Rice tight end James Casey doesn't ever initiate conversation about how he lost his mother when he was a sophomore in high school, but he has reached the point where he can discuss it.
"Growing up, I didn't have much money," said Casey, who lived in a trailer near Dallas with his mother, Susan Casey. "I was kind of poor. My mom worked nights, and she would come home in the morning and go to sleep. I went to school. We had a heater, an electrical appliance, that malfunctioned and caught fire, and it burned the trailer that we were living in."
So, at 15, Casey was left without a mother and without a home. For a while his father came back into the picture, and for a while he lived in a trailer with his older sister.
"My dad raised me a little bit," he said. "My older sister took care of me a little bit. Then I met my wife (Kylie) when I was a junior in high school. Her mother, Holly Henderson, stepped in and she really took care of me through my senior year of high school on. I owe a lot to her and my wife for really taking care of me during that time when it was a real tough situation."
Casey immersed himself in football and baseball and became a star quarterback and pitcher.
"It was, 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," he said. "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."
The White Sox also had high hopes when they selected him in the seventh round of the 2003 MLB draft on the strength of a low-90s fastball.
But after three seasons of long bus rides and short money, never advancing beyond rookie ball, Casey was released - two weeks after he married Kylie Henderson.
"My ERA was high," Casey admitted. "I had a lot of control issues. I was devastated. I thought that was one of the worst things to happen to me. But looking back, it was one of the best things. I've come to believe things happen for a reason, and that was just meant to be."
Casey, who had been away from football for four years, made some inquiries in the Texas area about a comeback, but Rice was the only school that offered a full scholarship. So he took it and ran with it. And threw with it. And caught with it, and blocked with it, and returned with it.
In his freshman season (2007) he played seven different positions in one game against Southern Mississippi, including quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and defensive end. Last season he played the "Y" position in Rice's spread offense and set a Conference USA record with 111 receptions, good for 1,329 yards and 13 TDs. He also rushed 57 times for 246 yards (4.2-yard average) and 6 more scores, threw 2 TD passes and returned 14 punts.
Even though he'll be 25 in September, the 6-foot-3, 246-pounder could go as high as the latter part of the second round in the NFL draft. Casey's stock was on the rise even before the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, and no tight end at Indy did more than his 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench, and only two of the 25 offensive tackles had more reps. His 36-inch vertical was second among the tight ends.
While Casey rarely talks about his mother, he thinks about her often.
"I don't want people feeling sorry for me, just because something bad like that happened to me," he said. "But it's something that definitely motivates me every day, and gives me the inner motivation and drive I have. I think she'd be very proud of how I've handled myself and the things I've accomplished so far."
And he's capable of accomplishing much more.
Position Grade: B-minus. Tight ends are not generally popular picks in the early rounds of the draft, and this year is no different. In 2007, when the Bears made Greg Olsen the first tight end drafted at No. 31, only two other tight ends were taken in the first 128 picks. This year, only all-around talent Brandon Pettigrew is considered worthy of the first round, but there is some quality depth in the second and third rounds. As many as eight tight ends could come off the board by the middle of the third round.
NFL draft preview: tight ends
Bob LeGere breaks down the Bears' depth, draft history and top prospects in the April 25-26 NFL draft.
Bears depth chart: Greg Olsen continues to improve as pass catcher, and he finished second on the team last season with 54 receptions and 574 receiving yards. Eleven-year veteran Desmond Clark is still a productive player, and had 41 catches and 367 yards last season. Kellen Davis is bigger than both at 6-7 and 262 pounds, but needs to take another step this season if he's to be part of the long-range plan. Current Grade: B.
Bears 10-year draft history at TE
Year Player Rd.
2008 Kellen Davis 5
2007 Greg Olsen 1
2002 Bryan Fletcher 6
2000 Dustin Lyman 3
Best pick: Olsen
Worst pick: Fletcher
Rating the top TEs
LeGere's draft position grade: B-minus. Tight ends are not generally popular picks in the early rounds of the draft, and this year is no different. In 2007, when the Bears made Greg Olsen the first tight end drafted at No. 31, only two other tight ends were taken in the first 128 picks. This year, only all-around talent Brandon Pettigrew is considered worthy of the first round, but there is some quality depth in the second and third rounds. As many as eight tight ends could come off the board by the middle of the third round.
Name, School Ht. Wt. 40 time
Brandon Pettigrew, Okla. St. 6-53/8 263 4.83
Not a skilled receiver but a powerful blocker and runner after the catch
*Jared Cook, South Carolina 6-43/4 246 4.51
Workout warrior can stretch the field; averaged nearly 15 yards per catch
**James Casey, Rice 6-3 246 4.73
Ex-White Sox farmhand has WR-type skills, lacks bulk but is versatile
Chase Coffman, Missouri 6-53/4 244 4.79
Excellent hands and very productive but lacks speed and bulk
Shawn Nelson, So. Miss. 6-5 240 4.56
4-year starter, productive pass catcher who needs more bulk
Cornelius Ingram, Florida 6-37/8 245 4.69
Gifted, natural pass catcher with upside, missed '08 with torn ACL
Travis Beckum, Wisconsin 6-3 243 4.62
Productive receiver with skills but not much of a blocker. Injured a lot.
*Richard Quinn, N. Carolina 6-37/8 264 4.93
Tough, blue-collar blocker showed surprisingly soft hands at Combine
Anthony Hill, N.C. State 6-5 262 4.86
Late bloomer who's much more effective as blocker than receiver
Bear Pascoe, Fresno State 6-51/8 251 4.98
Lacks speed and agility but is tough, strong and will do the dirty work
*Junior; ** Third-year sophomore