Casey Therriault is the 'White Tiger'
How a white quarterback with a checkered past found a new home at an HBCU
They call him "White Tiger" or "Blue-Eyed Soul Brother" -- nicknames that make Casey Therriault chuckle.
"A lot of people have a whole list of them," Therriault says. "Whatever they say is fine with me."
A couple of years back, if someone had told Therriault, who is white, that the people giving him those nicknames would be his African-American teammates at Jackson State, a historically black college, he would have chuckled at that, too. Probably even considered it funnier than some of the nicknames he's been given since he became the Tigers' star quarterback.
"I guess things happen for a reason," says Therriault, who is leading the FCS in passing yards per game and has helped Jackson State to a 5-2 record.
Only what led the kid from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Jackson, Miss., isn't quite so humorous. Until one night, one decision, that led to a man's death and almost ruined his own life, Therriault looked to be well on his way to achieving his dream of playing major college football in the glare of spotlights much brighter than the ones that shine on the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
He was a hotshot quarterback who, during a two-year stretch at Wyoming Park High School in suburban Grand Rapids, totaled a jaw-dropping 4,371 yards and 76 touchdowns. After graduating from Wyoming, he made a slight detour to junior college, playing seven games for College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif.
Then came that night, that decision.
While he was home from school, Therriault and a few buddies went to a local bar and restaurant, where a confrontation erupted with 21-year-old Jonathan Krystiniak. According to published accounts and Richard Zambon, Therriault's attorney, the altercation began when Krystiniak began verbally harassing one of Therriault's friends.
Zambon says things escalated when Krystiniak threw a punch at Therriault. According to Zambon, Therriault did not verbally engage with Krystiniak; but still, he retaliated. Therriault hit him with one punch, then fled the scene.
After Therriault left, several others jumped into the fracas and began kicking and beating Krystiniak. Two weeks later, Krystiniak died of cerebral hemorrhage and acute alcohol poisoning. His blood-alcohol level the night of the fight was 0.27, Zambon says. Therriault, according to the attorney, had not been drinking.
"There was one incident in [Therriault's] life, and he regrets what happened," Zambon says. "If Casey has learned anything, it's that you always have a choice."
And if you make the wrong one, the consequences can be unimaginable.
Therriault took a plea deal and served six months in a county jail, receiving the lightest sentence of all those involved. Four others also accepted plea deals and were punished with one- to three-year sentences.
Even as he plays at Jackson State this season, Therriault is on probation until January and makes a monthly restitution payment that is put toward the victim's funeral and outstanding medical costs. If he completes the terms of his probation, his record will be expunged under Michigan's Youthful Trainee Act, a program that gives young offenders a chance to avoid the stigma of a criminal record.
In many ways, that's been the easy part. Figuring out who he really wants to be and why he made such a terrible mistake has been the tougher part for Therriault.
"You learn who you are, really," he says of his time in jail. "You know things can come and things can go. You can lose a lot. You can gain a lot. You think you have a lot figured out. You get a lot of time to think and to evaluate. You find out a lot more."
When he came out of jail in June 2009 with a criminal past, here's one thing Therriault found out: He wasn't exactly an attractive football commodity. He spent last fall playing at Grand Rapids Community College, where he threw for 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns with just six interceptions.
As Therriault feared, the major colleges were concerned with his past. Was he a good kid who made one bad mistake? Or was he a bad kid destined to make more poor choices?
"Basically, there was a lot of questions that were outside of the classroom and football," Therriault says. "A lot of them just decided that they were going to move on."
Jackson State didn't.
Once I got here, it was all about having the opportunity to be able to be treated fairly, just get a chance and be able to play. I knew it wasn't going to be a lot of inside politics, nothing going on with stuff that happened in the past.” -- Jackson State's Casey Therriault
The Tigers' coaches, who'd recruited other kids from the area, had heard some rumblings about Therriault.
"He was just such a great athlete on film," Jackson State head coach Rick Comegy says. "He was clearly a Division I-A athlete to me. He was smart, could throw and run the ball. I wasn't worried about [his past] at all. We talked to people, found out the whole scenario. He paid his debt to society. He just wanted to go to college and get his education."
After just one visit to Jackson State -- a school he didn't know much about -- Therriault concluded that Jackson, Miss., was his best shot.
"Once I got here, it was all about having the opportunity to be able to be treated fairly, just get a chance and be able to play," he says. "I knew it wasn't going to be a lot of inside politics, nothing going on with stuff that happened in the past. I talked to all the coaches and all of them said the same thing, and I just felt real positive about coming here."
Now, Therriault is repaying Jackson State for its trust in his abilities and character. He has completely resurrected the Tigers' anemic passing game. Last season, Jackson State passed for just six touchdowns. Through seven games, Therriault has thrown for 20 touchdowns -- five of which came in a dramatic 49-45 victory over Southern two weeks ago.
With four seconds left on the clock, he threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Rico Richardson that clinched the victory.
"White Tiger" had struck again.
"You obviously plan for some success," Therriault says. "To have the numbers and stuff, I just think that comes with how hard our team works."
The junior once worried about how his teammates and the community would perceive him -- not because he's white, but because of what happened that fateful night when he was 18.
Turns out it was a baseless fear.
At a recent home game, Therriault was approached by an older woman who had an important question.
"What are you doing for Thanksgiving?" she asked.
She explained that her son is a former Jackson State player. She was thrilled with the touchdowns Therriault had thrown, but was far more impressed with the fact that he has turned his life around and seems like a good person. She wanted him to know that if he couldn't make it home to be with his family, he had one there for him in Jackson.
Therriault's name might not be on the lips of a lot of NFL scouts; but considering how so many athletes have allowed bad decisions to become a way of life, it's refreshing to find one who hasn't. Athletes aren't always deserving of second chances; but sometimes, another chance yields incredible results.
"Once I came here, whether you come to Jackson State or UCLA, you're just going to play football and they are going to be your teammates and your brothers," Therriault says. "I think you'll be embraced no matter what. As long as you come here positively, wanting to win, showing leadership, that's all that matters."
Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.
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