Monday, November 10, 2008
Courtesy of Steven Horn, Yale Sports Publicity
Casey Gerald could hardly wait to call his grandmother with the exciting news about his first exam at Yale.
"I called home and I said `Hey granny, I got a 98 on my Italian test,'" Gerald said. "She said, `Well, you know you could get a 100 next time.'"
For Gerald, 98 percent has never been good enough.
"You don't get rewarded for being the best. You don't get extra incentives for being the best. That's the bare minimum," Gerald said.
Gerald has lived his life making the best of the bare minimum. The three-year starting cornerback is a semifinalist for the Draddy Trophy, presented to college football's top scholar-athlete. He has applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. He will attend Harvard Business School as a member of the class of 2013. And he has earned the respect and admiration of his teachers, coaches and teammates.
Not bad for a guy who some believed would fail out of Yale.
Gerald has come a long way in life from being seen as Rod Gerald's kid during his days as an aspiring football player in his neighborhood of South Oak Cliff in Dallas, Texas.
People always expected Casey Gerald to follow in his father's footsteps. Rod Gerald played football at The Ohio State University and then spent a season with the Philadelphia Eagles. While Casey could relate to that, he did not want to be seen as the son of a man who had struggled much of his life with drugs.
"There is a saying that people either try to live up to their father's expectations or make up for their father's mistakes," Gerald said.
Gerald chose the latter and went one step further, constantly striving for perfection.
Growing up in what he described as "a typical inner-city neighborhood," Gerald was surrounded by problems ranging from drugs to crime to broken homes. But Casey called South Oak Cliff "an amazing community and an amazing neighborhood to grow up in."
Despite his parents being absent for a significant portion of his life due to problems with drugs, Gerald demanded the most out of himself from a young age. As a third grader with chicken pox, he remembered being disappointed by a B in math even though he had missed more than two weeks of class.
As a fifth grader at Robert L. Thornton Elementary School, Gerald said his attitude toward life changed thanks to teachers like Gwendolyn Davis and Demorris Vance.
"I had been doing well in school, and they saw that and they pushed it to the next level," Gerald said. "They talked in terms that bred confidence and the expectation level that you've got to do something special. You can't just be ordinary."
Even though Gerald had the option to attend one of the premier magnet schools in the Dallas area, he followed the family legacy and went to South Oak Cliff High School. While Gerald entered South Oak Cliff with 500 people at freshman orientation, he graduated with only half of those people four years later.
"I'll never forget my grandmother saying `The person makes the school. The school doesn't make the person,'" Gerald said. "I take great pride in graduating from South Oak Cliff and being a Golden Bear."
From an early age, Gerald saw football as a burden because people compared him to his father. Track and school were his havens away from the troubles that he associated with his home life and the neighborhood in which he lived.
"Football was just something I did to keep people happy, keep people off my back. Then I sort of came into my own and distanced myself from my dad. I found my little niche," Gerald said.
Gerald, who was the valedictorian of his class, always treated education as the most important part of his life.
"Academics were something that initially came from my sister," he said. "My sister was valedictorian of my high school in 2000. I set that same goal in the beginning of high school. To a certain degree academics weren't negotiable."
Brenda Cox, Gerald's AP Government teacher at South Oak Cliff, said that teachers recognized Gerald for being a special student.
"Casey was, in my opinion, my best student ever. He was self-assured, disciplined, self-motivated, a team player, goal-oriented, a natural leader. He could also make the class and the teacher laugh," Cox said. "When a young man in an inner-city school receives respect from not only adults but also all segments of the student body, you just know that something bigger awaits this person."
While academics were always at the forefront of Gerald's life, he began to see football as his tool to higher education and college as a place to continue playing football. As a freshman and sophomore in high school, Gerald prioritized his college choices based on football.
"The college education for me was obviously about getting a good degree and not about playing football forever, but definitely the choice of where to go to school was initially predicated around what the best football offer would be," Gerald said.
At that point in his life, Gerald did not know much about the Ivy League or Yale University. Yale had never recruited South Oak Cliff. But that all changed during his junior year when a recruiter from another college suggested that former Yale assistant coach Matt Dence take a look at Gerald.
"[Coach Dence] showed up the first day and I was like, `Who are you? What do you want?' My high school coaches were really excited and I was like, `Why are you all so excited? What is Yale? Who is that?' I wasn't impressed or interested," Gerald said. "People started talking about it and they were like `That's Yale. This is what it means.' I got the Yale booklet and started looking through it, and I thought `This actually may be a good college.'"
