In honour of Black History Month, Taylor Allen has started a weekly series that looks back on incredible accomplishments made by Black athletes in Manitoba.
IT’S been 65 years since Tom “The Citation” Casey starred for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and yet, there’s never been another player like him.
Casey never won a Grey Cup, nor does he own any team records, but what he accomplished in River City will likely never be duplicated — by any professional athlete in any place, for that matter.
Casey was an all-star in each of his six seasons with the Blue and Gold (1950-56) all while finishing near the top of his class in medical school at the University of Manitoba. Yes, you read that right, medical school.
Oh, and by the way, he played both ways. Heck, he even punted the ball.
Casey was an exceptional running back, winning the Eddie James Memorial Trophy in 1950 as the West Division’s leading rusher. Arguably his best season came in 1952 when he led the Bombers in scoring with 16 touchdowns, a single-season franchise record at the time, highlighted by a 100-yard carry against the Saskatchewan Roughriders (It’s the second-longest run in Bombers history. Richard Crump had a 103-yard rush in 1978 against Saskatchewan). In that same season, Casey shined as a defensive back as he had seven interceptions and returned them for a total of 205 yards. He finished his Blue Bombers career with 23 picks. As for booting the ball, yes, Casey was also pretty dang good at that.
His punt average was 41.4 yards but his best kick came in 1955 when he had one go for 78 yards.
Was it mentioned that he did all that while in medical school?
“Oh God, I’ll tell you, he was unbelievable,” said Nick Miller, a Winnipegger who played running back, receiver and defensive back for his hometown Bombers between 1954-64, in a phone interview.
“He was the type of guy you could put him in any situation and he’d come up with a sparkling play. He’d play defence and he’d intercept a pass. You give him the ball on offence and he’d make a big gain. He could do everything and he did it well and with style.”
There’s no denying Casey’s Hall of Fame numbers (in 1964 he became the first Black player to be inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame), but Miller, a four-time Grey Cup champion who’s now 89 and still living in Winnipeg, thinks his old teammate was an even better person away from the gridiron.
“Tom was a perfect gentleman. You could never find a classier individual than him. Aside from the many talents he had on the football field, he contributed a whole lot just being around and in the locker room because he always had a smile on his face,” said Miller.
“Tom was a perfect gentleman. You could never find a classier individual than him. Aside from the many talents he had on the football field, he contributed a whole lot just being around and in the locker room because he always had a smile on his face.” – Nick Miller
But Miller wasn’t the only one who thought highly of Casey. The Wellsville, Ohio native, a three-sport star at Hampton University before his CFL days, was named Winnipeg’s Citizen of the Year in 1956. He coached high school girls’ basketball and was involved in the community as soon as he arrived in 1950 after spending the 1949 season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Despite being new to town in 1950, Casey lent a helping hand during the devastating Red River flood that saw one-third of Winnipeggers evacuate their homes. A 14-year-old kid from Winnipeg named Gerry James was taken out of school at the time to also help out and that was the first time he saw Casey. Little did he know, a couple of years later they’d not only be teammates but close friends. James, one of the greatest athletes to ever come out of Manitoba, joined the Bombers in 1952 as a 17-year-old.
“I would talk about Tom to my mom. He used to live in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Winnipeg. My mother would say ‘Well, why don’t you bring him over for lunch or supper or something?’ So, that’s kind of how the friendship started,” James, a two-time most outstanding Canadian who also played in the NHL for the Toronto Maple Leafs, told the Free Press.
The two loved to go at it at practice, but when they weren’t trying to tackle one another, they’d train together, go fishing in Saskatchewan on Round Lake, and hit the links. James, now 86 and living in Nanoose, B.C., learned a lot from Casey, but sometimes he learned the hard way.
“Tom was a golfer and he asked me if I wanted to play golf and I said, “Yeah, OK.” But I didn’t have a car. So, we made a time, but I got there half an hour to an hour late and Tom Casey went up one side of me and down the other. He took it right to me and from that point on, my God, I would always try to get there on time,” said James, a running back and kicker for the Bombers for 11 seasons.
“It was really quite funny.”
Even though Casey was hard on him at times, there was a ton of mutual respect there. So much so that James named one of his five children after Casey.
