Like his teammates Andre Johnson and Brian Cushing, Texans tight end James Casey is back in school this spring working on his college degree.
Unlike Johnson and Cushing, Casey isn't a high-profile Pro Bowler. The 2009 fifth-round draft pick, who had six catches for 64 yards as an NFL rookie, walks around in relative obscurity on the Rice campus in Houston. Students in the campus cafeteria, Casey's classmates and even his professors don't recognize him.
"I'm not treated any different because nobody knows who I am here, and it's not like I'm some kind of star anyway," Casey said on Tuesday. "I feel just like a regular student. It feels just like when I was a football player here at Rice."
Several news outlets asked Casey if they could film him in the classroom this semester, so he sent an e-mail to his statistics professor asking if cameras could be permitted inside a lecture. Subsequent discussions led the profefssor, John Dobelman, to realize for the first time that Casey was in the NFL. He had assumed Casey played football for Rice.
"He was in anonymity," Dobelman said. "We actually did a poll at the beginning of the class to see who had outside jobs – and at Rice, not many students have outside jobs. We didn't have a clue at the time. It wasn't until I did some research on him that I thought something was going on, and then he says, 'Oh, by the way, I work for the Texans now and I'm a tight end.'
"Even before I knew that, he was one of the guys that really caught my attention because he always paid attention. He never had a laptop in class, always asked really good questions, was really engaged. One time my daughter was here in class and she even commented on his attentiveness. He does really great on the assignments and he's just a real prince of a guy, so it's a lot of fun to have him in the class."
Casey – who had a 3.7 grade point average in two years at Rice – is a triple-major in economics, managerial studies and sports management with a minor in business. He needs 29 hours to graduate and is taking 16 of those this semester.
In addition Dobelman's class (Statistics 385: Methods of Data Analysis and System Optimization), Casey is taking courses in macroeconomics, humanities, corporate finance and business law/economics.
"His first semester here, he took 19 hours and he had a 4.0," Rice football coach David Bailiff said, shaking his head. "His second semester, he took 18 hours and had like a 3.8. So I called him into my office and I said, 'James, a 3.8's not acceptable.' And he said, 'It'll never happen again, sir.' I said, 'James, I'm kidding you, man – 3.8 is great. You've been in school a year now, and you had a 4.0 and a 3.8.' He said, 'I want 4.0's every semester,' and he means it."
These days, Casey doesn't expect his GPA to be quite as high. On top of his difficult course-load, he has to dedicate a good portion of each day to working out for the upcoming NFL season.
With the Texans' OTAs and mini-camp looming on the horizon, Casey has been boxing and doing light mixed martial arts training with Rice strength coach Rusty Whitt, who is from Casey's hometown of Azle, Texas.
"The hand hand-to hand combat should help with all the special teams stuff we do and just blocking in general," Casey said. "Running your routes and trying to get off man coverage, you're always using your hands, and I think that's really going to help, just strengthening my hands up, strengthen my grip up. The first couple of days I did it, my forearms were so sore after I was punching the bag just because I'm not used to punching stuff. But now I'm getting used to it and it's going to help out a lot with using my hands on the football field."
Casey also has taken up another new interest in his time on campus, one that caught his college coach very much off-guard. He's been volunteering as a video assistant at Rice's spring football practices.
"He's the most driven young man I've ever been around, but he came up to us (Monday) at practice and wanted to know if he could learn to film," Bailiff said. "So we sent him up in the tower, he films the entire practice, he comes down and he says, 'I think I did a good job, Coach. I'll send you what I filmed later.'
"Sure enough, this morning I walk in there, he sent me his film, he wants to know how to improve, anything in his technique he can do, different angles.
"He has a good time in everything he does and he works hard at it. And there's no job too big, no job too small, he's just happy to help out around here."
Bailiff thinks that frame of mind has Casey positioned for future success, both in the classroom and on the field.
"I've never seen one like James," Bailiff said. "I think a lot of it is just his life story, and I think it's every day he wakes up determined and focused to be an overachiever. He backs it up with a tremendous work ethic and attitude that is the best I've ever been around, day in and day out."