Jeff Engilman is watching a videotape of last season’s football game against Venice High when the Sylmar coach suddenly jumps from his seat and points at the screen. “Whoa, did you see that?” he shouts, as he rewinds the tape.
Engilman marvels again as tailback Jerome Casey hurdles an upright Venice linebacker en route to a 20-yard gain.
“That’s just something you never see,” Engilman said. “It’s illegal but the ref was so stunned, he couldn’t even throw the flag.”
Casey rushed for 230 yards in that 1987 game and punctuated many of his runs by spinning away from or bowling over tacklers. “There, that’s vintage Jerome,” Engilman says as Casey plows into 2 tacklers before falling down.
That game highlighted a 1,179-yard, 10-touchdown sophomore season for Casey, who is closing in on comparable numbers this year as a junior. Currently, the 6-foot, 180-pound tailback is third among Valley City Section players with 996 yards. He has 10 touchdowns in 152 carries, averages 123 yards a game and 6.5 yards a carry, and also has completed 4 of 4 passes for 58 yards and 3 touchdowns on halfback-option plays.
But Engilman says that his prized runner is having an off-year--at least by Casey standards. Casey has yet to rush for more than 200 yards in a game--a feat he accomplished twice last year. Although he is on pace to match last year’s rushing total, it has taken him more carries.
But Engilman has trouble dwelling on such relatively minor shortcomings. He realizes that Sylmar nearly lost Casey before he ever attended the school. When Casey was a ninth-grader at Byrd Junior High in Sun Valley, his older brother Brian was expelled from Poly High for fighting on campus and was given an opportunity transfer to Sylmar for his senior year. Jerome wanted to join Brian so both could play on the same team.
But Poly Coach Kevin Kennedy, fearing the loss of a potential star athlete, brought the question of Jerome’s eligibility to City Section officials, who ruled that the Casey family must move from Sun Valley to Sylmar in order for Jerome to keep his athletic eligibility. Therefore, Jerome, Brian and their mother Patricia moved in with Jerome’s grandmother, Virginia, in Sylmar.
Casey said that for 3 weeks school officials parked outside his grandmother’s Sylmar home and observed Casey every other morning to verify his residence. On one morning an official entered the home to question Jerome’s grandmother, trying to verify that Casey lived there. “It was a real upsetting feeling,” Casey said about the surveillance. “We were about to report them for harassment.”
Instead, the Caseys tried to find humor in the situation. “What made it so funny was my mother waved at one of them. He didn’t wave back. He just sat there,” Casey said.
Today, Jerome still carries bitter memories of the experience and harbors a grudge against Kennedy. “If Coach Kennedy would have let us go, none of this would have occurred,” Casey said. “But now I hate him. I hate to say that because hate is a strong word. It’s hate, and I feel sorry for him, too.”
Kennedy dismissed such talk, attributing the comments to a teen-ager’s frustration and the results of the Poly-Sylmar game 2 weeks ago in which the Parrots limited Casey to 16 yards in 8 carries--his lowest total this year--in a 21-14 Sylmar victory.
“He’s a great running back--a big-timer--but he’s a 16-year-old kid,” Kennedy said. “If he has any gripes, it should be with the powers that be. If Jerome is upset that he only gained 16 yards, he should be upset at the kids.”
Casey said he is more upset about his injured right ankle than the defense designed to stop him. “My ankle is still healing. It’s about 95%. During the third day of hell week, I got hit from the side and my leg went one way and my body went the other. I thought it was broken.”
Sylmar coaches say that Casey is not the same runner since the injury. “Last year, he was punishing tacklers. This year, he’s trying to evade them--back off from them,” said Obbie Brown, Sylmar’s offensive coordinator.
Engilman takes some of the blame for Casey’s new running style.
“He won’t cut against the grain and reverse his field like he did last year,” Engilman said. “Last year he just ran naturally. I hope we haven’t ruined him. You don’t ever want to take away his natural instinct.”
Opposing defenses may have something to do with Casey’s frustrations. Engilman said that most teams run a radically different alignment exclusively against Sylmar to contain Casey, a tactic not lost on Casey.
“Whenever I go in one direction, even without the ball, there are 5 or 6 guys on me already,” he said.
Engilman has responded to that strategy by incorporating trick plays into the offense. The most effective has been the halfback option in which quarterback Chris Pikes hands off to Casey, who rolls right, then stops and throws left to a streaking Pikes.
“If 9 or 10 players are on him, somebody on our team has to be open,” Engilman said.
Despite having a sub-par season, Casey is still a hot item among college recruiters. Casey’s moves have attracted the attention of USC and Arizona. But Casey said Nebraska, which has sent him 15 letters, is an early favorite because “all the great backs go there.”
He admires former Cornhuskers Roger Craig, Mike Rozier and Irving Fryar but said they always will place second to his uncle, James Casey. James played running back for San Fernando High. In 1982, when Jerome was only 10, a stranger shot and killed his uncle.
Casey said he inherited his uncle’s “cocky attitude and mean spirit, which keeps people off-guard.” Casey also said he is most inspired because James was the only other running back in the family. “Since he passed away, someone has to pick up where he left off, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now.”