Oct. 12, 2012
By: Lou Somogyi
Everything in Dave Casper's football career almost seemed to happen by accident, from enrolling at Notre Dame to ending up at tight end in both college and in the NFL.
What wasn't an accident was becoming one of the greatest ever to play the game. This spring, Casper became the 50th Notre Dame player or coach (44 players, six coaches) to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Ten years earlier, he was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- nine years after making the CoSIDA Academic All-America Hall of Fame.
It is a "triple play" seldom seen, and Casper will be on campus this weekend to be honored by his alma mater during the Stanford game.
These days, his 24 career receptions at Notre Dame (including the 1973 Sugar Bowl) would be considered laughable for Hall of Fame honors, but no one anywhere set the standard better of the prototype tight end than Casper.
Over the past 40 years, Notre Dame has produced 14 NFL tight ends, eight of whom were selected in the first two rounds -- not including future All-Pro Mark Bavaro, a fourth-round selection.
Brian Boulac, who has been at Notre Dame more than 50 years either as a player, coach or administrator, was Casper's college coach and still considers him the best and most versatile football player he's ever been around. The two best blockers he's ever seen at Notre Dame were Casper and tackle George Kunz, who was the No. 2 pick in the 1969 draft and an eight-time Pro Bowl pick.
"He did things at tight end I haven't seen done," Boulac marveled of Casper.
After playing his first three years of high school at St. Edwards Central Catholic High School in Elgin, Ill., Casper and his family relocated to Chilton, Wisc., for his senior year.
Not heavily recruited, Casper visited the in-state Wisconsin Badgers and Northern Illinois University, coached by long-time Ara Parseghian close friend and colleague Richard "Doc" Urich, who had coached at Notre Dame in 1964-65.
When Urich put a number of Chicago recruits and Casper through some athletic tests, he phoned Parseghian about the diamond-in-the-rough Wisconsin prospect that needed to play in the big time.
"Notre Dame actually had passed on me," recalled Casper of Urich's assist. After taking his official visit to Notre Dame and receiving his scholarship offer, Casper was attracted to the quiet, smaller setting at Notre Dame.
"Wisconsin was more fun and I liked it, but my choice was all about, `Let's assume I go there for four years and I never play,'" Casper said. "I decided I'd much rather go day-to-day to school at Notre Dame."
Casper believed his football future was at linebacker, but he lined up as a tight end his freshman year in 1970, where he was "cannon fodder" while prepping for the scout team against an elite defense led by All-America linemen Walt Patulski and Mike
Kadish, who helped the Irish to a 10-1 record and No. 2 finish. Weight training was still relatively foreign back then, but beginning with Christmas break that year, Casper began his own regimen and reported to spring practice at a more robust 230 pounds.
With productive junior Mike Creaney returning at tight end, the Irish staff decided Casper's prowess as a blocker would be more valued along a depleted line -- even though he might have been the fastest player on offense.
He ended up starting the last five games of his sophomore year at offensive tackle after starter Jim Humbert was hurt early in the sixth game, and the following year during a "rough" 8-3 finish -- the worst under Parseghian -- Casper earned honorable mention All-America notice at tackle.
In between the regular season finale at No. 1 USC, a 45-23 loss, and a 40-6 demolition from Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, the football banquet was held and for the first time ever, Notre Dame selected three captains. Safety Mike Townsend was named defensive captain, guard Frank Pomarico offensive captain, and Casper the team captain.
Although considered a "free spirit," Casper excelled in the classroom as an Academic All-American in his economics major and brought both talent and levity to his role.
"I was a little bit `out there' and I've always gotten along with guys that were different," Casper said. "I told everybody you don't have to vote for me, but I do want to be captain. Not many people campaigned for the job, but I did and I had a lot of friends.
"I was a guy that just hung out with everybody. I didn't make the party, I wasn't the party -- I just was always at the party."
Casper's senior campaign in 1973 turned into one big party when Notre Dame won the national title with an 11-0 record that was capped with a 24-23 victory versus No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
With Creaney having graduated that spring, juniors Steve Quehl and Ed Bauer were among the top candidates to replace him at tight end. But when injuries hit the position, Casper was shifted there, thanks in part to juniors Steve Sylvester and Steve Neece settling in as the starting tackles.
Casper still was the best blocker on the team -- and a year earlier he started at wideout for one game when Willie Townsend was injured. Not many players in college football history had the skills to start at offensive tackle one week and wideout the next (plus Casper also saw part-time work along the defensive line as a junior when attrition hit there).
The championship run was a confluence of myriad factors, including his "accidental" move to tight end.
"The junior class with Tommy Clements came up and really blossomed and then we had some really great freshmen like Luther Bradley and Ross Browner come in to help the defense," Casper said. "We weren't a good team right off the bat, but we got better as the year went on."
In the pulsating title game that had seven lead changes, Casper twice was a prime figure while helping the Irish forge ahead. On Eric Penick's 12-yard touchdown run to give Notre Dame a 21-17 edge, Casper pancaked two Crimson Tide defenders.
Then with the Irish trailing, 23-21, quarterback Tom Clements, while under heavy duress, floated a deep third-down pass to Casper, who made a superb catch between two defenders at the Alabama 15 to set up Bob Thomas' game-winning field goal from 19 yards with 4:26 left.
It might have been recognized as one of the most famous catches in Notre Dame history -- but was overshadowed minutes later by the "other" Irish tight end, sophomore Robin Weber.
With the national title on the line and the Irish backed up at their three-yard line on third-and-8, Weber (who had caught only one pass all year) was inserted to disguise a running play with two minutes left. When Clements went back to pass off play action, the Alabama defense converged on Casper -- leaving Weber to run free for a 35-yard completion that helped clinch the number-one ranking.
