MINNEAPOLIS -- Case Keenum locked eyes with his wife, Kimberly, in the crowd, and neither could process what had just happened. Nobody could process what had just happened. Keenum waved at Kimberly with both arms, and his high school sweetheart waved back, and then the quarterback who had just made one of the more stunning plays in NFL history lost himself again in the madness unfolding around him.
Keenum had grabbed his helmet with both hands and mouthed the words, "Oh my God." He had flipped off his helmet while doing a jig, scrambled like Jimmy Valvano for someone to hug and then searched the U.S. Bank Stadium stands for his wife. He wanted to share a fleeting moment with the one person who had lived every step of this near-impossible journey with him. After Keenum completed a 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs on the final play of the Minnesota Vikings' epic 29-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints, Kimberly's two brothers and a friend, who were sitting with her, turned to her with looks on their faces she'd never before seen.
"Their jaws were on the floor," she said outside the Vikings' locker room as she waited to see her husband.
America's jaw was on the floor. You can follow football and talk about it and write about it for a long, long time before you'll see another ending quite like the one in Minneapolis. An undrafted quarterback took the snap with 10 seconds left and heaved the ball to a fifth-round receiver who managed to catch it near the sideline with five seconds left. Diggs avoided contact, pressed his left hand to the turf to stay upright and ran untouched into the end zone for a franchise defined by its long-standing inability to win the big one.
"Vikings fans always said their hearts were broken," Kimberly said, "and I'm just so thankful that tonight they weren't."
Her husband, lucky No. 7, made the state of Minnesota whole on this night -- her husband and Diggs. Kimberly thought the Vikings might've had an outside shot at attempting a long-distance field goal with one more completion, but she knew the deal. Things looked grim. The Vikings held a 17-0 lead deep into the third quarter, and sure enough, they were going to blow another season. With Keenum scheduled to become a free agent, this shotgun snap from his own 39-yard line could have signaled the end of his charmed one-year run.
Kimberly was thinking some dark football thoughts before she caught herself in the seconds before that final play. "I believe in Case, always," she said. "And I actually did think that. I stopped and said, 'If the ball is in his hands, I know he can do something great with it.'"
Keenum did something with the ball they'll remember forever in these parts, whether he's the Vikings' quarterback next fall or not. In the huddle, he called the play known as "Seven Heaven," and then he told his receivers: "I'm going to give somebody a chance."
It's all Keenum ever wanted as a Texas high school star with just one Division I scholarship offer, from the University of Houston. It's all he ever wanted as major college football's most prolific all-time passer, and as an undrafted signee of the Houston Texans. It's all he ever wanted when he bounced between the Texans and the St. Louis Rams before landing in Minnesota on a one-year deal for $2 million plus incentives.
Someone to give him a chance.
Keenum had thrown a brutal interception late in the third quarter to put the Saints right back in the ballgame, and he immediately answered it with a beautiful, statement-making pass to Jarius Wright for 27 yards on a drive that ended with a field goal. Drew Brees then seized an opportunity after a blocked Minnesota punt to throw his third touchdown pass, leaving the Vikings trailing by a point with just over three minutes to play.
"Well, Case Keenum," three-time Super Bowl champ Troy Aikman said on the Fox broadcast, "this is what you've been living for."
Keenum drove his team down the field for the go-ahead field goal, then was right back in the same situation after Brees did the same. The Vikings had 25 seconds and one timeout to play with from their own 25, and Keenum followed up a false-start penalty with a 19-yard pass that at least gave Minnesota a shot at a miracle.
"I just threw it," Keenum said. He threw it as if he had drawn it up in his backyard dirt.
The rest was pure lunacy. Diggs had to rise high to make the catch, and Saints rookie safety Marcus Williams had to lower his head and make a rookie mistake. A season-killing mistake. Williams needed to allow Diggs to gather the ball, then wrap him up, keep him in bounds and let the clock expire before Minnesota could attempt a field goal. But these things are always easier explained from a living room couch, while eating chips and dip, than they are executed in real time in an NFL game moving at warp speed. The poor kid will have to live with his whiff on the tackle just like Bill Buckner has had to live with his whiff on Mookie Wilson's grounder in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series that set up the New York Mets' eventual championship win.
The scene afterward was worthy of the indelible play. Diggs fired his helmet into the air and ended up under a pile of extra-large bodies that crushed him and nearly left him passed out. Keenum hopped around like he had lost his mind because, you know, he surely had.
"I couldn't believe what was happening," he said. "I really couldn't."
In the locker room, 75-year-old Hall of Famer Carl Eller made his way from locker to locker, congratulating players and all but shouting with glee. Eller was wearing what looked like a varsity jacket graced by the words "Purple People Eaters" -- the name of the famed defensive front that helped carry the Vikings to four Super Bowls. Four Super Bowls they would lose.
As he passed by Keenum's locker in the far corner, Eller was asked if this magical finish helped compensate for some of the lingering heartbreak.
"It's all their own thing," Eller said as he pointed to the current players. "These guys worked really hard for it. It's all for them."
It's all for Mike Zimmer, too. Zimmer had an extended run of postseason misery as an NFL assistant, and in 2015, he watched Blair Walsh miss a chip-shot field goal against Seattle to ruin his first playoff game as the Vikings' head coach. In other words, Zimmer needed this one. He needed someone to keep alive the Vikings' dream of becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl on its own field.
Keenum and Diggs delivered for their coach, and so Zimmer turned his postgame news conference into a pep rally. He had a team official open up a glass window so a mob of delirious fans could look on. The fans chanted his name, and Zimmer interrupted answers from the podium to pump his fist in sync with the chants. He asked the fans to bring him a beer. He called it the best news conference he ever attended and declared the game crowd the loudest he'd ever heard in nearly a quarter century of NFL coaching.
"That didn't look like a curse out there today," Zimmer said of the franchise's postseason past. "That looked like a Hail Mary."
Minnesotans still talk about the famous Hail Mary that Roger Staubach threw to Drew Pearson to lead the Dallas Cowboys to a 1975 playoff victory over the Vikings, and their belief that Pearson was guilty of offensive pass interference. They don't have to talk about the Pearson push anymore.
They can talk about this Sunday evening stunner at the expense of Brees and the Saints instead.
Keenum admitted afterward that he was "looking for people to hug" on the field, and if the Valvano comparison was a little lost on him, there was a good reason for it: He was born five years after Jimmy V's North Carolina State Wolfpack upset the heavily favored Houston Cougars to win the 1983 national title and send Valvano scrambling around the court.
Kimberly said she has seen the Valvano clip more than once and thought the comparison was appropriate.
"I've never seen Case that excited ever, and it was special to watch," she said. "He was beside himself."
As soon as Keenum came up for air, he called his wife's cell phone. They laughed some and cried some and tried to make sense of this childhood dream that had just hit the QB like two tons of bricks.
"I think we were both still in shock when we talked," Kimberly said. "But it was pure joy, too. Football and sports and competing are everything to him, and he loves the moment. This will just continue to fuel the fire in him to become a better quarterback."
Keenum just beat an all-timer and reminded everyone watching that the Vikings have a hell of a quarterback to complement their fierce defense. Maybe Minnesota is the only team left in the field with a real shot at beating the New England Patriots. Maybe this remarkable finish will help carry the Vikings past Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game and give them a home-field advantage that will be too much for even Bill Belichick and Tom Brady to overcome.
But Sunday night wasn't the time to weigh future matchups in football's final four. It was a time to savor the unpredictable beauty of sports, and the wing and a prayer that just made Vikings-Saints an event no witness will ever forget.