“My son (Kelly Charles James) was born in 1958 and I wanted to honour Casey. So, I call my son ‘Case’ and it’s stuck all the time. I always tell a lot of people the (initials) K.C. is from the name Tom Casey,” said James, a CFL hall of famer who also has four Grey Cup rings to his name.
Casey was a family man himself, as he married his college sweetheart Mary Fuller who had a daughter named Geri from a previous marriage. Casey and Mary would go on to adopt two boys: Martin and Tommy. As well known as Casey was, he wasn’t the most famous person sitting at the table at holidays.
“My son (Kelly Charles James) was born in 1958 and I wanted to honour Casey. So, I call my son ‘Case’ and it’s stuck all the time. I always tell a lot of people the (initials) K.C. is from the name Tom Casey.” – Gerry James
His father-in-law, Samuel B. Fuller was the owner and founder of Fuller Products Company — which he started in 1935 by selling cosmetics products door-to-door. By the 1950s, Fuller had approximately 5,000 salespeople working for him and was considered the richest Black man in the United States.
While Casey and Fuller took much different roads to success, they both put a strong emphasis on education. Fuller paid the tuition of family members and Hampton, Va., residents that worked for him. Casey, the oldest of six siblings, made a promise to his dad that if any of his brothers or sisters wanted to go to college, he’d take care of it.
“(My dad) would always make you stretch as much for your God-given potential as you could. He was very critical about that,” said Martin, 63, who runs his own construction company in Chicago, in a Zoom interview with his father’s jersey and CFL HOF jacket displayed behind him.
“He felt if he can inspire to do things, you should be able to inspire to do things as well. You just need the desire to do it.”
After Casey’s playing career, he headed overseas to England to further his studies in neurology. The family bounced around the states for a bit before calling Fairfield, Ct., home in 1973. In 1976, Casey started working for General Electric as a physician before working his way up to becoming the corporation’s medical director and corporate vice-president. He climbed the ranks of a mega-corporation, earned a huge salary, and raised his family in the nicest neighbourhood in Connecticut, but Casey never let it get to his head.
Casey died in a Connecticut nursing home in 2002 at 78. Mary passed away in 2014 at the age of 89.
“He was very humble about it. He wasn’t one to flaunt his wealth or power or any prestige that anybody honoured him with. He was always very grateful for whatever he received. He didn’t flaunt a lot of things that other people would,” said Martin.
“When people get trophies and stuff, they want to pack them all on the wall and stuff like that. He had his area, which was his den in Fairfield, and of course, my mom decorated it because she was very good at that… But they meant nothing to him if he didn’t help somebody or work with people. Very humble man. He taught us to be humble, as well. Even though he had success and had that kind of money, he never took advantage of situations because of who he was. None of that. Ever.”
Martin said Fairfield was viewed as a “cutoff zone” for Black families at the time and that Casey being a doctor didn’t stop the family from facing racial inequality.
“I would take my bike home from high school and the police would follow me home,” Martin said.
“They would stop me quite a bit to ask me where I’m going and what I’m going. It got to the point where my dad had to go down to the police station and say, ‘Look, there are African American people living in Fairfield and Greenfield Hill and I am Dr. Thomas R. Casey.’ He told them everything and asked if they could stop stopping his sons every day to question them. We were sort of the sore thumb in the neighbourhood because we were African American.”
“If I remember correctly, he said playing football and being in Winnipeg was one of the greatest times he ever had. The people were real, honest and sincere.” – Son Martin Casey
Martin doesn’t recall his father telling any stories on how he was treated differently during his time in Winnipeg, inside or outside of the locker room, because of skin colour.
“When he was there, people cherished him and loved him. I don’t think there was a racial barrier there,” Martin said. “If I remember correctly, he said playing football and being in Winnipeg was one of the greatest times he ever had. The people were real, honest and sincere.”
Casey went on to do some incredible things outside of football, but he never forgot about the country that helped him reach his career goals. Casey summed it up best in 1964 when he was the guest speaker at a Grey Cup dinner.
“I cherish the education I received here. I cherish my friends and I’ll stand up for Canada until the day I die.”
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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