Jackson State offers Therriault an oasis
"I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice."
-- Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963
JACKSON, Miss. -- Scenes from an oasis:
A fence separated the old black woman from the football field, but it didn't stop her. She wanted to meet the young white quarterback. She asked the coach to bring him over. If you don't have a place to go for Thanksgiving, the old woman told the quarterback through the fence, we will feed you.
In the stands in Memphis, Tenn., weeks earlier, a black stranger struck up a conversation with the white quarterback's father. He was easy to pick out, after all, a pale face in a section full of dark faces. By the end of the game, the quarterback's father had been invited to stay at the stranger's house for the next home game.
Everyone wanted to reach out to the white quarterback. He had come hundreds of miles from his native Michigan to this strange place -- to Jackson State University, a historically black college -- because he had nowhere else to go, with a past he was trying to escape. He didn't know what to expect. He sure didn't expect all this. All the support and attention and generosity directed his way was startling.
Just a few months before, no college wanted anything to do with him. Now, this novelty act of a quarterback was suddenly a minor celebrity.
In a state that was crippled by racial intolerance, the Jackson State fans didn't care that he was different from them. They didn't care about the trouble in his past and the chilling word that was attached to him. Or maybe it was because of the differences, and because of the trouble, that they reached out.
Maybe this was the latter stages of a dream come to fruition.
The guy was intensely drunk, with a blood-alcohol content that later would be measured at .27 -- more than three times the legal limit to drive a car. He swung first. He hit Casey Therriault in the face.
The reaction was immediate, instinctual. Therriault retaliated, and Therriault connected. Dropped the man to the cold Michigan sidewalk with what police and media reports say was the one and only punch he threw.
Therriault was scared then. He was 18 years old and home from College of the Sequoias, a California junior college, on Christmas break. He'd been in this nightclub, the Margarita Grill in his hometown of Grand Rapids, with some buddies and some friends of those friends whom he didn't really know. He hadn't been drinking, he said, but trouble followed them out the door when they left.
The drunk guy was grabbing at them, trying to start something. Someone in the group directed an insult at the drunk, and Therriault laughed.
That's when the drunk guy hit him. And he hit back. And then he was scared, and he got out of there.
What happened next would change the life of everyone out on the sidewalk that night. Some of the other guys in the group jumped on the drunk guy. Kicking. Stomping.
They beat him into a coma. Two weeks later, when the phone rang back at junior college in California, the prosecutor's words were incomprehensible: Therriault was wanted back home for questioning in the death of Jonathon Krystiniak.
Charges eventually were filed against five men, Therriault included: manslaughter.
"It was kind of like I had lost everything," Therriault said. "It was somewhere you never expected to be."
When a plea deal was offered, Therriault attorney Richard Zambon told him he should take it. The judge believed he was the least culpable of all the defendants and would sentence him accordingly. The other alternative was to risk a trial -- and although a self-defense argument was compelling, a conviction could result in 15 years in state prison.
So Therriault took the deal and the six-month county jail sentence that came with it. Three other defendants were given one- to three-year sentences in state prison. A fifth gambled on a trial and lost, and was given a sentence of 27 months to 15 years.
In January 2009, a year after the fatal altercation, Therriault entered the Kent County Correctional Facility in Grand Rapids.
"It's something that you have to accept, and if you can do it, you can learn a lot about yourself -- not that you'd do it to have a learning experience," he said. "But it's a place that's so dark and so low, that's the only thing you can take from it."
After several weeks in the county jail, Therriault was moved into the adjacent work-release facility. For the next five months, he made pizzas and washed dishes at Frankie V's, a sports bar owned by his old position coach at Wyoming Park High School in suburban Grand Rapids. His girlfriend, Sarah Hernandez, would pick him up in the morning for work and drive him back to the jail at night.
That's when Therriault would take stock of where he'd been and how he ended up there, behind bars.
"I got put up with somebody in a room, one person who turned out to be someone who helped me a lot," he said. "He was someone who kind of couldn't get away from [criminal] situations and made me realize that no matter what's going on in your life, somebody has it much worse. I had people who were there for me, and some people don't even have that.
"I grew up. I found out that I've got to appreciate things a lot more. You kind of go from having a lot, having a future, to nothing."
Julie Therriault was heartbroken and irate.
Her son had served his time. Why couldn't he get another chance?
Casey had come out of jail and gotten on with life. He enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College and became an immediate star of the football team, passing for more than 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns while leading GRCC to a 9-2 record. He played well and stayed well clear of any trouble.
Yet all the four-year schools that had shown initial interest in Casey shied away. They loved his game but not the alarming word that surfaced with his name: manslaughter.
"I wanted to scream, 'Hey, this is a great kid right here,'" Julie said.
She wanted to tell them about how Casey and older brother Chad (now serving an Army tour of duty in Afghanistan) doted on their two handicapped brothers. Kyle, 27, has spinal dysplasia that curbed his height and has led to multiple major surgeries. And Lucas, 18, has both spinal dysplasia and a severe mental handicap that his family said has left him with the brain development of a 2-year-old.
Julie wanted the coaches who bailed on Casey to see him hold Lucas' hand. To see him change Lucas' diaper. To see him toss Lucas a football and make him smile.
