Oliver Ames lined up for the first play from scrimmage at its own 20-yard-line. The Tigers were hosting rival Canton at Muscato Stadium, both teams coming off a loss in their league openers the week before and both looking for important wins in their races to return to the postseason.
Senior quarterback Wayne Casey took the snap, faked a handoff, and lofted a pass straight down the middle of the field. The 66-yard completion to Jordan Young got the Tigers off to a perfect start. OA scored on its opening two possessions and pulled out a 19-7 win, improving their record to 3-2, which is their best start to a season since winning the league title and reaching the Div. 3 Southwest final in 2013 (also the last time the team has made the playoffs).
The Canton defense didn’t see the pass coming. Considering where Casey was just a year before, it was hard for anyone to have seen this coming.
In the second week of the 2021 season against Quincy, Casey, then a backup linebacker, jumped into a scrum looking to help out on a tackle. His head was in the wrong position and he was knocked down. Casey tried to get up but felt a wave of pain and had to lay back down. The trainer checked for a neck injury. Eventually, a stretcher had to be called and Casey was taken to the Boston Medical Center emergency room.
After spending most of the night in the ER, Casey was told he had suffered a severe whiplash effect and would have to wear a neck brace for the next six weeks. While his family and OA coach Ed DeWitt, who stayed with Casey that night in the ER, were concerned about what this injury could mean for his overall well-being, Casey was only concerned about getting to the school for Saturday morning film session.
“[Coach] told me just take the weekend off, just rest, and I did not listen to him and went to film the next morning and didn’t miss any practices,” Casey explained in a phone call the night before the Canton game. His father, Wayne Sr., added, “He did put up a fight when I told him he wasn’t going to practice the next morning and he said, ‘Dad I’m going.’ By the time he got there, the rumor mill was at its worst and I think he wanted his teammates to know he was okay.”
It was a week after the hit that Casey saw a specialist who diagnosed him with an extension teardrop fracture in his neck. The prognosis was essentially that same, a neck brace for six weeks, but it now felt real that his junior season was over.
“I ran through every scenario in my head,” Casey explained. “If I went through PT as quickly as possible, if I was out of the neck brace as quickly as possible, best-case scenario, but when I realized mathematically it wasn’t going to be possible it was tough to handle.”
One thing that the injury couldn’t change was Casey’s desire to be part of the team. He continued to be at practice every day that he could and even managed to convince his coach that he could be on the sidelines on Friday nights.
“The coaches gave me the privilege to run the scout offense when the defense was out there, holding up the binder, showing kids the plays, explaining things to them,” Casey said. “It sucked that my season was over but the team’s season isn’t over so my mentality was being out there everyday and helping the guys get better any way I could.”
DeWitt recalled with a chuckle, “We did have to make a few deals about what he was allowed to do and what he wasn’t. It meant so much to his teammates to see him back. Seeing him the next day was huge. He was great at practice. He became one of the guys again pretty quickly.”
Injuries happen in football, but for DeWitt this was the first time that he had been in a game where someone suffered a neck injury, either as a coach or as a player. “When the hit happens, you see a guy down and you’ve dealt with that so many times, but when you get out there and realize it’s a neck injury,” he explained, “it takes you out of the football mode so quick and you immediately realize one of your guys is lying down and how much more important that is than the actual game.”
In Casey’s mind, there was never a question of if but only when he would return to the field. As soon as he was cleared for any step along the way, he jumped in with both feet, whether it was the weight room or the non-contact, 7-on-7 passing league in the winter.
“The first winter 7-on-7 game, when I got to go out and throw the first pass, it was one of the best feelings I ever had,” Casey said. “Those guys were with me through the entire process, just building me back up. Getting to go out there and make the first pass and see how happy guys were to see me back out there really made me feel good.”
In truth, the story now isn’t about the injury he suffered. Casey, DeWitt, and his parents all acknowledge that the injury is, at most, in the very back of their minds during games (although his mom Michelle admitted that she has always been nervous at games). Casey has taken a few hits and has run the offense without problems or restrictions. The story is really about his resilience to bounce back from that injury and the disappointment of a lost season to become a starting quarterback on a team with tournament aspirations.
“I was thinking, a year ago I was sitting in a hospital room,” DeWitt explained. “If you asked that coach, in that moment, what do you think about Wayne Casey as your starting quarterback next year, I would’ve rolled my eyes and laughed. I’m thinking is this kid going to be able to live a healthy life at that point. Now the fact that we don’t even think about [the injury] or talk about it that much is a great ending to a story that was pretty scary.”
What a difference a yr makes. 1st photo was 2nd game of the year last year. Broken neck 2nd photo opening day this yr. Now up for player of the week in week 3 https://t.co/ppZcmOlpSS its been a long road. But Mom and Dad are extremely proud of you and all you have over come. pic.twitter.com/AvcOToSXSU
— Wayne Casey (@Schwayno1515) September 25, 2022
“His whole journey from that first night in Quincy to now, it’s amazing to see him grow as a young man from possibly never playing again to starting,” said Wayne, Sr. “I had my proud dad moment and posted that photo. The journey was long. I saw the time he put in the weight room, throwing with his quarterback coach, it was a joy and I was very proud.”
Michelle added, “He worked really hard. He’s a great young man. He’s a leader on and off the field. Even though he didn’t play last year, his teammates looked up to him the entire season. He barely stepped onto the football field last year and his teammates think so much of him to vote him one of the captains.”
Despite being a backup linebacker and quarterback who had his season cut short just two weeks into his junior season, Casey was overwhelmingly selected by his teammates as one of OA’s five captains for 2022. It is an honor that he doesn’t take lightly.
“It’s one of those things, you look up to those guys when you’re younger and you strive to be one of those kids,” he said. “It was probably one of the greatest honors I’ve received at this point in my life, knowing that these guys believe in me and what I can do.”
Coming off a tough, last-minute loss to Stoughton, Casey was adamant that the Tigers should have an even better record than, at the time, 2-2 and that they would be ready for the challenge of Canton the following night. He was right. Now, OA heads into the Tiger Bowl, a tough divisional crossover visit from Taunton. A win would go a long way to securing a first playoff spot in almost a decade (OA is currently ranked No. 14 in Div. 3, the top 16 teams qualifying for the tournament).
“That’s been our goal, to make the playoffs,” Casey said. “Not just for the team but for the school and the community, to get a little rebirth of football in Easton.”
Regardless of whether or not the season ends in the state tournament, Casey is going to enjoy every moment of playing football. “It was tough just seeing all my friends go out there on Friday nights and play a high school football game,” he reflected, “but it opens your eyes a little bit how fast the game can be taken from you and how important those Friday nights are, the memories you get to make with your friends.
“Monday through Thursday, they’re not fun. You have to go through practice, do all the boring stuff to get ready for that game on Friday night and Friday night just walking onto that field, you’re ready to go. It’s the best night of the week.”
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