Jonathan Casillas spent the first 12 years of his life in Jersey City, just 10 miles from MetLife Stadium, where Casillas is now the starting weakside linebacker and defensive captain for the Giants. Had he been so inclined as a youngster, Casillas could have hopped onto a bicycle at his home and arrived at the Meadowlands in an hour or so (though the traffic in Hudson and Bergen counties would have made that a treacherous proposition).
But truth be told, such a straight-line journey would have seemed out of character for this quintessential Jersey boy. Although he works a short ride down Routes 1 and 9 from his boyhood haunts, Casillas took a long, circuitous route to get there. His first stop was nearby New Brunswick, where he played high school football. Then it was on to college at the University of Wisconsin. Casillas entered the NFL in 2009 as an undrafted rookie – and promptly won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints. He later moved on to Tampa Bay and then to New England, where he earned another ring six weeks before signing with the Giants on March 10, 2015.
The reasoning behind the decision was both simple and emotional.
“I’m here. I’m home,” he said. “I can play in front of my daughter, who lives in Garfield, which is three miles away. My father is still here, and my mom at the time was here, too (Casillas has since bought her a house in Tampa). I could play in front of my entire family. At this point in time in my career, that meant so much, being close to home. Not saying I wasn’t chasing Super Bowl rings anymore, because I still am. But the priorities change a little bit. As you get older in your career, what’s important to you? What’s really important to you? Family, that was number one.”
For Casillas, it was long before he became a father.
He omits few details about his life, even offering that he was “born in the Jersey City Medical Center.” His parents are Luz Casillas, who moved to Puerto Rico to New Jersey when she was two, and Flash Gordon, a hoops legend on the Jersey City playgrounds. Flash legally changed his first name from Eric, because of his incredible speed on the court. As a youngster, Jonathan wanted to emulate him.
“I just played basketball every day, all day long,” he said. “Never touched a football, really.
“All his kids played basketball. Some of us went to college. My younger (siblings) are still in high school. They’re playing ball. One of my little brothers went to St. Anthony (the national basketball powerhouse) in Jersey City. He was on Bobby Hurley’s national championship team back in (2008).”
Casillas is the third-oldest of nine siblings, most of them actually half siblings on both sides of his family.
I don’t call any of them my half brothers and sisters. My father and mother only had two children together, myself and my older brother Eric. He lives in Florida now. I’ve known every one of my siblings either when they were born or when I was born. I knew all of them and am still interacting with all of them now, consistently, all the time. - Jonathan Casillas
Away from the basketball court, Casillas faced plenty of challenges. Luz Casillas was a nurse, but she had five children after Jonathan, and money was often scarce. But they persevered.
“We were public transportation, we were welfare at one point,” Casillas said. “She got herself up out of it. Working hard, being a great mom to all of us. She got herself a nice job in New Brunswick and moves us there (about 30 miles away). I remember times where my mom couldn’t afford the tolls on the turnpike. She would take 1-9 from Jersey City all the way to New Brunswick. That’s not a cool commute, especially during the times that she needs to go to work and come back from work. She’s a tremendous person. She’s my best friend. She comes to most of the games. I would do anything for that women.”
Casillas was 12 when his family settled in New Brunswick. He did not play football in grades 6-8, but took his first step toward the NFL as a high school freshman. And his reasoning for finally putting on the pads mimicked that of thousands of teenage boys.
“All my friends played,” Casillas said. “Everyone played football. In Jersey City, everyone played basketball. I get to New Brunswick and the guys I started hanging around with all played peewees. They played Pop Warner football. My mom wouldn’t let me play. She said I would get hurt. I started playing my freshman year, finally. I wasn’t very good to tell you the truth.”
That didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the game.
“I liked it,” he said. “My friends were all playing. Good friends, friends that I’m still close with now. They all played ball. It was fun and exciting. I liked to hit people. I wasn’t football skilled. I didn’t have football IQ. I didn’t really have knowledge of the game whatsoever. I could just run and I could catch. I like to hit.”
Those skills carried him far.
Casillas was a 160-pound wide receiver and cornerback as a freshman year. Two significant changes occurred before his sophomore season. Casillas became a regular visitor to the weight room with Andre Dixon, his best friend then and now, and John Quinn became the Zebras’ head coach. Casillas validated his dedication to his new sport by reporting for work the day after what could have been a life-altering accident that occurred when he was riding his bicycle.
“This happened going into my sophomore year,” Casillas said. “Coach Quinn just took the job. I had a summer job in downtown New Brunswick selling fruit at a farm stand. It was payday, and I was going to pick up my check. I was flying down the street. A car turned out, I hit it front-on-front, and I went into the windshield. The good thing is that I turned. I had a backpack on, and my back hit the windshield. I was stuck in the windshield, back first. Good thing I had a backpack on. The backpack was all cut up. If I didn’t have that backpack on, I would’ve cut my back from the glass for sure. I had glass in my rear end and a little bit on my shoulders. Nothing serious.”
