On the road to pick up his son from college for Thanksgiving break, Gus Frerotte laughed out loud in his car thinking about the day he beat Aaron Rodgers.
Down by six points with 5:50 remaining in the Minnesota Vikings’ Week 10 matchup with the Green Bay Packers, Frerotte came up with the perfect gameplan to beat one of the world’s best quarterbacks.
“I just looked at Adrian Peterson and I said, ‘Hey buddy, coming to you with every throw,'” Frerotte said. “He said, ‘Let’s go.'”
The drive opened with two handoffs to Peterson for nine yards, then Frerotte completed a 5-yard pass to receiver Bobby Wade on third-and-1. After that, the Vikings’ quarterback executed the plan, hitting Peterson on back-to-back throws, pushing the ball into Green Bay territory. All Day took care of the rest, rushing for a 29-yard touchdown. The Vikings’ defense held up over the final two minutes to beat the Packers 28-27.
That was more or less the story of the 2008 season for Frerotte. The journeyman quarterback found magic while leading a win-now team with an excellent defense, running game and offensive line to eight wins in 11 starts and a division title.
This story might be ringing some bells.
Much like the ’08 season, the 2017 Vikings have asked a veteran backup quarterback to lead a roster filled with stars following a knee injury to starter Sam Bradford that has kept him out since Week 1.
Case Keenum enters this weekend’s matchup with the Los Angeles Rams with a 6-2 record, yet every debate show on ESPN and NFL Network is hosting a daily talker about whether the Vikings should hand the ball to Teddy Bridgewater, who was activated last week after spending the last 15 months recovering from a severe knee injury.
Frerotte has been there many times.
The former Washington, Detroit, Denver, Cincinnati, Miami, St. Louis and Minnesota quarterback remembers being in the car with his wife, driving around Charlottesville, Virginia, when he received a call from Vikings head coach Brad Childress.
At the time he was thinking more about retirement, but he’d enjoyed a stint in Minnesota in 2003 and 2004 behind Daunte Culpepper, so he signed a two-year contract.
“I knew going in that Tarvaris was going to be the kid that they were trying to get ready and whatever I could do to help, that was my role,” Frerotte said.
Following back-to-back losses to open the season, Childress turned to his veteran for a spark. Frerotte had been in backup QB mode, flying home to his family in St. Louis after each game, then returning on Tuesday night. That changed quickly.
As you might expect from a veteran, he flipped the switch and went 16-for-24 with one touchdown, one interception in a 20-10 win over the Panthers.
Two weeks later, Frerotte beat Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints 30-27 on the back of a 42-yard pass interference penalty that set up the game winning field goal.
After an ugly 12-10 win over Detroit, the team lost a 48-41 shootout in Chicago, where the Vikings always seem to play wacky games.
Out of the bye, the Vikings caught fire winning four of five behind Frerotte. His play was boosted by an all-time great running back and defense that sported the likes of Jared Allen, Pat Williams and Antoine Winfield, but Frerotte mixed in some strong performances. He tossed three touchdowns against Houston in a 28-21 win. The following week at the dome against the Bears, Frerotte tied an NFL record for the longest pass in history, a 99-yard throw to Bernard Berrian in a win at the dome over Chicago.
“Someone took a picture of that play from the end zone and I gave it to all the linemen for Christmas,” Frerotte said. “Everybody signed it, so we all kind of have a piece of history in everybody’s house.”
The 46-year-old father of three (and dog parent to five pooches) made no bones about the fact that his team’s quality played a major role in their success, but added that the stability of the locker room was key. Infighting and animosity didn’t exist – and that’s not always the case when a backup quarterback has to take over.
“I played on seven teams and every team I went to wasn’t exactly quite like that,” he said. “I’ve been with teams where people were older and kind of at the end and I’ve been on teams where people were too young and weren’t ready…that year we had a lot of that going on. We had good coaching. All that mix led to a lot of wins.”
The team’s acceptance of Frerotte as their leader during his starting stretch may have been bolstered by the fact that he started The Donut Club – a Saturday morning tradition that still exists in the Vikings’ locker room.
Living in Uptown while he was in Minnesota, he drove by a donut shop one Saturday and decided to stop and pick up a few dozen for the guys.
“All the sudden I’m getting orders,” Frerotte said. “Pat Williams was like: ‘Gus, I want the biggest donut they have.’ It just started and I started bringing in dozens of donuts. Everybody loved it.”
