One Grounded Owl

Like a meteor, James Casey flashed brightly out of nowhere into the sky over the Rice Football program. Soon he will be gone to one extremely lucky NFL team; but already his story is becoming legendary on South Main...

James Casey has been in the papers a lot lately. His place in the NFL Draft is secure, but draft position not quite certain as teams try to figure out just how high he will be taken. Much has been made about his physical talents and versatility as a player; but also about "the guy with the massive biceps".

And why not - Casey's "guns" must be on loan from a Navy battleship.

Casey has no doubt proven himself in recent weeks to be one of the top prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft. At the Combine in Indianapolis he worked with the Tight Ends and lifted, jumped, caught, and ran his way into the Top 5 of those players eligible for the position. Most pre-draft sources believe he did good enough to be taken as high as the 2nd Round. Some think he could sneak into the 1st.

Most would satisfied with a draft status such as this, but James Casey is not ever satisfied with "good enough", so he did a lot of the same things again for pro scouts attending Rice's Pro Day last Thursday at Rice Stadium. If he didn't impress them in Indy, he no doubt did in last week's workouts.

He always finds a way to do more. There's a fire that fuels this tireless engine.

As impressive as Casey is as an "athlete", its the person inside, the determination and the effort - the way he's sacrificed, and overcome adversity, to get to this point in his career that makes him a budding superstar. That road has been paved with blood, sweat, and tears.

Triumph Over Tragedy

By now you are surely aware of the tragedy that James has overcome in his life. It's not something he likes to talk about, understandably. In high school he lost his mother in a house fire during the day while he was at school. Growing up in a single parent family, James lost everything - his home, his life support, his best friend. He was left with the clothes on his back.

But you also know that he wouldn't be where he is now without having something special about him. How do you find the resolve and determination needed to carry on in the face of unspeakable tragedy? For Casey it was a decision he made in the days and weeks afterward. He wouldn't give up, and he wouldn't just survive. He would fill his life with a purpose - he would honor his mother's memory with success and achievement beyond what most accomplish in life. He's used that as the spark that fuels an eternal fire burning within him ever since. His drive to be the best is simply unmatched. "Good enough" is something that just doesn't register with him. He decided his mother wouldn't want him to settle for that - so he never has.

Though he's put the work in himself, he's gotten support along the way. An "angel" stepped forward just when he needed it. She's his biggest fan.

Behind Every Good Man, A Good Woman

James was obviously devastated by the loss of his mother. But he didn't dwell in isolation, and he didn't suffer alone. His girlfriend at the time was a "rock" for James to hold onto as the flood of tragedy and emotion swept over him in the days and weeks after his mother's passing. Soon her family would take James in as one of their own. She and her family became an instant source of support and love for James. One he need in the worst way at the time. The bond between James and girlfriend Kylie would grow stronger in that period.

That beautiful young lady would later become Mrs. James Casey, and Kylie Casey has been by her husband's side ever since, giving him support, and at times kicking his backside, to keep him moving forward. She has been a constant source of strength for the strongman nicknamed "Thor" for his cartoonishly chiseled muscularity.

The two have been through a lot together.

More Bumps In The Road

Though Casey had endured the lowest point in his life in high school, he also experienced the thrill of being selected in the Major League Baseball draft out of high school by the Chicago White Sox. He was a flame throwing right handed Pitcher and it seemed his story would still have a happy ending. Pro baseball could soothe a lot of the hurt James had experienced in his life. Things were looking up.

But 4 years later he was cut, never being able to conquer control problems. If Casey's story would yet have a happy ending it wouldn't be written on a baseball diamond.

So James was at a crossroads. He knew going back to school was what he needed to do; and being a decent high school Quarterback he sent his film around to see if he could get a scholarship somewhere. He didn't get many takers, but a friend from home playing college football himself asked if he could take the film to his school. That friend was former Owl WR Dustin Hufsey, and of course the school was Rice.

Casey was an excellent student in high school and Rice was in desperate need of good athletes to rebuild its football program. They offered him a scholarship. James jumped at the chance thinking he couldn't beat the career opportunities a Rice degree would represent. The two seemed a match made in heaven. He enrolled in the spring of 2007, all set to begin a new chapter in his life. Three days later, the coach that had brought him to Rice left for another job.

Wow. Again? More adversity.

James didn't leave of course, but did have some tense days before new Coach David Bailiff arrived. In the interim he just committed to working harder and thought about what his mother would say. Besides he had nowhere to go, he had a wife, and he needed an education. So he made the best of it. Just like he did years earlier, he met adversity with a head-on vengeance to succeed. About this time in his life is when folks around Rice started to see the rare qualities James Casey possesses.

Two years later, those qualities have propelled Casey towards the NFL, he will leave Rice as one the best Offensive players to ever play here. Most don't realize the hard work and sacrifice it took for him to get there though.

NFL Getting A Superstar

Take one look at James Casey and you think he's got it all. It hasn't come easy.

I learned a lot about James' personal fortitude a while back when I talked to former Owl Strength Coach Yancy McKnight. He shared with me what NFL scouts would hear when they called asking McKnight about Casey.

"James worked his (butt) off. He spent more time in the weight room than any athlete I've ever been around. He studied more film than anybody. He just goes the extra mile in everything he does. While other guys were hanging out he was studying or lifting. He played hurt. He played 5 or 6 different positions. He's got a 3.8 at Rice with a triple major! He only needs 29 hours to graduate. He's fast, he's strong, he's got great hands. He's a family man with a wife, he's not a guy who's going to get into trouble - he doesn't drink, doesn't smoke...." Yancy would ask about that time, "do you want me to keep going? Draft him - he'll outwork anyone on your team and make your locker room and your community better because of the person he is. Being "good" isn't enough with him - he wants to be the best and does everything he can to accomplish that. "

Casey's story at Rice is destined to be legend.

So as the NFL Draft approaches, I thought I'd share a little of what I know about his life. Maybe you knew these things about him, maybe not. What the NFL will get isn't ordinary in any way - on or off the field. Though its overused these days, I think James will eventually earn the title of superstar. Funny thing is he doesn't even know it - maybe never will.

What James has, he got because he wanted it, and then he went out and worked for it. There's a message there I think. One I think the youth of some NFL city will see in James Casey very soon, and one I try to share with my son who also not coincidentally idolizes James - its not what you start with, its where you end up, and hard work is a way to get there. Life is full of obstacles and can be cruel - but you have choices to make when adversity comes. And it will. James Casey is a living example of that. He chose to succeed in life. And if he never plays a down in the NFL he's already achieved more than most.

The fact that he is, and always will be a Rice Owl is a gift for us all. We'll never forget his time here on South Main and will always be proud of "Thor".

But never as proud as I know his mother must be...

Best of luck James, the NFL is getting a superstar.

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