“When you look at the car and the bike you’re like, ‘Someone might have gotten hurt really bad.’ I was trying to still go and pick up my check. That’s what I was worried about. Just wanted to pick up my check. I went to the hospital and everything was cool. I didn’t have anything wrong.”
As soon as Quinn heard about the accident, he rushed to the scene on Livingston Avenue. Quinn followed Jonathan and Luz to the hospital. Once it was determined that Casillas had indeed escaped serious injury, Quinn advised his young player to stay home and rest for a few days.
That was not going to happen.
“The next day, I went to practice,” Casillas said. “Coach Quinn thought I would be out for a week or two weeks. I went to practice the next day.”
Once he freed himself from that windshield, Casillas’ career took off. He earned a starting linebacker job as a sophomore. The following year (2003) New Brunswick won a state title as the Central Jersey Group II champions. The star player on that team was Dwayne Jarrett, who became an All-America and the MVP of the 2007 Rose Bowl at USC, and a member of the Carolina Panthers for four seasons. As a senior, Casillas was selected first-team All-State, All-County and the Middlesex County Defensive Player of the Year. The Zebras’ captain and MVP, Casillas collected 90 tackles, including 20 stops behind the line of scrimmage, and 16 sacks. He also caught 20 passes for 410 yards and eight touchdowns. In his career, Casillas registered 228 tackles, 36 sacks, 50 stops for losses, 11 forced fumbles and nine fumble recoveries. He earned a combined ten letters in track, football and basketball.
Those numbers attracted the attention of numerous colleges – but not the one right down the street. Casillas would like to have added a chapter to his New Jersey story at Rutgers, but then-coach Greg Schiano wasn’t interested in his services. Schiano considered Casillas a tweener – too slow to play safety, too light to play linebacker.
“I was always on the Rutgers campus; it was literally right down the street,” Casillas said. “I never had an offer from Rutgers. How could I consider Rutgers if they never offered me a scholarship? I had 15 offers out there. I can’t consider you. It wasn’t really my decision.”
Casillas took official visits to Illinois, Kentucky, Connecticut and Wisconsin. When he arrived in Madison it was finals week, and the campus was quiet. It was also eight degrees. “It was so cold, but it felt like the place I needed to be,” Casillas said. “Barry Alvarez was the coach. I enjoyed all my years at Wisconsin, for sure.”
Casillas immediately found a core group of friends with whom he remained close for four years. On the field, he quickly made an impact on special teams. And he forever endeared himself to Badgers fans with a big blocked punt against next door neighbor Minnesota.
“There are so many games that I don’t remember, but I remember that one vividly,” he said. “It was an away game in Minnesota. This is our rivalry game. We were playing a really good Minnesota team. … We were pretty much getting stomped out the whole game. We had just scored to make it 31-27. We had the ball and we stopped them on defense. They were punting the ball to us. I was on punt return. We had a great returner in Brandon Williams, and I told the guys, ‘We have to get him in the end zone. We have to.’ When the ball got snapped, the punter dropped the ball. When he dropped the ball, the return turned into a block. I gauged my guy, saw it, let it go. I blocked it, scrambled in the end zone dove for the ball. My guy (Ben Strickland), pushed me out of the way. It was my teammate, and he got the touchdown. The T.V. said it was me, but he got the touchdown. He ruined it for me."
“Man, it was so blatant. I give him crap all the time. He was one of those guys that took you in. He was a vet at the time. He was a walk-on, one of those guys.”
But Casillas, who is as personable as he is athletic, was just happy the Badgers scored. Asked if he was angry at Strickland for stealing his score, he said, “not at all.”
In the next three seasons, Casillas started 36 games, was Big Ten honorable mention all three years, and was one of the nation’s most productive weakside linebackers, with 246 tackles, including 28 for losses, 4.0 sacks, two interceptions – and two more blocked punts. Wisconsin played in a bowl game each season, including two visits to the Capital One Bowl. (He did not play in the Champs Sports Bowl as a senior because of a knee injury.) Casillas loved playing home games in the sea of red that is Camp Randall Stadium, and relished visits to other conference campuses, particularly Ohio State. “I didn’t have any luck there though,” he said. “I didn’t have any luck at the Big House (at Michigan), either.”
Typically, that did not drain Casillas’ limitless passion.
“I had a great experience at Wisconsin,” he said. “Football was great. I didn’t like the way we finished my senior year. We lost about six games. It was the most ever. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but it was a tough year. Off the field I made some lifelong friends playing football. I made some good friends in school as well. I enjoyed it. It was a great party school, got a good education. I still have to get my degree. I need another year. I’m definitely going to get it. I just don’t know when. ”
Casillas first wanted to play in the NFL. Another Wisconsin linebacker, DeAndre Levy – “my brother,” Casillas said – thought they’d be selected relatively close to one another. Levy went in the third round of the 2009 draft to Detroit. The draft was then a two-day affair with rounds three through seven on the Day 2. Casillas never heard his name called.
