EDITOR'S NOTE: This story appeared in the Houston Texans Gameday Magazine for the Texans vs. Colts game on Sunday, Dec. 16. Purchase a digital copy of the magazine here.
James Casey overcame tragedy and long odds to get to where he is today.
Now in his fourth NFL season out of Rice University, Casey is coming into his own as the Texans' starting fullback. He already has set career highs this season with 30 catches for 304 yards and three touchdowns. A fifth-round draft pick in 2009, the former tight end has become one of the keys to the Texans' offensive versatility.
"He lines up at fullback and blocks linebackers," Texans quarterback Matt Schaub said. "We put him out wide at receiver. He's in the slot for us. He lines up at tight end. We can just move him around so many different spots and he can run all those different routes that we do as an offense. He creates mismatches for other teams."
Said tight ends coach Brian Pariani: "He's kind of a unique player, really. Very gifted athlete, very smart. You can put a lot of things on his plate, and that's what makes him an asset to this offense. You can put him anywhere on the field, and the defense doesn't know when we snap the ball where he's going to line up."
How Casey got here from a tumultuous upbringing and circuitous path to the NFL is remarkable – almost beyond belief. He grew up in the small town of Azle, Texas, just outside of Fort Worth, living in trailer homes with his parents, Jerry and Susan.
"I don't like to talk about that much because there's a lot of people that come from really bad situations, and it seems like some people when they talk, they want people to feel sorry for them or something," Casey said. "I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me. I was poor growing up, but there were a lot of people like that."
When Casey was 16 and a sophomore in high school, his mother died in a fire in their trailer while he was at school. It left him with nothing but the clothes on his back, shoes on his feet and backpack he took to school that day.
"Some people say they come from nothing," Casey said. "I literally came from nothing. I had nothing. It was obviously a tough time."
Jerry Casey, who passed away in 2011, moved into another trailer home after Susan's death. James said it was essentially unlivable. He stayed there for a short period of time with his father, then bounced around several other temporary homes before the athletic trainer at Azle High School, Todd "Doc" Urbanek, took him in. Todd and his wife, Betsy, essentially became James' adopted parents, and they now have Texans season tickets and come to every game.
Early in his junior year, James started dating Kylie Henderson. They will celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary next week on Dec. 21, with a two-year-old son, Cannon James. James moved in with Kylie and her mother, Holly, toward the end of his junior year in high school. They took care of him and gave him a place to stay throughout his senior year and, later, his four-year minor league baseball career.
James said the Urbaneks, his mother-in-law and, most of all, his wife, were instrumental in getting him through those tough times.
"When I lost everything, I didn't have money, I didn't have ways to get clothes, but they started some kind of fund in the city," he said. "They raised a bunch of money, and people got together clothes and stuff that I could use and then they sent me some money to buy clothes and football and baseball gear. The whole city of Azle helped me out. People bought me cleats for football season. Doc bought me baseball cleats and baseball gloves. When you have a tragedy like that, it's great to see mankind, human nature, just people wanting to help out."
James didn't go to school for about a week after his mother passed away.
"Early on, I was just depressed," he said. "I was just like, 'Why did this happen to me? What's the point of doing much of anything anymore?' I didn't do anything for a week. I didn't want to see anybody. Then, I eventually came to the realization that she wouldn't want me to just hang my head and feel sorry for myself and walk around complaining about everything and whining about how bad of a situation I'm in. I realized she would have wanted me to pick myself up and she would've wanted me to be successful and make something of myself.
"After I realized that, I was like, 'You know what, it's alright to keep going and keep working hard and trying to be successful.' That's kind of been somewhat of my mindset this entire time, just trying to make her proud, trying to make my family proud, my wife. I just try to keep working and hope it all works out."
James was a talented baseball player and the quarterback on the Azle football team. He injured his knee playing football his junior year, requiring two surgeries and essentially ruling out any chance of earning a college scholarship, so he focused on baseball. With a fastball topping out at 95 mph, he was drafted in the seventh round by the Chicago White Sox in 2003 after his senior year.
