Most college freshman at Rice University arrive on campus searching for a few friends, a keg party and directions to the dining hall. A lot of them are struggling with identity issues and homesickness and whatever else 18-year-olds strive to overcome. Not freshman football player James Casey. At 23 years of age, he's too old for that.
"It's definitely different being a 23-year-old freshman," Casey says. "I compare myself now to when I was 18 coming out of high school and I realize I've really matured a lot. It especially helps with staying on top of class work at a university like Rice."
Forgive Casey if he hasn't had a whole lot of schoolwork in the last four years. Minor league baseball teams don't hand out homework.
Growing up in Azle, Texas, just outside Fort Worth, James Casey was a standout high school football and baseball player. "I liked them both kind of equal," he says. "Whatever sport I was playing at the time was the sport I liked."
As a pitcher on the baseball team and quarterback on the football team, he was getting looks from scouts around the country. But a right knee injury kept him off the gridiron for most of his senior season. "It wasn't so major that I couldn't play baseball," Casey says. "I could play and I had a real good season. I was getting recruited a little bit for football, but when I busted my knee I just told everyone that I was going to play baseball."
Casey thought about playing college baseball, but his family needed money. "I was telling the scouts that if I went in the top 10 rounds of the draft and I got a fair signing bonus that I'd play professional baseball," he says. "The signing bonus was really going to help my family out."
Drafted in the seventh round by the Chicago White Sox, he was shipped off to Bristol, Va., to play Rookie League ball for the Bristol Sox. He was a hot prospect, who seemed to have a bright future in baseball. Baseball America even thought he had the "Best Fastball from the Sox 2003 draft class."
But life in the minors wasn't for Casey. The constant 10-hour bus rides were draining and his meager monthly salary of $850 was barely enough to live on. Plus, he wasn't getting any better. "My baseball playing actually seemed like it was getting worse," says Casey. "I went in and my first year I did pretty well with no instruction or anything. And then they finally started working with my mechanics and I guess I never really got it down. It was real frustrating because I always had the arm. I could always throw as hard as anybody, I just had no clue where it was going half the time."
Casey pitched for three seasons in the White Sox farm system before he was eventually cut. After bouncing around the independent leagues for a season, the former quarterback decided to change tracks and see if he could play college football. "It was a tough deal coming from professional baseball," Casey said. "I couldn't really try out for anybody. The coaches had to rely on tape from a long time ago."
But college football coaches aren't dumb. When a 6-foot-4, 230-pound former professional baseball player says he wants to play for you, you find him a spot on the team. Rice football coach David Bailiff did one better, he offered Casey a scholarship. "At all the other schools it was going to be one of those 'preferred walk-on' deals," Casey said. "When Rice offered me a scholarship, it was such a good deal that I accepted."
So far, Rice has gotten the most out of Casey. This season, he's played quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, slot receiver, defensive end, running back, and he's the holder on the field goal team and left guard on the punt team. In the Owls' nationally televised victory over Southern Miss, Casey caught two passes for 16 yards, rushed 12 times for 38 yards and was prominently featured on both defense and offense.
But Casey's past experiences have taught him not to brag. "I learned from baseball that you can't take anything for granted," he said. "A lot of guys don't know what it's like to not be able to play football. I try to make sure that every time I'm out there I'm working as hard as I can so that I don't look back and have any regrets."
As for how he feels being the oldest freshman on the team, Casey's not phased by it. "I don't go out at night like they do," he says. "But once we start playing football, I'm just another one of the guys."
Last week James Casey rushed for six yards and a TD and caught four passes for 54 yards in a 56-48 loss to Houston.