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January 27, 2011Houston quarterback Case Keenum knew decision time loomed. He couldn't stand the waiting, couldn't take the wondering: Would he be granted a sixth year of eligibility after suffering a season-ending knee injury in September?
"I was trying to get my mind off of it," he said, "so I went out and ran errands with a friend" on Friday, Jan. 14.
That's when Keenum's cell phone rang. It was Houston coach Kevin Sumlin with good news: Keenum had been granted another year of eligibility.
"Me and my friend were yelling," Keenum said. "It was great news."
Just like that, one of college football's most prolific quarterbacks ever was back. The waiting and wondering was over. The months of rehab, the days of pain, the moments of wondering were finished.
"It could have gone either way," Sumlin said. "The hard part was waiting for a decision. Our staff did a great job compiling all of the material and submitting it, and following it up with additional requests.
"And I think it was the right decision. He has done everything right, for not just Houston but for college football. Good things happen to good people, and this is one of those cases."
Keenum's return means he has a chance to leave as the top passer in FBS history. He enters 2011 with 13,586 passing yards, which ranks fifth all-time. Keenum needs 3,487 yards to overtake former Hawaii star Timmy Chang (17,072) as the career leader.
Keenum also has a chance to become the career leader in touchdown passes and completions. Texas Tech's Graham Harrell (134) is tops in touchdown passes, while Chang leads in completions (1,388). Keenum has 107 touchdown passes and 1,118 completions.
"I really didn't think anything of that," Keenum said. "Things you think are important aren't after you get hurt. This has given me a different perspective on things."
Seeing something you've worked a lifetime for taken away will make anyone reflect and re-evaluate what is and isn't important. Keenum's moment of clarity came at about the four-minute mark of the second quarter on Sept. 18 in the Rose Bowl.
In a game at UCLA, his pass was intercepted by Bruins linebacker Akeem Ayers. Keenum did what his football training and instincts told him to do: tackle the guy with the ball. While attempting to make the tackle, he planted his right foot but also tried to turn at the same time.
"I felt something sliding around in there; I didn't hear it pop or anything," Keenum said. "I kind of knew something was up."
Keenum was facedown on the Rose Bowl turf for several minutes before walking off the field.
His mind raced. How bad was the injury? Am I done for the season? Am I done forever?
Keenum had torn the ACL in his right knee; his season was over and his career was in jeopardy. The next week, he had surgery and began the long rehab process.
"I learned what you make important in your life isn't really important," Keenum said. "Things like football can be taken from you. You need a better mind-set and perspective when it comes to that."
"It was great to hear from Robert," said Keenum, who the week before had suffered a concussion trying to make a tackle vs. UTEP after throwing an interceptions. "He had some good words of encouragement and let me know what was coming and how things came."
Keenum's backup, Cotton Turner, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury later in the UCLA game. Sumlin and his coaches used two true freshman quarterbacks the rest of the season, but a once-promising season never took flight. The Cougars lost six of their last seven games to finish 5-7 after reaching bowl games in each of Sumlin's first two seasons.
Houston was supposed to win C-USA, perhaps even be a BCS-buster. In 2009, Sumlin's team attracted national attention by knocking off Mississippi State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech en route to finishing 10-4 and advancing to the C-USA title game.
Keenum finished eighth in Heisman voting that season after throwing for 5,671 yards and 44 touchdowns for what was the No. 1 total offense (563.4 ypg), passing offense (433.7 ypg) and scoring offense (42.2 ppg) in the nation.
But Houston's 2010 season started sliding downhill as soon as Keenum was hurt.
"It wasn't a very good year for me," Keenum said.
But 2011 has promise. Five offensive starters are set to return, and in addition to Keenum, Houston also will have running back Charles Sims. Sims, the 2009 C-USA Freshman of the Year, was ineligible last season. And the defense, which made some small strides under new coordinator Brian Stewart, will have seven starters back.
Still, it's Keenum's return that has Houston thinking big about 2011. He'll take his next step in spring drills, which begin March 5.
"He may be limited, but he has been in the system and we'll ease him along," said Houston co-offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Kliff Kingsbury. "There is no need to rush him since we have two other good ones. If he can do some things in the spring, we will let him."
Keenum also may alter his approach about what he does after he throws an interception.
"We haven't had that discussion yet," Sumlin said. "Hopefully, we have learned our lesson from that."
Keenum already has a plan.
"I am going to do one of two things: Find Coach Sumlin and tackle him, or just fall down and get in the fetal position."