July 3, 2012
Dave Casper will soon become the 44th former Notre Dame player enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame. An All-American tight end and member of the 1973 Irish national championship squad, Casper, who is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, shares his journey both to and from Notre Dame.
(This is Dave Casper’s story, in his own words, as told to Alan George)
It all started with a ball and a dream …
“I started following the Chicago Bears on television and radio when I was around eight years old. My first experience playing the game came when I was living in Elgin (Ill.). I was riding my bike on a fall day and saw a bunch of kids playing football. It was a Pee Wee League team. I thought that might be kind of fun, so that night I told my mom I saw these kids practicing, and she said, `Why didn’t you go out for the team?’ I replied, `Well, I didn’t know if you wanted me to.’ She answered with, `No, go ahead.’
“The next day I drove over there and stood around until some guy asked me if I wanted to try it, and I said, `Alright,’ and he asked, `Are you chicken?’ I answered with `I don’t think so.’
“They stuck me in and I tackled a guy named Junior Croom. Junior was pretty big, and he was mean, so they let me play. I was an offensive tackle then, and when I was 11 years old I was a little halfback. The prime of my life was when I was a Pee Wee football player. That was the most fun playing with the kids from the neighborhood.”
Notre Dame on my mind …
“My father never talked much about college. I remember him sending my oldest brother to Notre Dame to visit the school. I think my father, for some reason, knew something about Notre Dame. When I was around 12 and Notre Dame was on its first winning streak under Ara Parseghian in 1964, I watched them on television. I always thought Notre Dame was a pretty cool place.
“But as far as being recruited to play at Notre Dame, now that’s a very interesting story. My father had moved a few times and I was playing in the Suburban Catholic Conference on the west side of Chicago. I was at a little school called St. Edward’s and was there through my junior year. St. Edward’s was a small school, co-ed, about 450 students. We used to play Notre Dame of Niles and Joliet Catholic, which were perennial powers. I mean, not only would they beat us up on the field, they’d beat us up in the pile-ups, they’d beat us up on the scoreboard and they’d beat us up when we ran from the locker room to our bus before we rode home.
“As it turned out, there was a little bit of mutual interest between myself and Notre Dame. There was a pretty good linebacker who I played pretty well in a losing battle against Notre Dame of Niles. Joe Yonto had been the coach at Notre Dame of Niles the year before and he knew of me. I was not recruited in the beginning because they had very little knowledge of me and I probably didn’t make their top list.
“Then before my senior year, I moved to Wisconsin and Notre Dame had no film of me playing. Since I was from Elgin, which is close to Northern Illinois University, head coach Doc Furyk begged me down there for a recruiting trip. Wisconsin was recruiting me as well. I visiting knowing I wasn’t going to go to Northern Illinois. They brought a bunch of guys in from Chicago and let us play basketball and went through some timing drills. Doc Furyk could tell I was pretty fast on my feet.
“Doc Furyk called up Ara Parseghian and said, `You should follow this kid, I think he can play.’ Then Notre Dame came after me.
“I took three trips – to Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Northern Illinois – but it didn’t seem to make any difference. It was going to be between Wisconsin and Notre Dame. I met the nicest people at Notre Dame. I liked the campus and I liked the school, but Wisconsin was a lot of fun, too. It was more than just football.
“I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic schools, but going to Notre Dame wasn’t my goal or mission or religious quest. I went because it’s such a nice play to be.”
An introduction to Ara …
“I saw Ara coach on television and I could tell that he was good. I became a Notre Dame fan after watching the 1964 team. I remember meeting Ara, and he didn’t say much, which was perfect. It’s perfect when coaches don’t say anything.
“A few years ago, I told Ara that my goal each day in practice was to make sure he never said anything to me. If I showed up to practice every day on time, lined up in the right spot and did the things he taught, he should never have a reason to say anything to me.
“I’ve had some great coaches, but there was nobody better than Ara. They were all great in different ways. Ara’s practices were so well organized and executed. You could go to practice, go through drills and you got everything you needed without being spoken to. It was a well-run organization. Ara built some great teams and most of my personal accolades came because the teams with which I played were so great.
“I respected Ara and always made sure I didn’t make him say anything to me. If you really think about that, if you can just figure out what a coach wants you to do and do it, you’re probably going to be just fine. It’s a lot better than trying to figure it out yourself. Just do what your coach tells you to do and everything will be all right.
“Ara Parseghian is my head coach. And there will always be that relationship between us where he is the coach and I’m the player. We could be having dinner, we could be doing anything, and you’re still going wait for him to tell you when to stand up, where to eat. If I went to dinner with Ara, I’d have to wait for him to tell me, `Put your napkin in you lap.’ Any great coach is never going be great personal friends with a player. You’re always going to have the player-coach relationship, which is a good relationship.”
From tackle to tight end …
“I don’t know if I have soft hands. My key to success was that I never dropped the easy ones. I remember just two easy ones I’ve dropped in my life. I could catch a ball as well as most. I have seen people with much better hands than me, but if you get to a ball, and you get to it with two hands, and you look it into your hands, and you know the fundamentals, you’re probably going to catch every easy ball that you can catch. In other words, the fantastic catches are lucky, but catch the ones that you can look the ball in and get in front of it.
“When I became a receiver and went through the drills, I only had a couple of rules I would follow. One of them was to always get there with two hands, never do a one-handed drill. The other was to always wear a helmet when you’re playing catch so you can let the ball come at your eyes.
“I could catch when I was four years old. I had good hand-eye coordination. I played tackle for two years and I didn’t need my hands then. I think the key is most of the time, in sports, if you do what you’re told to do, it isn’t the spectacular plays that win for a team, it’s doing every play the way it’s supposed to be done.”
Catching a touchdown pass for the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XI …
“It was just little play action, and I was open. It was a one-yard catch and I had to jump up for it a little bit. I’m just happy I didn’t drop it. It would’ve looked pretty bad to drop an easy pass in the Super Bowl.
“Most of my life in sports, the greatest things are just a matter of relief: `I’m glad I didn’t miss that putt, I’m glad I didn’t drop that pass, I’m glad we didn’t lose this game.'”
A lesson from Lou …
Lou Holtz used to have this speech where he’d say, “You stand up, speak up and you shut up.” I always said my goal in football was to show up, suit up and shut up … My mother is from Iowa and would tell me, “Just be quiet.” She didn’t like anybody talking too much.”
A man they call “The Ghost” …
“You can call me anything, just don’t call me late for lunch. Denny Murphy popped that nickname, `The Ghost,’ on me when I was a freshman. I think everybody should have a nickname. I’m from Wisconsin, my father’s from Wisconsin and everybody had a nickname up there.
“I feel bad for anyone who doesn’t have a nickname. I had a million nicknames while growing up because I was red-haired and freckled. When I was a kid they’d also call me `Hey, you!’ I moved when I was three years old, five years old, seven years old, nine years old and 15 years old, so I was never really in a place long enough to get a nickname.”
Coming back to Notre Dame …
“I’ve made it back to Notre Dame for two or three home football games every year since I left school. But I never got into the stadium. Except for one game. I essentially have not gone into the stadium in five years. I do not like crowds of people but I like to tailgate. There is a spot I pull into every Saturday. I’m on campus and walk to the stadium. There are usually a couple hundred friends and customers I try to see before the game begins. Once everybody goes into the game, I’ll walk around and watch the game on television for a few minutes before driving back to Chicago. I simply try and see as many people as I can, and then I don’t go in the stands.
“I feel that I am the only one in the stands that understands, clearly, that I have no real idea what’s going on out there.
“I see the people in the stands that think they know what the coach should do, and what he should call, and I have no real idea. I just root and pray and hope we win, and I feel bad when we lose. I want the team to win.
“Quite often, the stands are not a good place for me. That’s number one. Number two, the seats are small at Notre Dame and I do not usually fit in them. Number three, I like to stay out of the stadium because I can’t sit in one spot for an entire game. The game moves too slowly. When you play a game, you’re into it and you’re thinking about every play. But when you watch a game, it moves so slowly that you get nervous and you’re worrying about other stuff that’s going on. It’s really hard for players to watch a game because it moves so slowly. If I’m watching a game from home, a guy like me will sit back, watch a play, then I might even change to another channel or get on my computer. In fact, I’ve watched a lot of Notre Dame games on my computer. I do a lot of work on Saturdays, so a lot of times I’ll catch the game on the computer while doing work.”
The Notre Dame effect …
“I have no idea what my life would’ve been like had I not gone to Notre Dame. Notre Dame fit me well. I’m the type of person that believes a lot in tradition. I don’t really know why, but even as a kid I have always liked things that have stood the test of time.
“Notre Dame is not necessarily the best place to be. But if you want what Notre Dame has, it’s the only place to be; and I like what Notre Dame has.
“I think over the years – and not accidentally, but through some mysterious method – I’ve maintained a pretty serious Catholic faith, which is probably from being at Notre Dame.
“Notre Dame doesn’t necessarily turn you into a person I want to be around, but the people I want to be around choose Notre Dame. In other words, it’s a selection process and it’s a combination. Notre Dame doesn’t necessarily turn people into a Notre Dame-type person, but the Notre Dame-type person chooses to be at Notre Dame. You can tell a lot about a person by who they choose to associate with, who they choose to partner with, and I think Notre Dame has a clear idea that it’s a long-term relationship. It’s a family. It’s a lot about the Catholic traditions, even if you aren’t Catholic. Who cannot like being religious, and caring about other people, and also enjoying the great thing about the Catholic faith, which is that we do like being friendly? We have a beer every now and then, or have a party, so it’s a very social religion.
“The Catholic faith has a lot of belief that the world is a good place, so Notre Dame people like family, they like the country, they like good things. So who wouldn’t want to hang around with Notre Dame people?
“My wife and I got married at Sacred Heart Basilica a week after we graduated. Notre Dame has obviously meant a lot to us. It’s a great place. It’s a place that I think a lot of. George Harrison was once asked what it meant to be a Beatle, and his response was, `Well, what’s it like not to be a Beatle?’ When someone asks, `What does Notre Dame mean to you?’ I always respond, `Well, what’s it like to not be from Notre Dame?’
“I don’t know what it’s like not to be from Notre Dame, not to care immensely about what your school is doing, not to want to show up to events and gatherings. I know plenty of people – professional football players and ex-players and people like that – and they do not go to their school’s events, and they do not hang out with each other, and they do not have the social and long-term relationships that we have at Notre Dame. I’m always amazed at the fact that they don’t get together the way I get together with my friends and teammates from Notre Dame.
“One of the greatest things about Notre Dame is that I had a lot of friends there. Sometimes, I didn’t even know their name; we would just hang out with people, playing cards and what not around campus, and we didn’t just hang out with the team. More often than not at Notre Dame, I didn’t have a football player as a roommate.
“I never considered Notre Dame `fun’ before I graduated, but I’m glad I was there.”
We’re glad, too.