Jon Davis, Air Force football star, once watched Case Keenum from several feet away.
On Sunday evening, Davis watched Keenum, Minnesota Vikings quarterback, from hundreds of miles away.
Davis was sitting with his girlfriend, Alexandra, at a Sacramento, Calif., restaurant, enjoying a steak dinner with friends.
He could see Keenum was in a tough spot. Down one point. Under a minute left. A superb season, it seemed, about to end.
“I played that quarterback and I intercepted him in college,” Davis told the table, pointing at No. 7 in purple.
“Just reliving my glory days,” he said.
Seconds later, Davis and his friends watched Keenum deliver a looping, literal last-gasp pass to Stefon Diggs to vault the Vikings past the Saints and into Sunday’s NFC Title Game against the Eagles.
Davis and his Air Force teammates played against Keenum three times in two seasons (2008-2009). They sensed his potential and could see how an undrafted quarterback later would defy skeptics.
Mostly, though, the Falcons tormented Keenum, beating him twice and intercepting him eight times, including six times in their final meeting.
“Great quarterback,” Davis said. “He could throw any pass on the field. And a great guy. He was humble. He had respect for every single player. That’s what made him a good guy.”
Keenum is the NFL’s unlikely hero of the moment. He’s not quite 6-foot-1, and his arm, though accurate, does not resemble a cannon. At every level, he collects victories and astounding statistics but also, strangely enough, doubters.
At Wylie High School in Texas, Keenum collected 6,783 yards and 48 touchdowns passing and 2,000 yards and 41 touchdowns rushing. He won a state 3A title.
All that, and only one Division I scholarship offer.
At the University of Houston, Keenum passed for 19,217 yards and 155 touchdowns. Three times, he threw for more than 5,000 yards in a season. (Air Force passed for 1,321 yards in 2017.)
All that, and no NFL team drafted him. He bounced from the Texans to the Rams to the Vikings before finally finding NFL happiness and stardom this season. He’s expected to earn in the vicinity of $20 million in the upcoming 2018 season.
I talked with Keenum in 2009. He had been judged a two-star recruit in high school by Rivals, an influential online site that rates high school players.
“I was overlooked, but I wouldn’t say it drives me,” he said. “I think about it every now and then, honestly just to give advice to other high school athletes who aren’t getting a good look or five stars on Rivals.
“It’s not always about how Rivals ranks you or how many offers you have by the time you’re a sophomore. That’s not the only way to be successful.”
Reggie Rembert played alongside Davis in the Air Force defensive backfield. Rembert relates to Keenum. Air Force’s roster was filled with overlooked players. In other words, filled with Keenums.
“He’s like the academy guys,” Rembert said. “He just works really hard. He’s one of those guys who is not as big and as fast, but he can make up for that by studying things and knowing what a team will do. That’s what really set him above.”
Davis and Rembert and the Falcons first battled against Keenum in 2008 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Hurricane Ike had chased the game from Houston’s campus.
Keenum was strong on that windy day, collecting four touchdowns and 362 yards passing, but Air Force’s rushing attack trampled Houston in a 31-28 victory.
The teams met again on New Year’s Eve in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth. This time, Houston took the close win, 34-28, with Keenum passing for 252 yards and a touchdown.
The rubber game arrived exactly a year later in an Armed Forces Bowl rematch. Keenum was ending an astounding season with 43 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions in 659 throws. He understood Air Force’s defensive strategy.
Or so it seemed.
Air Force defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter had weeks to prepare for Keenum. This lead time gave DeRuyter a chance to devise what Rembert calls “exotic” coverage schemes. DeRuyter was blessed with a gifted, motivated secondary and two ferocious pass rushers in Ben Garland and Rick Ricketts.
Keenum was destined for the worst game of his life.
DeRuyter’s trademark style was to blitz from every position. He wanted to fool Keenum into believing heavy blitz pressure was coming when in actuality nearly every defender was dropping back in pass coverage. On most plays, Air Force had eight defenders guarding against Keenum’s passes.
“We ran a bunch of false pressures,” DeRuyter says of the fake pass rushes. “The illusion of pressures. We wanted to get guys in different windows.”
Keenum dropped back, took quick looks at Air Force coverage and believed he saw open windows for his passes.
DeRuyter had closed the windows.
Keenum, under pressure from Garland and Ricketts, threw six interceptions, including one to Davis. Keenum threw only five interceptions his entire senior season.
“It’s pretty cool that a few years ago we could give him his biggest headache,” Rembert said, laughing.
Following the devastating 47-20 loss, Keenum acted as he did in Houston’s bowl victory a year earlier. He enthusiastically congratulated Rembert and Davis and the other Falcons.
Rembert and Davis respected Keenum’s arm. They could tell he was an obsessed student of the game and deceptively athletic. DeRuyter calls him a cross between Johnny Manziel and Drew Brees. Rembert and Davis still marvel at throws that seemed guided by radar.
Mostly, though, they remember his attitude.
He was humble. He was classy. He was respectful.
That’s why Rembert and Davis always root, now from miles away, for an overachieving underdog.