"I got a signing bonus out of high school when I was 18 years old of $120,000 and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh,'" Casey said. "To me, that was like a million dollars."
Casey saved and invested most of his signing bonus. He went to Bristol, Va., for rookie ball, making $850 a month. He wound up living with two new teammates who had just graduated from college, living out of a sleeping bag on the floor because it was all he could afford. People from Azle sent him care packages with beef jerky and tennis shoes to help him get by.
He lived a mile from his team's baseball stadium and walked to practices and games. Eventually, he bought an old silver bicycle for $15 that became his mode of transportation. At night when he was hungry after games, Casey would go through the drive-thru at a local fast food restaurant. The bike wouldn't register in the drive-thru, so he had to walk up to the window and knock to place his order.
"It was a humbling experience," Casey said, "but it was a lot of fun playing minor league baseball. I ended up playing three or four years, and it didn't work out. I did well my first year but after that, I was working on my mechanics because I had some funky delivery, and it just didn't work out. I ended up getting fired by the White Sox. It was two weeks after I got married."
Casey married Kylie at age 21. He found out he had been fired by a phone call from the Lincoln Salt Dogs, an independent baseball team, asking if he wanted to play for them. Confused, Casey hung up, checked his voicemail and discovered a message from the White Sox telling him they didn't think he was going to be able to make the major leagues and that it wasn't going to work out.
Casey wound up signing with the Fort Worth Cats, an independent team that is unaffiliated with Major League Baseball. He made $1,000 a month and was the youngest player in the entire league. Luke Hochevar, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 Major League Baseball Draft by the Kansas City Royals, was on his team. But some of his teammates, Casey said, were 32 and 33 years old.
"Once the season started off pretty rough and I wasn't doing great, I was like, 'I don't want to do this; I don't want to just try to keep the dream alive and just play in minor league baseball forever not making a lot of money,'" he said. "I knew I needed to go to school. I was like, 'I'm going to try to play football.'"
While still playing baseball in Fort Worth, Casey started taking a football with him everywhere he went. His baseball teammates would run routes for him before and after practice. He would go to his team facility early for extra workouts and running.
"I was pretty good at in high school until I got hurt, and I saw guys from my high school go on to play in college," Casey said. "I would watch college football all the time and I was like, 'I know I'm better than some of those guys. I know I can play college football.'"
After being released from the Cats, then the Laredo Broncos, Casey quit baseball and pursued the gridiron. He put himself through his own personal NFL Combine, working feverishly on his 40-yard dash and bench press. He sent packets of information to every college in Texas he could think of – UT, TCU, Houston, North Texas – with a letter, thoughtfully-filled-out questionnaires he found online, old film of high school games that weren't his best but were all he could find, and, at the urging of his wife, an 8x10 shirtless picture of himself in tights. Kylie told him to do it because "that's what they do at the Combine." James thought coaches would laugh at him but decided to do it anyway.
TCU invited Casey to come to campus, where he met with coach Gary Patterson, watched practice and talked to the recruiting coordinator. They told him he could try to walk on but did not offer a scholarship. He got the same response in a visit to North Texas, and even in visits to Division-II Tarleton State and Cisco Junior College.
"No one was really interested," Casey said. "I can't blame them that bad. I mean, I didn't play for four years and I didn't go to school for four years, so it'd be tough for them to just say, 'Hell yeah, just come here, we'll give you a scholarship.' That's exactly what Rice did, though."
Casey had given his packet to a friend from high school, Dustin Hufsey, who was a walk-on at Rice. Hufsey gave the packet to Rice's wide receivers coach, David Beaty. Beaty didn't think much of Casey's tape or letter, but he stopped when he got to the 8x10 picture in the back of the packet.
"He looked at the picture and he was like, 'Well, I might as well show this to the head coach (Todd Graham) just to show him what this guy looks like,'" Casey said, recalling what Beaty told him several years later. "The head coach was like, 'Whoa, we don't have a guy that looks like that. We're gonna talk to this guy.'"
Casey got a call out of the blue from Rice's recruiting coordinator, inviting him to campus for an official visit. He was working at a gym in Azle at the time. Not only did he not know what an official visit was, he didn't even know Rice was in Houston.
