“Life is not perfect. Not even close to it,” — Jeff Casper, former wide receiver at Trinity High School and University of Pittsburgh.
Even in the best of athletic careers, there are pitfalls, tough moments, and difficult defeats.
Jeff Casper certainly understands. He is living proof that a fumble at the wrong moment, an untimely injury or a gut-wrenching, NCAA football championship-denying loss can sting but not paralyze.
Casper, 55, overcame many challenges and obstacles to put forth a gratifying career in football at Trinity High School and Pitt in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
He ran the gamut of outstanding performances and being part of tremendous teams to the lows of suffering mind-numbing, heart-breaking setbacks in his career.
“You move on from it all,” said Casper. “There are a lot of ups and downs in life. It’s not all going to be good. I had to persevere. I had injuries, a surgery.
“But I enjoy my life. I have a Harley Davidson that I love to ride. I’m an avid deer hunter. I have good friends and family around me. I’m really happy with my life.”
He resides in Washington, moving back to his hometown seven-and-a-half years ago from Harrisburg, where he lived 27 years after leaving Pitt.
He has two children, Preston, 28, and Sloane, 25.
Casper currently is employed by Concord Hospitality Enterprises, a Raleigh, N.C.-based management company.
Casper, who stands 6-4, once held the Hillers’ single-season record for pass receptions in a season with 32. It stood for 28 seasons before Jason DeMeo broke the mark by catching 34 passes in 2001. He also was a standout punt and kick off returner for Trinity.
He was a celebrated and heavily recruited receiver out of Trinity during the 1979 football season. He also was a good baseball player through his youth and for the Hillers but catching footballs was his specialty.
Casper entertained offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame and Pitt.
He nearly settled on the Buckeyes.
“I took my trips and my visits,” Casper said. “I settled on Pitt because Pitt was it at that time. I was young as a senior at Trinity and I took three trips to Columbus and it just seemed like I was going to Los Angeles.
“The old Pitt uniforms were enticing as well.”
Andy Lucas was Casper’s position coach at Trinity.
“He was happy-go-lucky kid,” Lucas said. “He enjoyed having a good time. At first, he didn’t enjoy hard work but he was blessed with skills. He had wonderful size, long arms and an innate talent to catch a football.
“He finally realized how blessed and talented he was and he started taking it serious. He started showing the desire to be better. Once he decided to be better, it was really something to watch. He learned how to use his body as a weapon. He put in the effort and time. I had a lot of respect for him for that.”
After being named to the Big 33 Pennsylvania squad, Casper moved on to Pitt. He entered his first camp with the Panthers in the fall of 1980. Pitt was among the top ranked teams in the country. He made the traveling squad out of camp as a freshman — an achievement that will not be lost on Casper.
“In some rankings, Pitt was No. 1 in the preseason,” Casper said. “I ended up lettering and did not catch a pass.
“We went 11-1, lost to Florida State. We had a great football team. We went to the Gator Bowl and beat George Rogers’ South Carolina team. The New York Times ranked us No. 1 despite the one loss.
“I am so proud I was the only freshman receiver to make the travel team.”
The College Football Researchers Association and the Sagarin Ratings also ranked Pitt No. 1 that year and while the Panthers did not win the NCAA championship, they did claim the Lambert-Meadowlands Trophy as champion of the East. Nationally, they finished No. 2 in the Associated Press and Coaches polls.
Twelve players were chosen in the following NFL draft, including future Hall of Famers — Rickey Jackson and Russ Grimm.
“It was probably the best college football team to not win the national championship,” Casper said.
“I had the opportunity at Pitt to play with the likes of Dan Marino and Chris Doleman — also Hall of Famers — Grimm and Jackson, Mark May, Hugh Green and Bill Fralic. I feel fortunate for that. Those are mammoth, monster names. Even today, when we get together, we have a bond. It is very special.” A foot injury forced Casper to take a medical redshirt his sophomore year in 1981, another 11-1 season for Pitt.
His big opportunity came in 1982, when he was part of a talented receiving group that also featured Julius Dawkins of Monessen High School, and Dwight Collins of Beaver Falls High School.
Foge Fazio took over for Jackie Sherrill, who left Pitt to coach at Texas A&M. Pitt went 9-3 that season, losing to Notre Dame, Penn State and a disappointing 7-3 loss to SMU in the Cotton Bowl.
But it was the Notre Dame game that haunts that Pitt team and, in some respects, Casper.
The Panthers were undefeated and ranked No. 1 going into the game against the unranked Fighting Irish.
Pitt dominated play early but had to settled for a pair of Eric Schubert field goals for a 6-0 lead. Notre Dame added a field goal to cut the lead in half. Suddenly, the game changed.
Notre Dame was backed up in its territory, forcing quarterback-punter Blair Keil to punt from the goal line. Pitt nearly blocked the punt but somehow the ball avoided the Panthers’ defender. Casper had the punt hit him in the chest and bounced to the turf with nothing but Fighting Irish players around it. Notre Dame recovered at Pitt’s 45-yard line.
A few moments later, Larry Moriarty scored on a short run to give ND the lead.
“It was a low punt and I was facing the sun,” Casper said. “The ball got on me real quick. That was my first big shot on the national stage. It was pretty simple. I had to pull my big boy pants on and get over it.”
Pitt did overcome it, taking a 13-10 lead into the fourth quarter, when the Panthers came apart.
At one point in the quarter, Pitt held a 19-5 advantage in first downs.
But the Irish hit a flea flicker for a touchdown to Joe “Small Wonder” Howard then suffered another blow when Dawkins fumbled after catching a pass deep in ND territory. Freshman Allen Pinkett delivered the biggest blow of the game, scoring on a stunning 76-yard run to give ND a 24-16 lead. Pinkett scored again and the Irish came away with a 31-16 victory in what was Gerry Faust’s greatest victory in a disappointing coaching career at South Bend.
“It was just one of those games,” Casper said. “You cannot imagine how quiet it was in our locker room. It was one of those losses. … we were just devastated.”
Casper recovered. He overcame a back surgery. He credits Dr. Joseph Maroon for doing “a heckuva job.” But it was Casper who fought back and worked so hard to return to Pitt’s lineup.
“I got to start my senior year (1984),” Casper said. “It was my fifth year at Pitt. I did fight to get back and it was a proud moment. I credit everyone in the whole organization. They all did a great job with me. It was professional. It was the best time of my life.”