In writing a story about tight end James Casey, where do you start?
Well, you could start with football. You could point out, for instance, that he finished second in the nation with 111 receptions last season at Rice. Or that he would have been the starting quarterback had he come back for his junior season. Or that he played seven positions in a game against Southern Mississippi as a freshman, rushing for a touchdown and getting in on a sack. Or that none other than Packers general manager Ted Thompson — who almost never says anything specific about a prospect — compared Casey to "The Natural."
Or, you could start with his athleticism. Like how he dominated the NFL Scouting Combine by finishing in the top six among tight ends in six of seven events (he placed 10th in the other), including tying for first in the 225-pound bench press, finishing second in vertical jump and fourth in the 40-yard dash. Or that he was a seventh-round draft pick by the Chicago White Sox and played professional baseball.
Or, you could start with how Casey overcame tragedy during his sophomore year in high school. His mother, Susan, worked nights to help the family get by. While Casey was in class, Susan slept in their trailer. An electrical problem led to a fire that killed his mom.
"Do I feel sorry for myself and just quit, or do I realize that my mom would have wanted me to pick myself up and to succeed and make her proud and do something with my life," Casey said at the Scouting Combine last month. "That was a big turning point in my life. It made me be very driven, very motivated with a very, very good work ethic. You can ask my coaches. It made me work extremely hard to try to be successful."
With a fastball that topped out at 95 mph, Casey spent three years in Chicago's minor-league system. Baseball, however, didn't work out, but Casey remained unbowed.
"I walked too many guys and ended up giving up too many runs," Casey recalled. "My ERA was inflated. I ended up getting released.
"It was one of those things that happened in my life where I thought it was the worse thing that could happen, getting released from the White Sox. But it ended up being one of the best things to happen. I wouldn't be in the situation I'm at if it wasn't for that."
Out of football for four years, Casey worked to land himself at a college. Finally, he convinced Rice to give him a shot as a linebacker. It turned out to be a perfect match, with Casey excelling on the football field while being an academic All-American last season with a 3.84 grade-point average.
The next chapter in Casey's remarkable story will be the NFL. Casey left Rice after his sophomore season because, with his three years in baseball's minor leagues, he'll be a 25-year-old rookie in September. Casey, who is married, is Scout.com's third-ranked tight end and figures to be selected in the second or third round in April. At 6-foot-3 and 246 pounds with sublime athleticism, he could be a matchup nightmare as a split-out tight end.
And imagine the possibilities for a creative offensive mind.
At Rice, Casey played quarterback in the Owls' version of the Wildcat. In the "Thor" formation — "Thor" is Casey's nickname — he lined up at quarterback. He threw two touchdown passes in five attempts and rushed for 248 yards (4.2-yard average) and six touchdowns. Oh, and he even returned punts and has experience covering punts, long snapping and holding for kicks.
"I think the Wildcat formation is definitely something I'm suited for," Casey said. "I'm experienced at it. I played the receiver role. I'd come in on third-and-short with how the Wildcat is. I could also throw the ball really well if need be to even threaten the defense even more. I think it's something I'm definitely capable of doing if a team is willing to give me a chance."
At Rice's pro day on Thursday — which was attended by Packers scout Alonzo Highsmith — Casey impressed with his route-running and pass-catching skills, then took part in quarterback drills. The arm that could throw a 95 mph fastball is why he was slated to be the Owls' quarterback this fall.
"I was really hoping to go out and show my versatility and be able to go out and do some throwing," Casey told the Houston Chronicle after his workout. "A lot of teams probably didn't care for it, because they don't run the Wildcat stuff. But maybe there were some teams who were excited to see it, and maybe they envision being able to try me out at it and use me there."
With Casey on the verge of embarking on a second professional sports career, it's no surprise his mom remains in his heart.
"I think she'd be very proud of where I'm at right now," he said at the Combine. "No matter what happens, there's a million people that would love to be in the same situation I'm in right now. I can't complain about anything that's happening right now regardless of what happens in the draft. I think she'd be very proud of how I've handled myself and the things I've accomplished so far."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport