Randy York's N-Sider
Two years ago, Austin Cassidy's senior farewell to Memorial Stadium was scheduled to be Nebraska against Texas A&M, a meeting projected to be strange for both him and his father. Before Nebraska announced it would move to the Big Ten Conference and change that date with destiny, Austin figured he would be wearing red in his last home game while his dad, Tim, NU's former football associate AD now back at his old job at A&M, would be wearing maroon. Yes, this father and son share an inseparable bond but because they would no longer be tethered to each other's football loyalties, Nebraska hosting A&M for its 2011 Senior Day had awkward written all over it.
To be sure, last fall was awkward enough. Nebraska's vaunted defense shut down A&M's potent offense in College Station before 90,000 screaming, flag-waving fans, and the Huskers left fabled Kyle Field with a 9-6 loss. They carried with them a house full of unpleasant memories - a series of inexplicable penalties, a tank of emotion that ended on empty and a head coach who was getting unfairly branded as a sideline bully by everyone except the player who was getting an earful on national TV. We should point out that Cassidy and his teammates defended their head coach for being consistent in his rigor for discipline. But still, after all that, a junior Blackshirt getting a big postgame hug from his father wearing the winning team's colors isn't your ordinary, everyday scenario that clears your mind. In fact, it probably makes it downright difficult to define what you truly feel deep down inside.
What a bittersweet moment it must have been when father and son hugged last November at Kyle Field. And, of course, Saturday produced an encore hug in Lincoln that reversed the roles and featured another weird mixture of an elated son connecting with his father, whose own dreams were shattered 15 hours earlier in a last-second loss of what most consider will be the last game in an 118-year-old rivalry.
Talk about irony. On Saturday, Tim Cassidy shared another hug with the son he really didn't want to leave behind when he returned to A&M four years ago. At least this time, though, there were no mixed emotions about the specific game at hand. No sir, this was an important, cleansing, near-shutout afternoon for Nebraska's loyal senior walk-on who could walk off the artificial turf with his head held high. The only difference this time was a son squeezing his dad to let him know not only how much he appreciates his love and support, but how much his heart aches for what he had to experience 6½ hours before flying to Lincoln.
Isn't it amazing how disappointment can spur growth and how tough times can make people tougher? Tim Cassidy may work for a head football coach who once coached the Green Bay Packers, but he also knows, without a shadow of doubt, how much his son has grown in his four years under Bo Pelini, who was an assistant at Green Bay before he came to Nebraska his first time around in 2003.
Cassidy Has Some of Bo's Best Traits
"I wrote Coach Pelini a message just like I wrote Austin a message for Senior Day," Tim Cassidy said Saturday. "Austin has a lot of Coach Pelini's traits. He's a tough guy with a tough skin. I guess this was the way it was all supposed to end because Austin's the kind of guy who's all Husker now. He's as onboard with Nebraska as anybody I've ever seen. He loves those coaches he has now. I'm just telling you when Coach Pelini was getting criticism for our game down here last year, and people were grumbling about it, Austin came quickly to Bo's defense. You know, being in this profession, I was proud to have a son who would stand up for his coach and wouldn't let anybody say anything about his coach or his team or his teammates."
Call it an honor code, a deep-rooted belief in the system they all bought into, whatever. Just know this. Despite any media account you might read otherwise, Austin Cassidy has seen iron sharpen iron in all four years he's played under Pelini. And after Saturday's game, he talked about his wild ride that includes some good times and bad times. But at no time has Cassidy or any of his teammates quit on each other. "Through it all, I had those guys in the locker room," he said. "They had my back, and I had theirs, and that's something I'll never forget."
Cassidy also got to see his son hug a coach he has revered for four years when he was introduced to another sellout Memorial Stadium crowd. The grip was tight, honoring a bond between a coach and a player who believe in each other.
The holiday weekend helped Cassidy focus on life in general and on football in particular. Those who watched A&M's Thursday night loss saw more highly questionable penalties on the same field Nebraska played on a year earlier. Only this time, the home team was not the benefactor.