By the time his senior year came around, Gerald had narrowed his choices to Texas Christian, Virginia Military Institute and Yale. During his senior year, Gerald visited New Haven.
"I leave Dallas. It's 50 degrees. I have this big coat, and I get to New Haven and it's 10 degrees, and I was like `What in the world is this?' But then it started to really sink in. Coach [Larry] Ciotti says the first pass in modern football was thrown on this field. You go to this library and there's a Gutenberg Bible."
While Gerald was impressed, what pushed him to make his decision were the reactions from those back home - both positive and negative.
"What really put it over the edge was when I went back and people were saying, `You're really going to go to Yale?' And it starts to become like the second coming of Christ. People say `This is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to us.' Old people cried in church. People cried at signing day. Yale meant so much more to other people than it could ever mean to me, as much as it has meant to me."
But for all those who were excited about Gerald's chance to go to Yale, there were those who did not think he would make it.
"There was actually one teacher, an AP chemistry teacher, who said `That boy is going to go to Yale and be home by the end of the first semester. He's a crack baby. There's no way he's going to go to Yale and play football. There's no way he's going to go to Yale and graduate.'"
Gerald said the criticisms served as a motivating factor in the same way that the praise he received did.
"When I went home [these people] said `When are you coming back home? When are you going to transfer? When are you going to drop out?' There are probably still people there today who think I'm going to flunk out of school and end up somewhere on the street. That drives me as much as the people who are really excited about it."
Four years later Gerald is still a student at Yale and in no danger of failing out, as his 3.68 GPA, Draddy Trophy semifinalist status and Rhodes Scholarship candidacy prove. The transition to Yale was not an easy one for him, however.
"It was horrible," he said about the beginning of his Yale career. "I felt completely out of place. I never really considered dropping out an option as much as just staying and not enjoying it, since it was something that I had to do. I thought `I'll just go three or four years and be miserable. I'll get through it.'"
Kevin Littleton '07, who played cornerback and served as a mentor to Gerald on the field, said he tried to look after Gerald when he first came to Yale.
"Casey used to be shy, but it was really that he didn't know anybody yet and nobody knew him," Littleton said. "Casey was from a different area, so Yale was a culture shock. I tried to keep track of what was going on with him in school and life, and we ended up being tight."
On the field, Gerald came to Yale never having played cornerback before, but has now started since his sophomore year. He has excelled at the position, assistant head coach Tony Reno said.
"We knew he had the intangibles and the physical ability to play corner," Reno said. "He's grown into being one of the best corners in the Ivy League. He has the ability to shut down a receiver. Very rarely do you find a kid who can do what he can do in the pass game, who is very physical and can help in the run game."
As Gerald grew both on and off the field at Yale he became a leader on the team, at the school, and in the New Haven community.
"Casey is the best natural leader I've ever met," former teammate and team captain Brandt Hollander '08 said. "To see him on campus, he's like the mayor. Everybody comes up to him, shakes his hand and has something to say to him. He reaches out to young guys and people that might not be included and he always has a kind word for everyone."
In addition to excelling at football and athletics, Gerald along with teammate Jarrett Drake decided to form the Black Men's Union, a networking organization for men of color.
"My personal upbringing made me realize that you have a greater mandate than just to get ahead yourself," Gerald said. "There are problems on Yale's campus. There are problems in New Haven. You look at Urban America, and the problems are too many to count. Somebody has to make a difference. You can't expect government to do it. You can't wait for other people to do something about it. Why not you? And so, the Black Men's Union is a way to take guys on the Yale campus to another level."
Junior Rodney Reynolds, a teammate of Gerald's who serves on the Black Men's Union's executive board with him, described the Black Men's Union as an organization that promotes support and empowerment for black men on Yale's campus in addition to service to the community outside of Yale.
"The former tenet is in response to the disproportionate graduation rate of black men at Yale. Black men graduate at a 92 percent rate while Yale's general population graduation rate is 97 percent," Reynolds said. "Part of the vision of the BMU is to see that rate go up, and it is important to Casey that men support each other and feel a sense of community that would encourage that increase."
Former Yale baseball player Josh Cox '08, who served as the treasurer of the Black Men's Union, said the work of the organization is especially important to Gerald because of his freshman experience here at Yale.
"I think when Casey first came to Yale, he was uncomfortable and didn't feel like Yale was home for him," Cox said. "If the Black Men's Union had been around when he first came to Yale, it might have made his transition easier. That was one of the causes for him to start the organization. I think he understands that being at Yale makes you blessed."
