October 25, 2007

The Right Moves

Oct. 25, 2007

By John Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

Jubilation jumped all over Fitton Field on a recent sun-splashed September Saturday afternoon. Halleluiah -- Holy Cross shocked Harvard in what folks who like to muddle sports and religion often refer to as a miracle finish.

Maybe it didn't qualify as a Hail Mary pass. But it was at least a Glory Be. The pass by quarterback Dominic Randolph '09 was hardly a Flutiesque heave toward the heavens, but rather a precise 40-yard spiral to the exact pylon where wideout Thomas Harrison '08 turned right to the outside and gathered in the football ever so gracefully.

Exultation erupted. The Crusaders formed a celebratory circle around coach Tom Gilmore and broke out into a musical na-na-na-na-na chant with lyrics composed by defensive coach Richard Rodgers: "From East to West, the 'Saders are the Best. From coast to coast, the mighty 'Saders are the Most...na,na,na,na nahhh"

On the perimeter, Casey Gough '08 -- a tri-captain and projected first-team All-America cornerback -- raised his helmet high as the homecoming crowd cheered.

The Ultimate Upperclassman, Gough is back for a fifth season. Moments earlier, he had batted down Harvard's desperation midfield toss into the end zone as time expired.

Gough, however, seemed more somber than his younger mates.

"I was a little disappointed by how I played,'' he would later admit. Gough was kicking himself for letting Matt Lagace beat him deep while scoring Harvard's first TD on a 35-yard toss from Liam O'Hagan. He did not mention his tender right leg was banged up -- an injury that caused him to miss the second half of the season's opener against the University of Massachusetts.

"I was happy that our defense played tough when the game was on the line and gave the offense a chance to pull off that amazing comeback drive [77 yards in a minute flat]," he says. "That was our biggest win at Fitton in five seasons.''

Gough did rejoice properly after his brief self-chastisement. He had heard more noise from a home crowd than ever before. He knew his senior teammates from 2006 were in the stands going wild. In the end, he hugged his mom, Julie, and his girlfriend, Cara Wahle '07. And he watched teammates shed tears and cry, "We did it."

Still, the stunning 31-28 victory over Harvard had a deeper undercurrent of meaning for him than just a mere moment of sheer joy.

For Casey Gough had sacrificed more than any other Crusader for this emotional payday.

 

*****

Most kids don't like staying after school. Casey Gough had volunteered for a six-month detention and even consulted his lawyers when it appeared his request to extend his senior year at Holy Cross would be denied.

Why? a sane person may well ask.

"I'll have the rest of my life to get a job, to work," reasons Gough. "I love it here at Holy Cross. Football doesn't last forever. I don't want to give it up."

Football, mind you, is not a major at Holy Cross and, in most cases, not a steppingstone to a career in sports. That is why 20 of last season's 21 seniors chose to graduate on time in May. All except Casey Gough.

Gough had a terrific senior year for the 7-4 Crusaders. The rugged cornerback was named first-team All-Patriot League, second team All-Northeast Region and honorable mention All-America. To boot, he emerged as the second best kickoff-return specialist (25.4-yard average) in Holy Cross history.

So why not run for daylight and get on with his life?

"We came within one point (29-28 final-game loss to Colgate) of the Patriot League championship and the NCAA playoffs. I have faith in this team's desire and ability," explains Gough, who forfeited his graduation procession for another shot at postseason play.

"I have some unfinished business. ...," he says.

This summer Gough took a job on campus, working for strength coach Jeff Oliver's summer conditioning camp for the third straight year. He shared an apartment with three teammates, forming a tighter relationship with them and about 40 other Crusaders who worked out and hung out together. His commitment to a fifth season installed him as the Crusaders' unquestioned leader.

NCAA and Patriot League rules generally don't allow college athletes to play five seasons. Gough, though, had broken his right foot as a freshman against Georgetown, the College's second game of the 2003 campaign. "My family was there for our first home game," Gough says. "It was a low point of my life. I'm 800 miles away from home, trying to make new friends, then I get hurt for the first time ever."

He had to limp around campus in a walking-cast for six weeks. In retrospect, Gough reasoned that two punts and a solo tackle hardly equal a football season. He figured that 2003 should not count as one of his four seasons of eligibility. Gough wanted to be declared a medical "red-shirt" as gridiron folks like to call the wounded-in-action.

But there was a snag. With his foot still healing, he had dressed for the 2003 family weekend game against Dartmouth. After the regular punter shanked a kick on the previous series, freshman Gough was dispatched to punt late in the second quarter. At the time, nobody considered the long-range consequences of that 26-yard Game 7 kick. That punt, however, would cast a dark cloud over a later claim that his foot, broken in Game 2, should be considered "a season-ending injury.''

Fast forward to January 2007. Gough was still stewing about his team not making the playoffs. Any application for a medical hardship waiver seemed destined to fail. He didn't have much of an argument. He had played in a game more than halfway through the 2003 season. Gough had to demonstrate that his foot had not healed completely when he punted and that using him in that Game 7 was a mistake in judgment not of his doing.

