Disney adventure yields lifelong friendship for Case Keenum, former center

The Case Files: Each day leading into the Minnesota Vikings' divisional-round matchup, get to know more about Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum with a series of short stories told by those who have been part of his journey.

Case Keenum found out firsthand why Disney World is dubbed the happiest place on earth.

By the end of the 2011 season, Keenum had etched his name on the leaderboard in seven NCAA passing categories. Most pass completions, attempts, passing yards, touchdowns responsible for -- you name it, the former University of Houston quarterback set the mark that season.

Keenum was invited to Orlando for the College Football Awards as one of three finalists for the Davey O’Brien Award, an honor given to the nation’s top quarterback. There he met Barrett Jones, an offensive tackle from Alabama, who won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s most outstanding offensive lineman.

Disney gave all the honorees a chance to explore the parks with free passes during their stay. For Keenum and Jones, the opportunity to embrace their inner child was too good to pass up.

“Most of the guys were too cool to go, and Case and I were like, Are you kidding me? They’re giving out free park-hopper passes? Of course we’ll go!” Jones said.

For two days, Keenum, Jones and former Boise State quarterback Kellen More tore up Disney World, bouncing from the Tower of Terror to the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster inside Hollywood Studios. Little did they know a lifelong friendship was being formed before they went their separate ways: Jones back to college for his senior season and Keenum to prepare for the NFL.

Three years later in 2014, Jones was in his second season with the Rams when he was unexpectedly reunited with Keenum in St. Louis after the quarterback was cut by the Texans. Jones convinced Keenum and his wife, Kimberly, to move into the same apartment complex, down the hall from where he lived with another teammate.

“It was like college all over again,” Jones recalled. “We were inseparable.”

Their time away from football consisted of endless games of FIFA, fitting in rounds of golf on their days off and eating delicious meals prepared by Kimberly. Jones was Keenum’s center on the second-team offense, and he got to experience what so many of the quarterback’s current teammates rave about: his command in the huddle.

Their time together as teammates wasn’t long, but the two have an unbreakable bond. This March, Keenum will stand beside his pal as a groomsman in Jones’ wedding. Jones hopes that the rings he and his bride exchange that day won’t be the only ones talked about among the bridal party.

The success Keenum has had this season doesn’t come as a surprise to Jones. Aside from what drew them together as friends, the two share a similar NFL journey, with Keenum bouncing back and forth between the Texans and Rams and Jones playing for the Steelers, Bears and Eagles after he was cut in September 2015.

No one better understands how that journey prepared Keenum for what he has accomplished this season and, at the same time, why it doesn’t define him as a person.

“I know because I’ve been through the same thing, and you’ve bounced around from team to team,” Jones said. “The way certain staffs treat you like you’re expendable, that can really grind on your confidence a little bit, particularly when you play a position as confidence-driven as quarterback. It’s also just kind of a personal thing where he’s done that, and he is not drawing his identity from football and from other people’s opinion of him. He knows who he is, he knows what he can do.

"It’s very important for an NFL player, especially for a guy who has bounced around a lot, to have that. It takes a while to really gather that up, and it takes a few times of being spit out and told that you’re not good for you to kind of have this mentality of, ‘Hey, I don’t really care what anyone else says about me. I know who I am. I know what I’m capable of.’ A lot of people say that, but it’s really, really tough to live that out. When you watch him, that’s what I see in the way he’s playing. He looks so relaxed and just confident in who he is.”