this season.

The knee is healed now, and the rejuvenated Keenum is back for one more season with the Cougars after the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility. And he will start his final year in Houston against none other than UCLA in Saturday’s season opener at Robertson Stadium.

“I’ve thought about this for a long time, and I’ve lost a lot of sleep over it,” Keenum said. “It’s been one thought that has probably consumed my mind for the last year now, so it’s going to mean a lot to me and I’m really excited to get back out there.”

Doctors bluntly told him in the training room under the Rose Bowl that his knee was mangled and his season was over, and he sobbed in the arms of his father, Steve. In the early weeks after surgery, Keenum could hardly get out of bed and the pain-killing medications made him ill.

“It was everything. I went through the whole process. Denial, anger, all that stuff,” he said. “It wasn’t fun. It’s not something I would wish for anybody to go through.”

A devout Christian, Keenum fell back on his faith to help him through the ordeal. Keenum is active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and his father directs the FCA chapter in Abilene, where Case led Wylie High School to a state championship in 2004.

“I told him that when you look back in the Bible, any time God got ready to do something with somebody, He’d always send them to the hard place, the desert, for trials,” Steve Keenum said. “They help you grow, not just emotionally, but physically and spiritually.

“He’s been there. He’s been in the desert,” he added. “This wasn’t easy. But I think now he’s a better person, he’s a better man. It’s all made him stronger.”

When the worst was over, Case Keenum started mulling his options with his father, a former coach. The school petitioned the NCAA for one more year, and all they could do then was wait.

Keenum took his mind off the uncertainty by returning to the practice field, helping coaches with game plans. He counseled freshman quarterback David Piland, who was thrust into a starting role after the injuries to Keenum and backup Cotton Turner, also hurt in the UCLA game.

Case Keenum had studied details of other medical hardship appeals, including the application of former Texas receiver Jordan Shipley, who got a sixth year of eligibility after missing the 2004 and `05 seasons with knee and hamstring injuries. He wasn’t always hopeful _ he had already participated in four seasons, even though his final one only lasted less than three games. His father, though, was more optimistic because he knew the ins and outs of NCAA rules after coaching at Division III McMurry University in Abilene from 1995-2004.

“It was just a matter of getting all the documentation together,” Steve Keenum said. “A thing like that, you don’t get a second chance, so you have to make sure that you’re as thorough and accurate as you can be. So we were very meticulous in putting things together.”

Coach Kevin Sumlin called his star on Jan. 14 with the good news.

“Overjoyed, ecstatic, any emotion you could think of,” Keenum recalled. “I wanted to go out and start working out that day. It was nice to know that for my mental state, through all that rehab, that I now had something to work for.”

Riding his good luck, he asked his longtime girlfriend, Kimberley, to marry him the following week and the two were married in June.

“I’m not to the point yet where I can totally say that I’m glad all this happened,” Case said. “But some day, I will, because God’s plan is always better than ours.”

Come Saturday, he’ll finally be back in his element.

The school is promoting him as a Heisman Trophy candidate and barring another injury, Keenum should have the numbers to make a case as he chases the marks set by Hawaii quarterback Tim Chang (2000-04) and Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell (2005-09).

Chang is the all-time leader among Football Bowl Subdivision schools in total offense (16,910 yards), passing yards (17,072) and pass attempts (2,436). Keenum ranks seventh all-time in total offense (14,448 yards), fifth in passing yards (13,586) and 10th in attempts (1,626).

Harrell holds the NCAA records for touchdown passes (134) and completions (1,403). Keenum is eighth in TD passes (107) and seventh in completions (1,118).

Keenum says he’s paid little attention to the records, and says none stand out above the rest.

“They all have different meanings to them, as far as different aspects of your game,” he said. “All of them also say so many things about the guys I’ve been throwing the ball to all these years.”

The Heisman is usually linked to a team’s success, and the Cougars don’t face another team from a BCS league the rest of the way after UCLA. That means limited television exposure, but Keenum has to look no further than his own school to find a player who overcame that obstacle.

In 1989, Houston’s Andre Ware threw for 4,699 yards and 46 touchdowns with a 63 percent completion rate. He won the Heisman Trophy without playing a single game on national TV.

Keenum is just thankful to be playing at all.

“I mean, what I’ve learned in that last year, it’s that the ability to play this game, it can be taken away from you in an instant,” he said. “We’re not guaranteed to even wake up tomorrow. It’s not promised. If you put stock into things like that, trophies, and stuff like that _ in the end, it’s all going to burn up one day.

“So I try to keep my priorities straight, keep my eyes on what’s important, and that’s faith, family and football. And football is easily third on the list.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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