Unfortunately his came to an end when Frerotte suffered a back injury against Detroit and the Vikings lost in the first round of the playoffs with Jackson at the helm.
“Being at the end of your career and having a lot of fun and being able to step in, not as the guy they expected to step in and win games and help the team get to the goals that they had at the beginning of the season,” he said. “That was a lot of fun. It didn’t end how I wanted it to, but being 38 and being able to play football was an incredible achievement for me.”
Frerotte and Keenum have a lot in common. Both were good football players from the places of legendary football players. Frerotte grew up in Western Pennsylvania, known for raising the likes of Joe Namath, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and on and on. Keenum came from Friday Night Lights territory in middle Texas.
It takes a certain disposition to play the role that players like Frerotte and Keenum are asked to take. Be there in case of emergency. Help in practice. Don’t show any signs of ego.
Frerotte said his approach was shaped by his home town and experiences growing up.
“There were so many mills, all of our dads worked in the factories, they were just tough guys and there weren’t a lot of other sports in Pittsburgh at that time,” Frerotte said. “Your dads said, ‘Get your ass out on the field and play football.’ Luckily some of us had the gift to throw a football.
“Your dads made you tough. I give the example of when I was in 8th grade, I came home and my foot was killing me, my dad just bought me a new pair of cleats for the season. He said, ‘Look, just tie your cleats tighter, you’re playing football. I just bought you a new pair of cleats, you’re using them.’ At the end of the season, it turned out my foot was broken. They were tough, they lived tough lives. It’s just kind of how Pittsburgh was back in the day. ‘
Frerotte is on Team Case. He thinks the Vikings should stay with Keenum, in part because he’s winning, but also out of concern that Bridgewater would be rusty following his year-plus absence.
“The guy’s been battling, let him battle, Teddy should support him, support the team every way he can. In turn, it kind of gets everybody behind him, it helps him get ready for games and helps him do the right things to get out there to play, like, ‘Remember when we talked about this,’ and things like that.”
But if he were in Keenum’s spot and the team turned back to the younger franchise quarterback, Frerotte said there is only one way he would have handled it.
“It’s hard because you get animosity toward other people because they’re playing, you have to put that aside, look at the bigger picture,” he said. “It’s about the goal of winning as a team. Believe me, I played 15 years and never won a Super Bowl. I know a lot of guys who played a long time and never won a Super Bowl, there’s no better feeling, there’s no greater effort, that’s why we’re all playing.”
“The best thing you can say is that you support each other and we both want to win,” Frerotte added. “Whoever’s playing, we’re going to be behind him.”
Following the 2008 season, Frerotte retired, putting a nice bow on a 15-year NFL, finishing with a 45-47-1 record, one Pro Bowl and two playoff starts. Not bad for a seventh-round pick out of Tulsa.
Coaching was one post-career avenue for the ex-Viking to chase. Plenty of backup quarterbacks like Bill Musgrave and Jason Garrett become NFL head coaches. Instead he’s the Vice President of a company called RC21X – a nod to Roberto Clemente – that aims to put a focus on brain health.
The program, which can be used on an app, provides users with games that test their brain functions and set a baseline. That allows users – especially kids and student athletes – to use an objective away of evaluating themselves.
A number of different factors could alter how the brain is performing, but one possible use is for football players who believe they may have suffered a concussion.
“I’ve taken the imPACT tests, I never really understood them or got any information from them,” Frerotte said. “We want people to understand, it’s your body, it’s your kid’s body. We want you to understand what’s happening and how to help them.”
Clemente’s son Roberto Clemente Jr. is a brand ambassador for the company, which was founded by a fellow football dad named Clarence Carlos.
“We want parents to understand their kids and start an objective conversation,” Frerotte said. “Our kids go through different things and it can be hard to talk to them. Now you say, we have objective data.”
Make no mistake, as he focuses on improving the health of young athletes, it’s clear from Frerotte’s sharp knowledge of the Vikings’ situation he is still keeping his eye on the NFL – and rooting for Keenum to win one for the journeymen.
“We all know that Case Keenum isn’t going to be the guy that’s going to be there for a long, long time, Case knows that, Teddy knows that,” he said. “You have to go with the hand that’s hot, you have to get people involved and a support system is what Case needs right now. If he can go win a lot of games for you, then why not have him do that?”
Heck, it worked in ’08.