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Bringing Bruin football back becomes a Casey family affair.

Byline: Austin Meek The Register-Guard

NEWBERG - The soundtrack for the day's practice came from the movie "Gladiator," giving even the most mundane drill an air of manifest destiny.

Receivers ran pass routes against a backdrop of pulsing string arrangements. Offensive linemen hustled to their positions like Romans marching into the Coliseum.

The music usually isn't this loud, but someone was testing the sound equipment at Stoffer Family Stadium, new home of the George Fox University football program. The sound equipment, we are assured, is fully functional.

On either side of the stands, construction crews were hard at work. Two sets of open-air bleachers will be added to accommodate the crowd at George Fox's season opener, though as of Tuesday, the spaces were nothing but gravel and concrete.

The bleachers will be finished by Sept. 6, when George Fox plays host to Arizona Christian in its first intercollegiate football game since 1969. They will be finished, right?

"It would be nice to have those done right now," said Craig Taylor, George Fox's athletic director, admitting the deadline is tighter than he'd prefer. "That's part of the deal, I've learned."

All around, the people of George Fox - a private Division III school with enrollment of roughly 3,700 - are readying for the long-awaited return of their football team. The most important preparations are happening on the field, where coach Chris Casey is knitting together a roster of more than 100 players, most of whom are only a year or two removed from high school.

Casey doesn't want the Bruins to think like a start-up program, even if that's what they are. He reminds the players of this as they stretch after practice.

"Everything we do is at a championship level," he says, an instruction that doesn't just apply on the field. It applies when the Bruins tie their shoes, when they brush their teeth, when they greet the cooks serving food in the dining hall.

It applies when they dispose of their ice packs, which should be emptied in the grass before being tossed in the trash.

"If you drop the whole bag in the can, that's tough on the janitors," Casey says.

The commitment to detail is one trait that made Casey an ideal choice to guide the fledgling program. It helps that he comes from one of Oregon's great sports families - his brother, Pat, is the baseball coach at Oregon State - and that he grew up a few blocks from the George Fox campus in Newberg.

Chris and Pat were ballboys for the last George Fox football team before the school dropped the sport. Chris remembers drying a football for Charlie James, a running back who had a tryout with the Chargers, on a day when James ran for 216 yards.

Another Casey brother, Brian - now the Newberg police chief - was a ring bearer in the wedding of George Fox's only NFL draft pick, a defensive lineman named Bob Hadlock who was chosen by the Lions in 1969.

"Back then you didn't have (televised) college football on weekends," Pat Casey said. "You got to see one NFL game on TV, never saw a college game, really. That was our big time. That was our football heaven."

Financial difficulties, coupled with a lack of on-field success, prompted George Fox to cut the sport in 1969. In the intervening years, the school developed a reputation as a cradle of coaches; Pat Casey and Scott Rueck, Oregon State's women's basketball coach, both came from George Fox, prompting Taylor to joke that he runs the Beavers' "coaching development program."

Still, Taylor couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing.

"Saturday afternoon, home football on a college campus," said Taylor, George Fox's A.D. since 1988. "There's just something - well, you know, because you're in Eugene. There's something about that kind of energy."

With Taylor's encouragement, the school's board of trustees began considering reinstatement in 2002 and voted to approve it 2010. Taylor estimates he received between 75 and 100 applications for the head coaching position, but Chris Casey was the name he'd always kept in the back of his mind.

Leaving Aloha High School, where he'd coached since 2004, wasn't easy for Casey. Finally, with Pat's encouragement, he accepted.

"It's exciting, exhilarating, to put our stamp on this thing," Chris said. "The college, as you can see by the facilities and the commitment they're putting in, they don't want to just do it. They want to do it right."

Casey has the same mentality. Even with powerhouse Linfield College, Casey's alma mater, playing in the same conference, the goal of winning championships is central to everything he does.

The challenge sank in when Casey showed up for his first day of work in January 2013 and realized he didn't even have a pad of stationary that said "George Fox football." There was no vestige of the program that existed 45 years ago, no piece of infrastructure that didn't need rebuilding.

Casey's first task was to hire a staff and start recruiting. Though D-III schools don't offer athletic scholarships, Casey was able to assemble a class that would spend its first year - a "zero year," in the language of start-up programs - practicing and training on campus.

With the addition of a second recruiting class this fall, the roster will approach 120 players. There are a handful of upperclassmen, but no veterans.

Matt Miller, a linebacker from Bend, is one of those upperclassmen, having come to George Fox two years ago to play baseball. That didn't work out, but he decided to stick around when he heard Casey was coming to launch a football program.

"I played for him at Aloha for one year, so I was really excited," Miller said. "I guess it's weird that I'm an upperclassmen, only having one year of football."

The Bruins are determined not to use inexperience as an excuse, even if an obvious gap exists between George Fox and its more established opponents.

During his first meeting with the team last year, Casey asked players if any knew of a rule saying they had to behave like a first-year program. No hands went up, of course, and the Bruins have adopted that as their mantra.

Casey knows respect must be earned, which is why a part of him cringes at the publicity his program has received. George Fox paid for 17 billboards across the state, touting the return of Bruin football everywhere from Roseburg to Medford to the tiny community of Knappa.

The campaign was part of a broader strategy to market the university through football, which Casey understands. When talking to his players, though, he reminds them that they haven't done anything yet to merit the attention.

"We've got new fields and new helmets and new jerseys, all these billboards all over the state," Casey said. "I said, 'We really haven't earned this stuff, guys.'

"I'd rather earn something and then get it rather than get it before you earn it. We've got to earn it."

With kickoff less than two weeks away, excitement is building in Newberg, a town of 22,000 that feels further from the Portland suburbs than it actually is. Brian Casey gets questions about the football team almost everywhere he goes: the Kiwanis club, the school board, the hospital and anywhere else that warrants a visit from the town constable, everyone wondering what he's hearing about the team.

If people start getting ahead of themselves, Brian will remind his brother that one win is all he'll need to be George Fox's most successful football coach in 45 years.

They laugh, because they both know Chris doesn't think that way.

The passion from the community reminds Chris why he took on the challenge of restarting the program. The Bruins drew roughly 500 people to a team dinner before the start of camp, including several football alums who played in the 1960s. They still had the letter announcing the decision to drop the program.

"A couple of those guys came and talked to me, and they were crying," Casey said. "It meant so much to them. They're so emotional about football coming back."

It seems as if the whole town will be in the stands when the Bruins open their season 13 days from now. Pat Casey was invited to Hawaii for a booster trip that weekend - all expenses paid, him and the whole family - but turned it down, realizing that first kickoff is a once-in-45-years experience.

"I said, 'Listen: I've got to be at George Fox on Saturday watching that first game, and that's where I'm going to be,'" Pat said. "I'm telling Chris he owes me a big, tall cold one after the game."

Chris' parents, Fred and Bev, will be there, too. They no longer live in the house down the street from the stadium, but they're only a mile or so away, along with four other Casey kids who reside in Yamhill County.

That first college football Saturday always stirs something in the soul, but after 45 years, this one will be extra special. For the first time since they were kids, the Caseys will be together at a George Fox football game, enjoying their little piece of heaven.

If all goes well, they'll even have a place to sit.

Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email austin.meek@registerguard.com.
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Title Annotation:Austin Meek
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 24, 2014
Words:1559
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