She wanted to tell them about how Casey stood up in the courtroom and apologized to Krystiniak's mother, and how she forgave Casey. She wanted them to know about how Julie and Ed Therriault and Krystiniak's mom were all in tears and leaning on each other at the end of those traumatic court proceedings.
But most colleges didn't want to go beyond a troubling Google search and a surface explanation of what happened. They knew the impossibility of selling an administration on recruiting a guy who did time for manslaughter.
"He was a good kid and then, bang," Julie said. "Getting hit with that was hard. It was the most horrible thing I've endured as a mother, and I've been through numerous life-threatening surgeries with two sons. The thing I went through with Casey I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy."
So even after a productive season at GRCC, there was nowhere for Casey to go in the spring of 2010. That's when the most unlikely of schools made a phone call.
Earnest Wilson had been an assistant coach at New Mexico State, and he'd had his eye on Casey Therriault for a while. A disciple of Hal Mumme and his Air Raid offense -- which emphasizes quick, precise throws from the shotgun formation, in some ways a precursor of the current spread offenses -- Wilson saw a quarterback who fit that offense perfectly.
But Mumme had gotten fired from New Mexico State in 2008. His successor, DeWayne Walker, had retained Wilson -- but after a shaky, 3-10 debut season in '09, Walker was in no position to bring in a guy with a radioactive résumé like Casey's. Like every other school, New Mexico State backed off.
Then Wilson relocated to Jackson State as offensive coordinator and installed the pass-happy offense at a quarterback-poor school.
"We were looking for a thrower," Wilson said.
He told head coach Rick Comegy about Casey and got the go-ahead to recruit him. Comegy is a 35-year veteran of coaching at HBC programs, and among his reclamation projects was former Oklahoma quarterback Charles Thompson. After an infamous cocaine bust at OU, he wound up with Comegy at Central State in Ohio.
"Guys are going to make mistakes when they're young," Comegy said. "Not one of the guys on our football team hasn't had an incident in their life that they regret. I think they understand it better than we do as adults sometime."
One other thing the kids seem to understand better than adults: race. Casey's reaction to being recruited by a black school?
"Oh, that's a little different," he said. "It didn't really cross my mind. I didn't think of going to a historically black college."
Fact is, Casey had played on racially diverse teams in high school and junior college. When his father plunked a portable basketball hoop at the end of their street, it attracted kids of all variety. The Therriault house was a melting pot then and now -- Chad's girlfriend is black, and Casey's is half Hispanic.
"I really don't think it fazes him that much," Julie said. "The biggest obstacle was getting over the Southern accent. When he went on his visit, he said, 'I don't understand what everybody's saying.'"
That was in May 2010, and despite the language barrier, Casey decided he would attend. Then he started getting cold feet, thinking about moving that far away from home. The jail experience had left him more attached than ever to his girlfriend and family.
Julie read him the riot act.
"This is your only opportunity," she told Casey. "You better take it."
On July 5, Ed and his third son packed up and left Michigan for Mississippi. They were dumbstruck by the heat, and in the dead of summer, there weren't many players on campus or any formal workouts to dive into. Casey called his mom crying twice, talking about coming home.
"You make a decision right now," she told him. "Get your ass in the car and drive home, or stick with it. But don't call me again."
He never called again.
What followed was an unlikely but perfect marriage of player and program. Casey's 3,600 yards of total offense and 41 total touchdowns (31 passing, 10 running) made him the Southwestern Athletic Conference Newcomer of the Year and the first-team all-SWAC quarterback. He was second nationally in the Football Championship Subdivision in passing yards and total offense, leading Jackson State to an 8-3 record and a share of the SWAC East title.
A proud school with a passionate base and a gilded football heritage, having produced the likes of Walter Payton and Lem Barney, Jackson State had never had a standout white player before. There were a few lesser players who came and went, but nobody with the ability of Casey.
The fans adored him. They nicknamed him "White Tiger." Teammates called him "Blue-Eyed Soul Brother."
He was never more popular than in leading Jackson State past rival Southern 49-45. Four touchdowns were scored in the final three minutes -- the last of them on a 28-yard pass by Casey to Rico Richardson with two seconds left. Casey had driven the Tigers 60 yards in two plays for the winning touchdown.
Afterward, everyone raved about Casey's poise. His dad knew where it came from.
"He told me one time, 'These defensive linemen used to scare the s--- out of me,'" Ed said. "'After I was looking at 15 years in prison, those guys don't scare me.' He doesn't get jitters anymore. After you've been scared like that, you don't get scared."
Sarah Hernandez and Casey's parents attended one of Casey's home games this past season. Her description of the experience:
"It was intimidating, and not because of anything anyone said or did," she said. "Nobody made us feel unwelcome at all. But it opened up our eyes. I know now what a black person means when they say what it feels like to be the only black in a room."
If her boyfriend ever had that feeling, it is gone now.
On a bright and breezy October Friday on the Jackson State campus, Casey was moving through a crowded quad at ease. Girls called out his name in flirty tones, but he pretended not to notice. It was homecoming week, and the football team had gathered with the marching band and homecoming court to help boost a United Way fundraising drive.
The white quarterback stood out amid the sea of black faces, yet seemed oblivious to it.
"He described it once as saying that he forgets he's white," Hernandez said.
At Jackson State, they don't care what color Casey Therriault is. Or what happened in his past. They're happy the White Tiger has made an unlikely home in a Mississippi oasis a great man dreamed of decades ago.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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