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The Night Thor Took Flight

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 You could say James Casey has impeccable timing.

Four years ago, Casey seized upon the optimum moment in opening chapter of his improbable rise from retired minor league pitcher to NFL starter to lay the foundation of what now is known by many Rice football fans as "The Legend of Thor".   

Playing in front of an ESPN national television audience on a Wednesday night, Casey showcased his burgeoning talents on offense, while dusting off defensive skills he had acquired the previous spring to help spark Rice to a manic 31-29 win over Southern Miss in Hattiesburg and present David Bailiff with his first win as the  Owls' head coach.

Four years later, as the Owls were set to begin preparations for their first visit to Hattiesburg since that memorable night, Casey staged a similar statement game, this time on the NFL stage. He caught five passes for 126 yards and a touchdown and ran the ball once for 11 yards in the Houston Texans 40-33 loss to the New Orleans Saints.  

It was a breakout game at football's highest level, one that brought to mind his effort in Hattiesburg four years earlier.

Casey played quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end on offense against Southern Miss, then jumped into the rotation at defensive end to fill in for injured teammates.  It's hard to imagine the list of players who rush for a touchdown, catch a pass, throw an interception, share a sack, pick up a tackle for loss on his own and pick up another on special teams in the same game would take long to research.  But there was Casey, racking up stats on both sides of the ball while also holding on extra points.  

Had his efforts been showcased as one of the multiple games broadcast on an average Saturday, Casey's exploits might have been at best a note in a few columns around the country.  But thanks to the unique spotlight afforded by the Wednesday night stage, Casey's exploits were hard to miss.

"I guess it hit me the next day when we got home," Casey recalled. "I started getting texts from people telling me that Jim Rome was talking about me.  When people started talking about me playing seven positions, it just took off.  Even now, it's something that people still talk about. I know some people were bringing it up during the (Texans) game on Sunday," Casey recalled.

At the time, Casey was having too much fun playing football and competing to worry about doing anything unique.  "I never would have guessed that something like that would have happened".

Casey wasted little time in building upon the opportunity created by that memorable game.  He and the rest of the Owls offense took off from that game, creating an offensive attack that culminated the following year with a 10-3 record and a Texas Bowl championship while Casey set school season records with 111 receptions for 1,329 yards.   He then made the decision to enter the NFL Draft, even though it meant he would forego the chance to return to his dream position, quarterback, had he came back to lead the Owls.  

Under the withering examination of pro scouts, Casey had to again defy assumptions and battle the odds.   He was drafted by Houston in the fifth round in 2009, but spent his first two years trying to establish a role for himself with the team.  When Pro Bowl fullback Vonte Leach chose to sign with Baltimore, the Texans decided to give Casey first shot at the job.

Some might have questioned the Texans' decision, Bailiff was not one of them. "I know one thing for certain, I will never, ever underestimate what James Casey can do," Bailiff said when first asked his thoughts on the move. "He's proven doubters wrong time and time again."

After three games, he appears to be putting any NFL doubters into the same crowded place occupied by all the others who have questioned his dreams along the way.

"It's ironic that the biggest question about me when I decided to enter the draft was if I could play with my hand down and if I could block people.  Now I'm starting as an NFL fullback.  In the past four years, I went from safety to linebacker, then from defensive end to quarterback, then to wide receiver and tight end and now fullback.   

"What it all proves is that you have to take the opportunities that come your way. There's no reason to get nervous. You just believe in yourself."

 

NFL Bound???

When James Casey first arrived on the Rice campus, he chose to live on campus, while his wife Kylie remained at home in Azle.   "I wanted to get familiar with the city and get into the routine of college, so I thought it made sense to live on campus," Casey explained.  

Enrolling in January, Casey was assigned to Lovett College, where his roommate would be safety Andrew Sendejo, who was coming off a standout freshman season as a starter on the Owls New Orleans Bowl team. 

We know now that this was a rare pairing of players who would both reach the NFL.  As Sendejo explained in this interview from the 2008 Texas Bowl special, he didn't project his own NFL future in their initial meeting...

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Great post and what a fun highlight reel to watch!

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