Dan Shaughnessy

Father figures to be on his mind

Matt Cassel will play today, before attending his father's funeral on Tuesday. Matt Cassel will play today, before attending his father's funeral on Tuesday. (Jim Davis/File/The Boston Globe)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 14, 2008
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SAN FRANCISCO - We don't really know Matt Cassel. We never knew his dad. But we know there are universal truths when your dad dies when you are only 26 years old.

Cassel is going to try to play a football game today. It's his job and his passion. This is a virtual playoff game for the Patriots and they need their starting quarterback if they are going to beat the Oakland Raiders and stay alive in the hunt for the postseason tournament.

Cassel's dad, Greg, was found dead, alone in his mobile home in a downtrodden section of San Bernardino, last Tuesday. He was only 57. Matt was already in California, where the Patriots were practicing for today's game. He left the team and went home for a day to be with his mother, two brothers, and sister. He came back to practice Thursday. The funeral is scheduled for Tuesday in Mission Hills, north of Los Angeles.

So today Matt Cassel will do what Brett Favre did five years ago. He will do what Bill Belichick did when Pa Belichick died on the eve of a Patriots home game in 2005: he will go to work with a heavy heart. He will honor his father by playing an important game, even though his dad's funeral is the day after tomorrow.

The Globe's Bob Hohler spent a few hours in Greg Cassel's mobile home in September when Matt took over for the injured Tom Brady. Hohler remembers hearing the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" blaring from inside when he knocked on the door.

From Hohler's beautiful feature we know that Matt's dad was the grandson of a Texas Ranger and the son of a World War II bomber pilot. We know that Greg Cassel played high school football in Lubbock, Texas, then became a Hollywood script writer who never hit it big. We know he was also a horse trainer and raised his sons and daughter on a 4-acre ranch near the Santa Susana Mountains. We know he put too much money into a movie project that failed, forcing the family to seek bankruptcy protection. We know Matt's dad and mom got divorced when Matt was 14, just a couple of years after the family home was flattened by the infamous Northridge earthquake.

And we know Greg Cassel was a coach when his kids were young. This is where the universal truths come back.

In just about every sports-centric family, dad/coach introduces his kids to the games. He puts the first baseman's mitt in the crib. He takes video of his 3-year-old's birthday party piñata swings. He throws a Nerf football into the bed, yells "fumble!", then jumps on the covers and wrestles for the loose ball. He doesn't get mad when kids break a window with a backyard line drive. He drives everybody to Dairy Queen after a tough loss.

Dad/coach is the sculptor of sports souls. He talks about how much tougher and better the athletes were in his day. He stresses fundamentals and sportsmanship. He tries not to boast about his boys and girls, but can be an insufferable braggart, especially when the kids are not around. He forgets about the losses and exaggerates the wins. And when his young ballplayer can't seem to do anything right at the plate, he reminds the kid to have fun and think about what it is he loves about the game.

Greg Cassel's three boys grew up to be professional athletes and leaders. Jack Cassel pitches for the Houston Astros and Justin Cassel is a hurler in the White Sox system. Matt Cassel went to the Little League World Series when he was 12, earned a football a scholarship to Southern Cal, and today quarterbacks the most successful NFL franchise of the 21st century.

Dad/coach Greg Cassel was busy text-messaging his ballplaying sons when Hohler sat with him in his trailer in September.

"My boys are fearless," Greg Cassel said. "There's no quit in them."

Every dad wants to see his child succeed. In the wake of his personal disappointments, it's not hard to imagine the pride and joy Greg Cassel got from seeing his sons make it to the highest levels of their professions.

At the end of his life, Greg Cassel was recovering from major shoulder surgery after being thrown from a horse. Unable to get Patriots games on the television in his mobile home, he watched games from a local casino and fired off texts to Matt.

When the Patriots' game ends today, Matt Cassel won't have a text message from his dad. The person on the other end of the phone isn't there anymore. There was never enough time and now there's no more time for moments of success shared between father and son. It's the kind of thing you notice when your dad dies when you are only 26 years old.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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