Given all the theatrics everyone could see on national television in all three games that are relevant to the Cassidy family - one last season in College Station and the two that were played within 24 hours of each other in College Station and Lincoln Thursday and Friday, it's easy to see why the hug Austin shared with his dad Saturday afternoon was one they will always cherish and one they will always remember.
"It was a big deal today," Austin said, pointing to the launch of a new rivalry with Iowa and redemption for 21 seniors. "Obviously, we wanted to win (real) bad. We wanted to end up with a goose egg on the board, but it didn't end that way. Still, it went pretty well."
A Small Army of Faithful Supporters
It went well enough that Tim and wife Nancy arrived in Lincoln 2½ hours before kickoff, so they could shake the thunder from the sky the night before and give Austin their full measure of love and attention he so richly deserves. It was a family affair. Austin's brother, Ryan, and girlfriend Amanda joined his parents on the flight from College Station to Lincoln. So did two dear friends of the Cassidy's, one an Aggie fan and the other, ironically, a Texas Longhorn fan. Austin's sister, Danielle, a senior hospitality management major at Nebraska, also was there. So was Austin's grandma, Delores Cassidy, who has lived her last 55 years in South Omaha, and Austin's fiancé, Alex Ball, a former Nebraska Huskers Athletic Fund worker now in her second year of Law School at Nebraska. Alex's future father-in-law sees Alex parlaying her law degree into becoming a judge someday.
When Cassidy was pressed about his entourage for Senior Day, he included everyone, but made sure that his future in-laws, Lincolnites Tom and Betty Lou Ball, were prominently mentioned, like that's some surprise from someone who goes out of his way to tell you how much he cares.
"Austin has been through so much, he appreciates everything," his dad says, recalling the circuitous route he's taken from Texas to Nebraska and as a result of that long and winding road, Austin has a strong chance to join an elite list in Nebraska football history.
Last year, as starting safety, coupled with a 3.95 grade-point average with a Psychology major, he earned first-team Academic All-American honors. This year, having already earned Academic All-District 7 honors for a second consecutive year, it would be an upset if he does not repeat his first-team Academic All-American recognition.
That would be another one of those big deals in his life because, even though Nebraska leads all NCAA schools in that category, Cassidy would become just the 12th Husker to win two first-team Academic All-American honors, joining, in reverse order, Kyle Vanden Bosch (1999-2000), Joel Makovicka (1997-98), Grant Wistrom (1996-97), Rob Zatecha (1993-94), Mike Stigge (1991-92), Mark Blazek (1987-88), Scott Strasburger (1983-84), Dave Rimington (1981-82), Randy Schleusener (1979-80), Ted Harvey (1976-77) and Bob Oberlin (1952-53).
He Had a Vision That Never Wavered
Cassidy is one of five seniors who have earned scholarships since they walked on together five years ago. He received it prior to his junior season and considers the scholarship a reward that justifies the decision he made from the outset. Turner Gill talked to him about coming to Buffalo, and UNO and other smaller schools offered him scholarships. "I have to give him a lot of credit," his dad said. "Every time we talked about Nebraska, he kept saying: 'I know I can play at that level. All I need is a chance.'"
As a recruiting coordinator at two tradition-rich schools, Tim Cassidy knows the odds and loves every kid who feels he can beat them, regardless of the obstacles he must overcome. "I admire him so much for wanting to be a walk-on," his dad said. "I'll tell you what. It takes a lot of mental toughness and a lot of persistence." Not to mention an unwavering belief in yourself.
"Austin knows he's blessed," Tim said. "He has a brother and sister who absolutely love him to death, and as a parent, to see siblings pull for each other and look out for each other makes me as happy as anything else. They went to Michigan and supported him and never wavered. Austin has done something his old man only wishes he could have done - walk on and play at a storied school like Nebraska. And he's done it in such a first-class fashion. I've followed a lot of those Academic All-Americans and their careers. I don't know how many lived to play special teams, but that was Austin's primary focus. All he cared about was getting on the field."
And once he did, it was hard to get him off. That's why a father has a confession to make about the path that widened so much for his son. "When I came back to A&M, Coach (Mike) Sherman offered to put Austin on scholarship," Tim Cassidy said. "Mike and I both knew he could make an impact on our team. But the thing was, Austin wasn't about to let Nebraska down. He told me: 'Dad, I made a commitment to Nebraska. I made it to the coaches and the players, and I can't leave.'"
