‘Feels like a fairy tale’: A Kansas player’s journey from walk-on to folk hero

  • College football reporter
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2007
  • Graduate of the University of Tennessee

The only thing running through Jared Casey’s mind was to hold onto the football, as he says, with all his life.

How fitting, because it’s a play he will remember for the rest of his life, a play that nobody at the University of Kansas will forget any time soon and a play that serves as a warm reminder of why college football and all of its raw emotion rarely fail to disappoint.

“The best part was that my parents were there to share in the moment with me,” Casey told ESPN.

And share they did, even though Casey’s mother, Karen, had no idea that what she was videoing late Saturday night on her cell phone was about to become a social media sensation.

“Something just told me that I better tape this,” Karen recounted. “I did my best to stay calm, put up the phone and started filming away and praying at the same time.”

Her timing was impeccable. After all, it’s not every day that Kansas beats Texas in football in Austin (never, in fact) until Casey’s game-winning 2-point conversion catch lifted the 31-point-underdog Jayhawks to a 57-56 victory over the Longhorns and snapped a 56-game losing streak in Big 12 road contests.

In a flash, the youngest of Jerry and Karen Casey’s seven children — a redshirt freshman walk-on fullback playing the first offensive snaps of his college career — transformed into one of the biggest folk heroes in the state of Kansas since Dorothy.

“It almost feels like a fairy tale,” Jerry said. “We’ve been on a high ever since, and not just for Jared, but for the whole KU football program. We bleed blue and red, our whole family, and it’s just a special, special time for all of us.”

Casey’s journey to simply getting onto the field for the Jayhawks has been a story unto itself. He’s from Plainville, Kansas, a town of about 1,800 people in the northwest part of the state, and has been going to KU games ever since he can remember. He walked on last year when Les Miles was still the coach.

He made the travel squad in one game last season, never thought once about transferring after Lance Leipold took over for Miles and played some on special teams earlier this season. Until Saturday against Texas, he had never played an offensive snap, let alone catch a pass. But when tight end Mason Fairchild went down with an injury in the second quarter, Casey never flinched.

“You’re in the moment of the game,” Casey said. “It was sort of a surreal feeling, but that’s what you do. It’s the next man up.”

Coming out of high school, Casey didn’t receive any scholarship offers other than a few from Division II schools. Junior colleges in the state also showed some interest.

“He never doubted, though, that he could play Division I football, and followed his dream to Kansas,” said Justin, Casey’s oldest brother. Justin was also one of his assistant coaches in high school. “He’s one of those kids who went under the radar and took on the bet-on-yourself attitude of [former Wichita State basketball player] Fred VanVleet. I bought him a shirt and sent it to him before fall practice.

“I texted him [Sunday] and said, ‘Hey, you still got that shirt?'”

After Leipold decided to go for the 2-point conversion and the win, Casey knew he wasn’t the first option, but he also knew he was somewhere in the progression. And as he motioned right, he cut across the middle of the end zone and saw that both inside linebackers were blitzing.

“I knew no one was on me and was waving my arms real big,” Casey, who’s listed at 6-feet, but might be closer to 5-11, said jokingly. “I’m obviously a shorter guy than most tight ends, probably the shortest tight end in the Big 12. Let’s just be honest.

“Jalon [Daniels] made a great throw. I got hit pretty hard, but it really didn’t matter at the time. I felt it the next day, but not then.”

Karen admitted she was almost too nervous to watch the final play and noticed her husband with his head down and hands folded just as the Jayhawks were about to line up on the other end of the field. Jerry and Karen have seven children who range in age from 20 to 36. They lost a child in 1990 when she was 15 weeks pregnant.

“We’ve always prayed to that baby, and that baby has given us a lot of peace along the way,” Karen said.

Prior to the game, she said a younger boy wearing a Texas shirt came up to them, said “Believe” and just walked away. She said she should have known before the game that it was going to be a special night. A month ago Saturday, Karen’s brother-in-law died, and Casey gave him his receiver’s gloves before he passed.

“I just kept looking up to the sky during the game and saying, ‘Believe,'” Karen said. “There were a lot of signs.”

Jerry has worked for an electric company in town for nearly 40 years and also officiates high school football and basketball games. Karen used to work as a day-care provider and now keeps her grandkids during the days.

Even with their busy schedules, Jerry and Karen have made it to all the KU games this season and drove 11 ½ hours to Austin, Texas. They will also be at the TCU game this weekend, although Karen jokes that Fort Worth is a short drive — “only nine hours.”

Justin, an insurance agent in town, is also a volunteer fireman in addition to his coaching duties. A third brother, Andrew, also played football in Plainville and was coached by Justin.

“It’s a small town. People know the Caseys in Plainville,” Justin said. “And if they didn’t before, they do now.”

As good as Casey’s catch was after being belted by Texas defensive back Brenden Schooler and landing on his back, Casey’s dogged determination to get to his parents on the other side of the stadium was even more impressive. His teammates dogpiled on top of him in the end zone. Then another teammate, Jeremy Webb, jubilantly clotheslined Casey after he got up.

Finally, he made it to where his parents were sitting. They were able to move closer to the field from where they were initially sitting because so many Texas fans left earlier in the game.

“We love you and are so proud of you,” Karen yelled down to her son.

She was eager to put the end-of-game video on her Facebook page, and when Justin saw it, he asked if he could share the video. Justin posted the video on his Twitter account, and it was up to more than 1 million views by Monday.

“I thought maybe he meant just family and friends, and here we are,” Karen said.

The video itself was priceless, hearing the escalating joy in Jerry’s voice as he and Karen realized it was their son who caught the pass.

“That was Jared, wasn’t it?” he can be heard saying on the video.

“Was it really?” Karen said.

“That was Jared!” Jerry repeated as they celebrated with Casey’s cousin, Holly Affleck and her husband, Kurt, who were also at the game.

Casey said his phone was blowing up after the game, and he ultimately had to turn off his notifications on social media. Even some Kansas State fans were reaching out to him. He tried to FaceTime with 10 or so family members from a raucous Kansas locker room.

“I couldn’t hear anybody and went out to the field,” Casey said. “All the fans were gone by then, and that was an awesome moment, to stand out there on the field at Texas and look at the stadium. The scoreboard was still on and the stadium was empty.

“It was really neat to share with them on FaceTime that whole feeling.”

Casey didn’t turn his phone back on until the team plane landed in Topeka, Kansas, and that was the first time he had a chance to see his parents’ video.

“I got a little teary-eyed, honestly, hearing my parents like that,” Casey said. “They’ve been my biggest supporters and mean everything to me.”

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