He and his wife drove in for the visit and were put up at the Westin Hotel in the Galleria. Casey says it was the nicest hotel he had ever seen. In the minor leagues, he stayed at cheap motels that often didn't have air conditioning. He was afraid to eat candy out of the mini-bar in his room at the Westin because he thought Rice might kick him out and end his visit. He also had no idea how scholarships worked.
"I thought some people get five percent scholarships, some people get 50 percent, some people get 30 percent, just depending on how good you are," Casey said. "So I'm going in thinking, 'Maybe I can talk these guys into giving me like a 10 percent scholarship.' Rice is expensive. I figured I'd get a big loan and pay for the rest. All I needed was them just to give me just a little bit of a percentage to at least show me that they wanted me to come there."
Graham ended up offering Casey a full scholarship – the only kind they have in football. It didn't hurt that Casey had graduated from high school with a 99.38 grade point average (GPA), 12th in a class of 300-plus. But there was a caveat to Graham's offer. He wanted Casey to play linebacker or safety instead of quarterback, and Casey had never played defense.
Reasoning that he couldn't pass up a full college scholarship, Casey accepted the next day. He vowed to himself that he would play defense if the coaches wanted him to but eventually would talk them into letting him play offense.
"When I got to Rice, it was like a second chance," he said. "I was a different person compared to when I played minor league baseball when I was 18. Back then, I was worrying about what everybody else was doing, how good everybody else was. Now, I was like, 'I'm not worried about what anybody else does. I'm gonna make sure I have no regrets regardless of what happens. I'm working out more than anybody in the country. I'm going to work out every single day, do as much as I possibly can, and I'm not going to have any regrets.'"
Three days after Casey arrived on campus, Graham left to become the head coach at Tulsa. Casey met with Rice's new coach, David Bailiff, and told him he thought he could help the team more at quarterback. He reminded Bailiff of that often, and he stayed on the field late after every practice to throw until it was dark. Casey also took it upon himself to field punts in practice because he thought he could do it and noticed Rice's returners dropping balls.
By fall training camp, Bailiff moved Casey from defensive end to quarterback. Casey then became a wide receiver because of injuries. Midway through the season, with Rice off to an 0-6 start and playing a nationally-televised game at Southern Miss, the coaches turned Casey loose to see what he could do.
Casey played seven different positions in the game, including Wildcat quarterback, wide receiver, running back, holder, guard on the punt team, punt returner and defensive end. In just five snaps on defense, he had a sack and tackle for loss.
From there, Casey earned freshman All-America and All-Conference USA honors. The next year, Casey, or "Thor" as he became known at Rice, set school records with 111 catches for 1,329 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also had five rushing touchdowns. Rice went 10-3 and won a bowl game for the first time since 1954.
Off the field, Casey had a perfect 4.0 GPA in his first semester of school in more than four years. He graduated as a triple-major in economics, managerial studies and sport management with a minor in business in just six semesters with a 3.63 GPA. It was a 3.84 GPA while he was still playing at Rice, and Casey laments that it went down after he took his final two semesters in the spring after his first two seasons with the Texans.
"I had so much stuff going on it kind of hurt my school a little bit, but 3.63, I mean, I'm happy with that," he said, smiling. "But when I was in school, I was married. All I did was just football and school. I just worked out all day and did school work. Most college students are wondering about their parties or chasing girls around or something like that. I was like an adult going to school, basically."
Casey entered the NFL draft as a 24-year-old sophomore and was selected by the Texans to play tight end, a new position for him. After two seasons, he switched to fullback, another new position in which he is now in his second year as a starter.
He still has the same work ethic that carried him to success in high school and college. Casey arrives at Reliant Stadium around 5:30 every morning, before just about everyone but Schaub. He doesn't go home until several hours after practice when the locker room has long since been empty.
"I try to take it seriously to be the first one here, the last one to leave," Casey said. "I like to stay extra because I want to make sure I don't have any regrets about football, so I want to watch film and work out. You can't play football forever, so I'm going to make sure I do as much as I can now so when it ends, I know I did everything I could."
His mother would surely be proud.