Among the rookie free agents the Vikings signed to tryout deals was Western Michigan center John Keenoy, who was recruited out of East Kentwood (Mich.) High School in 2015 by then-Broncos coach P.J. Fleck, now coach of the Gophers.
“I was a local kid, so you know [Fleck] was really passionate about bringing local kids in who cared about the program and wanted to see it do well,” Keenoy said at TCO Performance Center in Eagan, where Vikings rookie minicamp got underway last weekend. “As I got to know Coach Fleck and the staff, you can just see their energy on a day-to-day basis, of how true of a person he is and how much he wants you to succeed. That’s how I fell in love with Coach Fleck.”
Keenoy started 51 of 52 games for the Broncos over four years, reaching three bowl games.
The 6-3, 300-pound lineman said he didn’t have a lot of offers coming out of high school.
“I was undersized, so Coach Fleck took a shot on me,” Keenoy said. “I’m always thankful for that. I would not be here if not for him.
“I played four years, started all four years. My first two with Coach Fleck were pretty elite. We went to the Cotton Bowl his last year there. These last two were some rebuilding years, but I think the program is back on its way up.”
Respect for Fleck
Western Michigan’s Cotton Bowl season in 2016, in which the Broncos were beaten 24-16 by Wisconsin for their only loss of the season, was a big part of why the Gophers targeted Fleck for their next head coach.
Keenoy said that what you see is what you get with Fleck, and the center came to respect that. He also praised two of Fleck’s assistants who eventually joined Fleck at Minnesota, offensive line coach Brian Callahan and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.
“Oh yeah, ‘Row the Boat.’ He loves it,” Keenoy said. “Coach Fleck, that is his mantra. Being a leader every day, that is what he lives by and he kind of extends it to his guys. You have to love it. I will always ‘Row the Boat.’ ”
“… I owe a lot of what I am today because of him and Coach Callahan and Coach Ciarrocca. Him and the staff that he surrounds kids with today, it is great.”
Keenoy said Callahan had a big influence on his play.
“My offensive line coach and my teammates along the way, like I said, Coach Fleck surrounds his guys with only elite men,” he said. “Coach Callahan, who I look up to a lot, was my O-line coach. I consider him a mentor and someone I can look up to.”
What did Fleck teach him that has stuck with him as he enters his first NFL camp?
“I think just be elite in everything you do,” Keenoy said. “He doesn’t just say have a chip on your shoulder, he says have a crack. It’s kind of what sets people apart: You’re always proving something or someone wrong.”
Since joining the Gophers in 2017, Fleck took the team from 5-7 that first year to 7-6 in 2018, including three impressive victories in the final four games: 41-10 over Purdue at home, 37-15 at Wisconsin and a 34-10 victory over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Keenoy said patience with Fleck will be rewarded.
“I think he will be successful wherever he goes,” Keenoy said. “The people he surrounds himself with, the people he brings into the program, I think he does it the right way. It takes time, but I think he will win at Minnesota.”
Now Keenoy will try and stick with a Vikings squad desperately trying to improve their offensive line depth.
“A couple other teams [talked to me], but none that offered me the opportunity the Vikings have,” he said. “I have been blessed. It’s a chip on my shoulder, another opportunity to do what I love.”
For his part, Keenoy said he believes the Vikings will offer him a solid chance to make a 53-man squad.
“They said, ‘Here is your opportunity. Do you want it?’ ” Keenoy recalled. “I said, ‘I’ll take it.’
“… I was super-excited [to join the Vikings]. One of the first people that reached out to me was Coach Fleck. He said if I need anything while I was here to hit him up. I’ll probably go over there and visit them. I was really excited to be almost like home.”
Keenoy said he models his game after a new teammate — Vikings first-round draft choice Garrett Bradbury of North Carolina State — and former Colts center Jeff Saturday.
A hidden gem?
Fleck said the Vikings might have picked up a player with a lot of untapped potential in signing Keenoy. Fleck said few players he’s coached were smarter than Keenoy, who was a Mid-American Conference Distinguished Scholar-Athlete selection multiple times.
“He was part of a big-time recruiting class we had when we were at Western Michigan University,” Fleck said. “He came in and played as a freshman and did a tremendous job. He became all-conference and you know he’s a gritty player. He’s tough, he’s grindy, incredibly intelligent.
“I am not sure if he got a B throughout his entire time in college. I think it was all As, a very intelligent young man who loves the game. I think the Vikings should be really excited about him, because I think he’s a little bit of a hidden gem. When you get undrafted free agents, sometimes they can sneak up on you and be really, really good. I think John can be one of those guys in the National Football League. He has a lot of work to do, but he’s with a great organization, in a great city, a great state and we’re happy to have him here.”
• The Gophers play at Fresno State in their second football game of the year on Sept. 7, and they will have a chance to evaluate how good the Bulldogs could be because Fresno State plays at Southern California in its season opener Aug. 31. The Gophers open Aug. 29 against South Dakota State at TCF Bank Stadium.
• Dawson Garcia, the 6-11 Prior Lake center/forward who is ranked as the No. 28 player in the country in the Class of 2020 and is being recruited by coach Richard Pitino and the Gophers, will play in Mongolia this June for Team USA at the 2019 FIBA 3x3 U18 World Cup.
• Former Twins pitcher Anthony Swarzak pitched a scoreless seventh inning for Seattle against his old team on Thursday night. Swarzak is 2-2 with a 5.27 ERA in 15 relief appearances.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • firstname.lastname@example.org