Tim Cassidy remembers every word that came out of his son's mouth. "Part of me was disappointed because selfishly, I wanted to be able to see my son play every game. But then, a bigger part of me said: 'You know what? I'm glad Nancy and I raised a son who's loyal and committed. You don't find that in a lot of people anymore. Those are two virtues that will take him a long way in whatever he chooses to do."
Adversity Helped Sharpen the Edges
The father thinks the son grew up early when he faced the drama and trauma of moving away from Texas the first time around. "He was a freshman in high school when I got the job at Nebraska," Tim recalled. "He was kicking and clawing and actually made plans to stay in Texas and move in with one of his high school coaches. His mother and I knew that wasn't going to work, so we made the decision for him to move here right after his last freshman basketball game. He lived in the Embassy Suites with me and his grandmother for about four months."
It wasn't easy. "It was a real adjustment for him," Tim said. "A lot of people in Texas thought he was going to be the quarterback that was going to lead his high school team to the state championship. With all the emphasis on football in Texas, it was tough for him to leave all that behind."
Austin Cassidy tried out for an elite basketball team and made that after moving to Lincoln. Then he suffered a high ankle sprain, which is competitively comparable to breaking a leg, so he missed the spring and most of the summer. Adversity knocked, and a son probably kept wondering why his life was moving backward instead of forward. Little did he know that being able to endure such adversity early in high school would prepare him to deal with setback-after-setback as a walk-on and lead others through the same hurdles and obstacles that always emerge in pursuit of a goal.
"Ben Martin, one of our scholarship recruits at Nebraska, tackled Austin in practice and broke his collar bone, so he missed his sophomore year of high school football," Tim said. "It was tough stuff, but it made him stronger and the leader he is today."
Cassidy also credits the support system around him and insists that's why he never considered leaving NU. "Nebraska is different than other athletic programs," he said, "because of the incredible amount of support we get from coaches, the athletic department and the fans. The people we work with genuinely care about you as a person and want to see you be successful both on and off the field.
Pelini Helped Prepare Him for Life
"Coach Bo is always reminding us that his No. 1 job is to prepare us for life and to be good people, not just good football players." Cassidy said. "The people in the athletic department and life skills and academics always go out of their way to make sure we have everything we need to be successful and at the top of our game when it comes to their particular area. They take a personal interest us, invest their time in us and help us go above and beyond. The support is incredible. We don't have an NFL, NBA or MLB team in our state, so everything in Nebraska Athletics gets top-of-the-line focus. We get the best support, enjoy the best facilities and have the best fans in the nation."
Cassidy considers all of his experiences memorable at Nebraska. His interception and touchdown was crucial in last year's overtime win at Iowa State, and his fumble recovery return for another touchdown this fall at Minnesota was more highlight material. He insists every Tunnel Walk produced an emotional high, but Saturday's was ultra-special because Cassidy knows he will never forget the guys he's played with or the bond they've developed and shared over five crazy years. "Working out and going to practice with those guys almost every day for the last five years has been an incredible experience," he said. "The way I look at it, I got to hang out with 150 of my closest friends every day."
And that brings us to why Cassidy is such a Bo-liever and almost laughs when the media doesn't get why his head coach measures success differently than everyone else who wants to make it all about wins and losses.
"In my time here, I've seen a lot of positive change," he said. "I've had three different position coaches, two head coaches, two athletic directors and even two different athletic conferences. If that kind of change and adversity doesn't prepare you for the real world, I don't know what will. I've learned to work with all different kinds of personalities and people from literally all over the world. I can't imagine a better prepping ground for success in life."
His dad laughs when I tell him that Corey Raymond, his third position coach at Nebraska, says Austin "one day might be CEO of a company. You know what I'm saying? He's that kind of guy."
"I think Coach Pelini thinks he's going to be a football coach," his dad said. "I'm not politicking for that, believe me. But if he ever is, I guarantee you he'd be a great one."
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