I had a long draft party and to not get drafted, that was tough. There’s two good things about going undrafted. First, you’re going to have a chip on your shoulder. Especially for me thinking that I was going to get drafted to not getting drafted. Then, you get to pick your team. You have teams looking at you. If you get drafted, you don’t get the choice. As an undrafted guy, there was several teams calling. I basically just weighed my options. - Jonathan Casillas
Casillas fielded offers from numerous teams before narrowing his choices to Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
“Tampa Bay was going to give me more money too, a lot more money,” he said. “It wasn’t about the money. All the factors besides the money went into it for me. It ended up being a good decision.”
That’s a Pro Bowl understatement. In his 2009 rookie season, the Buccaneers were 3-13. The Saints finished 13-3, earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, and defeated Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV. And their free agent rookie linebacker was at the center of one of the game’s biggest plays.
New Orleans trailed at halftime, 10-6, and had to kick off the Colts to start the third quarter. But coach Seay Payton made the gutsy call to try an onside kick.
“As soon as we walked into the locker room, Sean Payton said, ‘We’re running ambush.’ That was the play he called. It’s not like another onside. It doesn’t go end over end or a low dribble, high hop. It’s not that. It spins like a top. Up and down the ball spins like a top. The way he kicked it, it was almost like there was science to it. It would go about 12 to 14 yards and then it would come back. It was art. We knew we were going to recover it.”
“We” was actually Casillas, but like his collegiate blocked punt, he didn’t get full credit.
“I wasn’t the one that was supposed to recover it,” he said. It got kicked. I didn’t see the ball I just saw a scrum. I threw my body in there and when I did, the ball ended up right in my hands. We were fighting in there. All kinds of stuff was going on; I heard people yelling and screaming. A lot of curse words. I had the ball in my hands. Needless to say, I didn’t get up with the ball. Chris Reis did. But I had the ball fully in my hands. I kind of wish I did, but if it wasn’t for Chris Reis, we would’ve never recovered it. If it wasn’t for me, we would’ve never recovered it. Those are facts, straight up.”
Casillas spent the 2010 season on injured reserve with a foot injury suffered in training camp. He played two more seasons for the Saints, starting six games and excelling on special teams.
“I was still learning the game,” Casillas said. “I had good guys to learn it from - Scott Shanle, Scott Fujita, of course, (Jonathan) Vilma. Those guys, they helped me out on the field. They helped me get my football IQ up. I learned from them how to study, how to be a pro. Then, off the field, how to handle myself, how to handle my money and stuff like that. If it wasn’t for those dudes, I would’ve been - I don’t know. I had good guys in the room for four years that helped my maturity process.”
In 2013, Casillas left the Saints and signed as a free agent with Buccaneers – whose coach was none other than Schiano, who didn’t want him at Rutgers. “He said he wasn’t going to make that mistake again,” Casillas said.
But it was a rough season, because the Bucs were an abysmal 4-12. They were 1-6 on Oct. 28, 2014 when Casillas was traded to New England, which was 6-2. Casillas started three of his eight regular-season games for the Patriots, and played in all three postseason games as the Patriots defeated Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX, 28-24. New England clinched the game when the Seahawks eschewed a Marshawn Lynch run from the 1-yard line and threw a pass that was intercepted by Malcolm Butler.
“I had my hands on my head thinking, ‘This is just not good,’” Casillas said. “‘This is about to be over. They’re about to just run it in.’ I had zero defensive snaps that game. It’s crazy because that last play, I was finally about to get in the game. They were on the goal line. I run on the field and they called a (goal line) package. I’m out, Malcom Butler is in. I ran off the field, (mad). I wanted to play. Whether it was just one snap in the Super Bowl, I wanted to play. I ran off the field mad that they were down there and mad that I’m not in the game to help my guys out. Then, Malcom Butler makes the Malcom Butler play. Now, I feel bad that I felt bad. We all saw it. The play was huge. I went from being, man we’re about to lose this game to, we won! As soon as he intercepted the ball, the game was over. We still had to kneel down, but the game was over.”
Casillas became a free agent following that game. After a decade touring the country, Casillas wanted to come back to Jersey. When the Giants offered him a contract, eagerly joined the team.
Casillas had the honor of being voted defensive captain by his teammates at the start of the 2016 season. He has started every game and finished second on the team with 96 combined tackles, trailing only Landon Collins.
Casillas has had quite a journey, from undrafted to two-time Super Bowl champion to captain of his hometown team.
“I know I’m blessed,” he said. “I try and do things the right way, treat people the right way. I believe in karma, putting that good stuff, that good energy out there. I don’t have a personal charity, but when I do community service, I always deal with kids from areas that I’m from - Jersey City, New Brunswick, Newark. I tell them about me and my story, where I’m at now and what I went through, the things I overcame and the adversity that I overcame. Also, the way I fight and how I’ve always been committed to education. I try to give them a little bit of something from me. There needs to be more guys like me coming out of Newark, Jersey City, Camden, New Brunswick and Paterson, where (Victor) Cruz is from.”
Now Casillas is driven by one objective: win a Super Bowl with the Giants.
That would be too good to even put in a dream. Seriously, Jersey boy, captain of his hometown team, helped take them to his third Super Bowl. That sounds pretty cool to me. - Jonathan Casillas
And to the Giants.