"We were lucky that year," Casper said. "Michigan and Ohio State both were ahead of us going into the last game [of the regular season], but they tied and both fell behind us. If we played Alabama 10 times, we probably don't win five times ... but we made one less mistake than they did that night."
Although Casper earned first-team All-America honors as a senior, he was only the sixth tight end taken in the 1974 NFL Draft, partly because there were rumors that he was too nonchalant about football -- even running barefooted in campus workouts while consistently posting 4.6 time in the 40 for pro scouts.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were interested in him as a n offensive guard, while New England pegged him at linebacker. The Oakland Raiders selected him with the 45th pick in the draft, right before the Pittsburgh Steelers were about to make their choice.
"Nobody wanted me as a tight end but the Raiders," Casper said. "Had I been drafted by another team, like the Steelers, who knows what would have happened." With the next pick, Pittsburgh selected future Hall-of-Fame linebacker Jack Lambert from Kent State, so it worked out well for both parties.
Casper spent seven years with the Oakland Raiders from 1974-80, where he was an All-Pro selection four straight seasons from 1976-79 and was an easy Pro Football Hall of Fame choice following his 11-year career in the NFL.
Married in Sacred Heart Church the week after graduating from Notre Dame, Casper and wife Susan have been wed 38 years, have three adult children and are awaiting their third grandson in November. The 61-year-old Casper has worked in the California Bay Area the past 22 years as a financial advisor for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, a company he compared to Notre Dame.
"Because they're independent contractors and run their own business, they can open up a meeting with a prayer to God the Father," Casper said. "They have great ethics. I needed to be part of something that I thought had greater value than just what I did to it -- it added some value to what I did.
"I think that's why I went to Notre Dame, because it was a place of value. You could just tell just by the people there that there was something bigger than just football at Notre Dame. ... Football was there, but you were part of a school." Thus, even though he didn't have eye-popping statistics at Notre Dame, Casper isn't completely surprised that he is the school's newest entry into the College Football Hall of Fame.
"A lot of things happen to you -- you don't know why -- but they kind of happen because you're at Notre Dame. Your jobs, your relationship with people ..." And that's probably not by accident.
1 Casper was the first Notre Dame tight end to receive All-America recognition. In the Fighting Irish record books, a tight end was first designated in 1967 with Jim Winegardner. Casper also played only one full season (1973) at tight end with the Irish.
2 Notre Dame tight ends now in the College Football Hall of Fame with this year's induction of Casper. The first was three-time All-American and 1977 Walter Camp Award winner Ken MacAfee (1997), who was Casper's successor at Notre Dame from 1974-77
3 Catches by Casper for a career-high 75 yards in the 24-23 Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama that won the national title. The most crucial was a 30-yard reception in double coverage on third down that set up Bob Thomas' game-winning 19-yard field goal with 4:26 remaining.
4 Different positions where Casper played during his Notre Dame varsity career from 1971-73: offensive tackle, split end, defensive tackle and tight end. In 1972, he actually started at offensive tackle one week at Michigan State and wide receiver the next versus Pittsburgh. How many major college players can say or do that?
5 Football players in Notre Dame history who have been inducted into both the Pro Football and College Football Halls of Fame. Casper became the fifth, joining Wayne Millner (1933-35), George Connor (1946-47), Paul Hornung (1954-56) and Alan Page (1964-66). Casper also is in the CoSIDA Academic All-America Hall of Fame.
6 Tight ends taken with the first 45 picks in the 1974 NFL Draft -- with Casper, believe it or not, number 6. The five taken ahead of him were Colorado's J.V. Cain (7th), Oklahoma State's Reuben Gant (18th), Minnesota's Keith Fahnhorst (35th, but later moved to offensive tackle), Michigan's Paul Seal (36th) , and Texas Tech's Andre Tillman (38th).
7 Years spent by Casper with the Oakland Raiders from 1974-80, where he was an All-Pro selection four straight seasons from 1976-79. His 11-year career in the NFL resulted in 378 catches for 5.216 yards (13.8 yards per catch) and 52 touchdowns.
8 Notre Dame players who have won both a college national championship ring and at least one Super Bowl ring, with Casper among them. The other seven are running back Rocky Bleier, quarterback Joe Montana, linebackers Bobby Leopold and Jim Lynch, offensive guard Bob Kuechenberg, running back Ricky Watters and cornerback Todd Lyght.
9 Punts attempted by Casper during his freshman year (39.3 average) at Notre Dame during a three-game junior varsity season in 1970. It was another example of the all-around athletic skills of someone who starred in football, basketball, baseball and golf in high school.
10 Touchdown receptions by Casper during the Oakland Raiders 1976 run to the Super Bowl title -- not including the first score in the 32-14 victory versus the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. Casper became the first Notre Dame alumnus to score in the Super Bowl.
From consensus first-team All-American Dave Casper in 1973 to Walter Camp first-team All-American Tyler Eifert in 2011, no school has produced the volume of tight end excellence the past four decades like Notre Dame.
The University of Miami had the greatest eight-year run ever from 1999-2006 when it lined up first-round picks Bubba Franks, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow Jr. and Greg Olsen (who originally enrolled at Notre Dame). However, in long-term consistency, Notre Dame isn't rivaled.
In addition to Casper, the 1970s produced three-time All-American Ken MacAfee, who won the Walter Camp Award for the 1977 national champs and was a first-round selection.
The early 1980s featured first-round pick Tony Hunter (1981-82) and 1984 first-team All-American Mark Bavaro, a future All-Pro.
In the late 1980s, the Irish landed future first-round picks Derek Brown (1992) and Irv Smith (1993). Tight ends recruited in the 1990s who would play in the NFL included Oscar McBride, Pete Chryplewicz, Dan O'Leary, Jabari Holloway and John Owens.