CALM STORM : Successful Therapy Lets Falcons' Tony Casillas Cause Stress for Foes

Times Staff Writer

It isn't a lived-happily-ever-after story yet, but it's getting there. After all, being described as "just dumb" and having "rocks for brains" in a national bestseller takes time to heal.

So does dealing with the misperceptions that come with seeking psychiatric care for job-related stress.

So welcome to Tony Casillas' world--at last a tiny oasis of calm rather than a raging storm.

Struggles such as Casillas' you wouldn't even wish on that famous author and modern anti-hero, Brian Bosworth, who was kind enough to lambaste his former Oklahoma teammate in his 1988 autobiography ("auto-ignorancy," is what Casillas calls it), "The Boz."

There, on page 107, Bosworth tells America that he didn't get along with Casillas and why.

"He was jealous of me . . . " the Boz confides.

Bosworth also writes that Casillas, a nose tackle, "never was a candidate for brain surgeon or anything." He also says that Casillas' contract with the Atlanta Falcons "pays him like a part-time Burger King cook."

Casillas was able to deal with Bosworth, although it took a little while. What he couldn't handle was a nagging, growing realization that maybe he didn't want to play football anymore.

Chosen as the best lineman in college, selected as the No. 2 player in the entire 1986 draft--behind Bo Jackson--elected to the league's all-rookie team, Casillas seemingly didn't have a worry. But beneath a veneer of success was a confused, frustrated and burdened individual.

By the time he reported to the Falcons' training camp last year, he was on the verge of quitting the game and forfeiting the remaining half of a $2.35-million contract.

Casillas was always tense. He brooded over little mistakes in practice. He stewed over game gaffes. He had crammed the expectations of everyone into his Falcon helmet and it was driving him crackers.

Three days into the Falcons' 1988 training camp, Casillas walked into Coach Marion Campbell's office and told him he was returning to Atlanta to undergo counseling for stress. Casillas' wife, Lisa Clayton, who is serving her residency at Emory University's psychiatric care division in Atlanta, had suggested that.

"At the time, I wanted to make sure I didn't resent anything," Casillas said. "Coach Campbell was very supportive."

Twenty-three days later, Casillas returned, a changed man. And it showed, too. Falcon coaches marveled at his new attitude. Opponents moaned about his new style of play, which was light on brooding, heavy on tackling. By season's end, Casillas was a Pro Bowl alternate.

This year, who knows, what with 43 solo tackles already from a position that isn't known for such numbers.

"I try to be really relentless as far as getting to the ball and making the plays (goes)," he said.

There's more to it than that, however. No longer does Casillas blame himself every time someone successfully blocks him, or a quarterback slips from his grasp, or a running back wriggles out of a tackle. The new and improved Casillas knows there will be other plays, other games.

"I just don't let little things bother me, affect me," he said of the counseling. "I don't try to put so much emphasis on myself to be perfect every play. I had a tendency to dwell on it.

"But it wasn't like I was committed or something like that. Everybody wants to see that. My main goal was to find a way to enjoy the game."

However, he found it wasn't easy.

During his therapy, only one person from Oklahoma wrote him a letter of encouragement--and it wasn't Bosworth or even former Coach Barry Switzer. It was then-assistant Gary Gibbs, who has since succeeded Switzer.

"Barry is not the most personable kind of guy," Casillas said. "I don't think he'd have too much interest in that. Coach Gibbs was real supportive."

Of course, the Falcons did what they could, which was to be patient. Casillas has rewarded them with a season to remember, and so far this year he has had four strong games. And according to all involved, there are more to come. Sunday, the Falcons will play the Rams at Anaheim Stadium.

"He has re-motivated himself," said Claude Humphrey, the former six-time Pro Bowl selection who now serves as a Falcon assistant coach. "I think this year he decided that he wasn't going to be (a Pro Bowl) alternate anymore. I can see it."

Humphrey goes so far as to say that Casillas is redefining the position of nose tackle. Not only does he clog the middle of the line, allowing the linebackers to move freely, but often Casillas makes the tackle himself.

"I think Tony is giving the position a new terminology," Humphrey said. "He's a cross between a nose tackle and a Dick Butkus-Ray Nitschke type of player."

Indianapolis Colts center Ray Donaldson, a three-time Pro Bowl player, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "That Casillas guy goes way beyond. He not only controls people but he makes tackles, too. If he plays that way every week, well, he must be something special."

Special enough that Humphrey wouldn't trade Casillas for anybody, including the celebrated Bosworth.

"That's easy," he said. "No doubt in my mind. As a defensive line coach, a guy like Tony Casillas doesn't come along every day. I don't think there's another nose tackle like him in the league. Not only would I take Tony Casillas over Brian Bosworth, I'd take him over any nose tackle in the league. He's playing nose tackle like he invented the position."

About Casillas' old pal, the Boz . . .

"I kind of feel sorry for the guy now," Casillas said. "He really hasn't done much."

At last look, Bosworth was on the Seattle Seahawks' injured-reserve list, the victim of a lingering shoulder injury. His 12 tackles this year are 31 fewer than Casillas' total.

"Once you establish something, maybe you can do some talking," Casillas said. "But for someone to come in and talk as much as he did and not be able to back it up, it's kind of sticking your foot in your mouth."

Casillas does no such thing. He whistles along, taking each day as it comes. And if you're keeping count, it seems Casillas might have had the last laugh, after all. On the Boz. On stress. On the offensive linemen of the world.

Much more of this and he will have his happily-ever-after ending.

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