Casey wanted one more at-bat. He knew that his pal, Steve Silva '05, had returned for a fifth season in 2005 and made All-America as a tailback. Silva was telling him it was "the best decision he had ever made." Assistant head coach Mike Pedone and others were urging Gough to take a shot at a medical waiver.

Fortunately, Casey knew an excellent lawyer who wouldn't charge him ... his father, Arnie Gough.

His dad knows a lot about overcoming long odds. Arnie grew up in Gary, Ind., during an era when the city was labeled a murder capital.

Through determination and hard work, Arnie won acceptance at the University of Notre Dame where he excelled academically and as a 110-yard high hurdler. A Notre Dame Law School grad, he practices corporate law in Chicago.

He and his wife, Julie, a nurse, encourage their five children to pursue their dreams. Son Charlie is in law school at Notre Dame; Eric is playing football for Division 3 St. Thomas University; Mary Margaret and Phil -- a promising quarterback -- are doing well at Fenwick High.

Arnie entered the legal fray, digging into his son's case, trying to fashion a plausible argument. Rose Shea, the College's associate athletic director and compliance officer, helped assemble testimonial and documentary evidence from team doctor Phil Lahey '69, trainer Anthony Cerundolo, coaches, campus administrators and faculty members. Arnie enlisted the expert legal assistance of Robin Green Harris, a NCAA specialist.

"My family spent some serious time and money fighting my case," explains Gough. "We had to show through X-rays and medical opinions that I was hurt and should not have been playing in Game 7 -- and that I didn't play for the rest of the 2003 season."

Just in time for spring practice, the NCAA granted Gough a medical waiver.

 

*****

Coming to Holy Cross was not Gough's first choice.

He had his heart set on going to his dad's alma mater, Notre Dame. He had attended showcase football camps in South Bend, Ill., and performed impressively. Gough had been Chicago Catholic League's Offensive MVP as a fleet running back for Fenwick High. Yet, at 5-foot-10-inch, 175 pounds, he wasn't attracting any collegiate offers.

Fate intervened. Bob Bradley, then an assistant coach, was reviewing the game films of a Midwestern prospect whose team had played Fenwick. Bradley's keen eye caught the quickness of Fenwick's running back. He checked into Gough's background: A team captain in football, wrestling and track. Good student, natural leader, excellent speed. Best back in his league. What's not to like. Holy Cross invited Gough for a weekend visit.

"At Holy Cross they treated me like gold," says Gough.

"We want to sign you today!" he was told. Gough didn't hesitate.

"I felt wanted here," he says.

 

*****

Gough has had a fantastic ride. He endured his "low point" as he suffered through an injury, the 1-11 season of 2003 and the death of head coach Dan Allen. He has put his desire to play offensive aside in order to become a sure-tackling cornerback on a defense that needs him badly.

Gough has felt the rush of a 7-4 season -- the Crusaders' best in six seasons -- and reached his "high point" against Harvard, while prolonging the enjoyment of the camaraderie that goes along with the one-for-all attitude instilled by Coach Gilmore.

Entering 2007, Gough had run back 54 kickoffs for 1,370 yards. He has made amazing runs, such as a 92-yard kickoff jaunt against San Diego to set up a tying touchdown with time running out. Gough had outstanding games, winning the Johnny Turco Memorial Trophy for his big plays against Fordham last fall. Twice he has garnered the Rev. William F. Davitt 1907 Award for his superb defensive play. Gough has climbed from second-team to first-team all-league, from honorable mention All-America to becoming a preseason choice as first-team All-America.

Academically, he has achieved Patriot League Academic Honor Roll status. More importantly, Gough says, he has learned to develop strong relationships with professors and others in his major, sociology. He speaks of Ed Thompson, head of the sociology and anthropology department, as being "an inspiration.''

Gough has also given back, as a participant in the Big Brother, Big Sister program. He has been there to cheer on other campus organizations and teams, such as the basketball teams that advanced to the 2007 NCAA tournaments.

This semester, Gough added a concentration in gender studies in order to satisfy Patriot League rules that he perform as a full-time student while playing football. He has enjoyed his relationships with his classmates, his teammates, his teachers. Gough has loved every minute of his Holy Cross experience, so why wouldn't he want to stay a little longer at The Dance ...

 

*****

Dancing may reveal as much about Gough's zest for life as football.

In the spring of his junior year, he chose modern dance as an elective. "I had no dancing background," Gough says. "I couldn't do the one-step. I was joking about it with my parents. I thought it would be fun. I'd be learning by doing for a change, not listening to lectures."

A lone guy and a dozen women signed up for Kaela Lee's modern dance class. He endured the locker-room ribbing, overcame the awkward stage and his shyness. Gough grew comfortable while bending women over backward during certain routines. He relished the free flow of movement and the flexibility that dance developed. He appreciated the agility needed to leap and spin on one leg.

At semester's end, Gough took to the stage for the class recital. His teammates were in the audience, applauding. They were impressed. Last spring, he took modern dance again. This time there were 17 women and Casey.

His self-confidence must have been contagious. "Next spring, more than 20 guys on the team are signing up for modern dance," he says.

In shoulder pads or a leotard, Casey Gough is a true leader -- always on his toes and a guy with all the right moves.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.