Defending Football: Robert Casciola

 

Writer Tom Scanlon
Photographer Bryan Black

These days, Archie Manning is best known as the sire of two of the NFL’s great quarterbacks: Peyton, the record setter and future Hall of Famer; and his little brother, Eli, a two-time Super Bowl MVP. Old-timers will remember Archie as a pretty good quarterback himself, the charming gunslinger with the horrible, yet beloved New Orleans Saints. They were known as the “Aints” (as in, “ain’t no good”) when Archie was running from barely-blocked defenders back in the 1970s.

Before heading south to New Orleans, Archie was the star quarterback of the University of Mississippi. At Ole Miss, the speed limit on campus is 18 mph, in honor of Archie’s old jersey number.

These days, Archie doesn’t think as much about wins and losses or long touchdown passes; instead, he ponders about the people who have colored his life in America’s favorite sport.

“The greatest thing about football,” he said, from his home in New Orleans, “is the friendships.”

The common interest of celebrating and promoting football has formed one long-lasting friendship, bringing together this drawling, self-deprecating Southerner and a Princeton-educated Yankee named Robert Casciola. They met when Archie was selected to the College Football Hall of Fame — Casciola was then the director of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.

“We became friends, and I stayed on the board,” Archie said.

Years after Casciola helped celebrate Archie’s college glory days, ol’ number 18 returned the favor. Archie was part of the tribute when former player, coach and executive Casciola became the 2017 honoree of the Ivy Football Association. A dinner was held to honor Casciola and other Ivy greats in late January. His speech was a hit and, according to a tweet from the Ivy League, received a standing ovation.

A few weeks before receiving the award, Casciola was talking over coffee in Cave Creek, near his North Scottsdale home, when his phone rang. After flipping open his phone for a quick chat, he apologized for the interruption.

“Friend of mine from New Jersey,” Casciola said, with a smile. “He’s coming to the dinner.”

Just like Archie, the friends he has made are most important to Casciola’s football legacy. Indeed, the word “friend” takes a multi-level meaning here.

“There hasn’t been anyone more loyal or a better friend to college football than Bob Casciola,” the late Joe Paterno, Hall of Fame coach, once said.

While they consider each other friends, Archie Manning and Bob Casciola both consider the game itself to be a close companion. In recent years, they have read headlines and watched news stories in anguish, as football has been vilified. Concussions and CTE — a horrible brain disease that has been associated with repeated, sub-concussive (head hits that don’t cause concussions) blows — linked to professional, college and even high school football has alarmed the nation, and put a beloved sport in danger.

With their good old friend football hurting, the likes of Casciola and Manning have become defenders.

The greatest thing about football, is the friendships.

“We’ve had to do that,” Archie said, “because we have been under attack — football’s been under attack.

“I think we have a safer game than we did five years ago,” he added, flashing his defensive stripes. “I’m proud of that.”

A few hours after Clemson upset Alabama for the national championship, Casciola wholeheartedly agreed.

“If you turned the game on last night, you saw a great football game, but football is in trouble,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure, even on little league football. A lot of parents don’t want their kids to get involved in football, so to promote it is very important. I saw what we call the good in the game. There is a definite need to make sure kids go on and have the chance to play this great game.”

Though he also dipped his toe into professional basketball, and had quite a career as a banking executive, Casciola said just about everything he has done stems from football. From 1955 to 1957, he studied at Princeton University and played football under Hall of Fame coaches Charlie Caldwell and Dick Colman. In 1957, he was voted All-Ivy as a tackle. From 1958 to 1978, he was a coach at Princeton, Connecticut and Dartmouth (as an assistant to another Hall of Fame coach, Bob Blackman). He was an executive at First Fidelity Bank of New Jersey from 1978 to 1987, and left as senior vice president. He was executive vice president and chief operating officer for the New Jersey Nets between 1987 and 1992, and from 1991 to 2004, was at the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame, first as an executive director, then as president.

Even the sidetrack into the NBA stemmed from a football connection, he recalled with a chuckle. Yes, the game has been good to Casciola and his family. Bob and Janet, his high school sweetheart and wife for 58 years, started as Arizona snowbirds before becoming full-timers a few years ago. They enjoy visiting their four children (and seven grandchildren), who are spread out around the country.

You won’t find this humble man boasting of his achievements, though the Ivy League award wasn’t Casciola’s first honor. The National Football Foundation honored him in 2004 with the Distinguished American Award.

“As an All-Ivy League football player, a college football coach, a TV commentator, a pro basketball administrator and, for the last 13 years, with the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame, Casciola has met the highest standards of our country and our sport,” the program noted. He was introduced at the award ceremony by sports artist Ted Watts, who looked at Casciola and said, “I think your most admirable trait is to have faith and vision beyond the chalk marks of a football sideline.”

Previous winners of the Distinguished American Award include Vince Lombardi and Pete Rozelle, two names from a time when football seemed like an innocent pleasure — hardly something to be scorned and spurned. These days, the dangers of football are coming to light.

“I wouldn’t argue with that,” Casciola said. “Sure, there are risks involved, but if it has the possibility to be used to get an education, the benefits far outweigh the injury part of it.”

He proudly points to a grandson, William Twyman, a Brown University linebacker who was named to the All-Ivy team.

“And most important, made Academic All-Ivy,” Casciola added.

Whether Twyman makes it to the NFL or not, his Ivy League education will open many doors for him, just as it did for his grandfather.

“All I care about,” Casciola said, his voice firm in defense of a great friend, “is preserving this game for what it’s done for so many. The good in the game made me.”

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