But Gerald said the Black Men's Union is also a response to the typical problems of cultural organizations.
"I don't want to self-segregate," Gerald said. "The Black Men's Union had one of its most successful events with [the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon]. People were saying `What are you doing with a traditionally conservative Anglo fraternity? What purpose are you serving?' We have to realize there is only one human experience. And we can address problems alongside the Jewish center, alongside the Latino Center, and alongside the general population. We really are much more than a cultural group."
While Gerald has taken advantage of the many opportunities Yale has offered him, he has two primary focuses outside of academics.
"I have only committed myself to two things: The BMU and football. I only want to commit my time and energies to the organizations I'm willing to sacrifice for," Gerald said.
Gerald's sacrifices on the field include a memorable performance as a sophomore when he helped guide Yale to a victory in the Harvard game and an Ivy League Championship while playing the game with a broken hand.
"I remember Coach [Duane] Brooks had to buckle up my shoulder pads before the game because I couldn't do that myself. And the trainers had to buckle up my chin straps because I couldn't do it myself," Gerald said. "Seeing how much of a team effort it was just to have me play, one cornerback on the team. And Coach Brooks saying `You just being out there is going to make a difference.' That was one of the best feelings ever."
Not only did Gerald play in the game, but he also made an important breakup of a pass intended for Harvard receiver Corey Mazza to force a three-and-out and protect Yale's lead. Reno said Gerald's effort showed how tough a person he is.
"What he did in that Harvard game for our football team and our teammates was amazing," Reno said. "He not only played in that game, but he played at an unbelievably high level. He made a big play early in the game to knock down a ball that was headed to the coast. It really changed the momentum. If you didn't see the big cast on his wrist, you would have never known he was hurt."
From football at Yale, Gerald has learned about life. As a cornerback, Gerald said he understands that passes will be completed against you, but the cornerback must have a short memory at all times.
"First of all, I've learned the commitment and sacrifice that it takes to be a champion, Gerald said. "I keep repeating this and it comes from Coach Reno: you have to stay even keel. If you are a cornerback it's almost like life, going through a day every play. You can wake up in the morning and have a really good day. And you can wake up in the morning and have a really bad day. And that's the same thing at cornerback. It's built into your job description to get beat up sometimes. You are going to get beat in life, but you've got to know you are going to win more often than not. Football is so analogous to life that it's scary."
Many of Gerald's football lessons that relate to life come from Reno, whom Gerald credits with being an important influence.
"Looking back at it probably 20 years from now, Tony Reno may have had one of the biggest impacts of anyone in my life," Gerald said. "He's practically been like a father to me."
In addition to the education it has provided him on and off the football field, Yale has opened up other doors for Gerald. Before coming to Yale, Gerald had never heard of investment banking; he now has worked in the field each of the last two summers. While Gerald said he enjoyed the experience, he learned he does not want to do that for a living.
"I don't have an idea of what exactly I want to do, and I think that's because I want to do so much," Gerald said. "Whatever I do, I want to be able to make a difference. I feel that's the reason I'm here."
In two years, Gerald will attend Harvard Business School. He has been accepted into its 2+2 program, which gives him two years to explore other opportunities before starting school. Gerald has applied for a Rhodes Scholarship with an interest in philosophy and development studies. He will have an interview in November and winners will be announced on the spot.
"The Rhodes Scholarship would mean so much on so many levels," Gerald said. "To say that you went from being a product of urban America to being a citizen of the World. That's a personal journey that you can't really fathom until you live it. I hope to be a proof point that there is nothing in the world stopping someone from being the absolute best. Times may be hard. Your family might not be what you want it to be. Your upbringing may not be what you want it to be. But you can be whatever it is you want to be."
After growing up in the conditions he did, the statistics say Gerald's successes are stunning. High school teacher Brenda Cox said that Gerald defies the statistics.
"According to statistics, he should never have made it out of his neighborhood, let alone grace the halls of Yale," Cox said. "[Being] a child of parents who by all accounts failed did not deter Casey from developing the leadership skills he possesses. Casey refused to allow himself to be defeated by factors that were beyond his control. He knows that circumstances don't dictate his future."
Through his experiences at Yale, Gerald has gained a new perspective on what his grandmother said about the person making the school.
"Of course the person makes the school in terms of his or her experience, but in my experience it hasn't been me who has made my school," Gerald said. "People here have just gone above and beyond my expectation of a college. This is not simply a college. This is not simply an education. This is an experience. The Yale experience is one I don't think you can get anywhere else in the world."