“We bounced around a lot back then,” said Casillas, who is the son of Jersey City courtyard basketball legend Flash Gordon. “The crazy thing is that I wasn’t even interested in football back then. It was all basketball for me.”
Casillas had two older siblings who had already established themselves as basketball players: Travis Conyers, who played basketball for legendary Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley at St. Anthony, and his sister Erica Holmes, who played basketball at Ferris.
Casillas was already playing basketball in the Jersey City Recreation leagues, under the watchful eye of his father, who worked for Jersey City Recreation, as well as the league at the Boys and Girls Club downtown.
“I lived on Washburn Street back then, a half block away from Hudson Gardens,” Casillas recalled. “There was a league where all the projects in Jersey City would play each other. I played for Hudson Gardens.”
No question, Casillas was strongly influenced by his father, who was known from schoolyard to schoolyard, gym to gym, in Jersey City. Gordon was able to dribble the basketball like no other and make trick shots that would amaze everyone.
“My dad always had a good handle with the ball,” Casillas said. “No one could ever take the ball from him. I learned a lot about playing from Flash. I remember watching him play in an organized game. He was very competitive and a good shooter.”
So as Casillas reached his teen years, he aspired to be like his famous father.
“I could handle the ball,” Casillas said. “I played guard like him. When I was playing basketball, I was good. For sure, if I stayed in Jersey City, I would have gone to St. Anthony and played for Hurley. It’s what every kid in Jersey City wants to do.”
From Court to Field
However, it wasn’t meant to be. Casillas moved with his mother to New Brunswick, and his athletic life took a radical turn.
“I was a very skilled kid, so I picked up football pretty quickly,” Casillas said. “My main focus switched.”
While in New Brunswick, Casillas joined a youth program called the New City Kids.
“We were taught a lot of stuff,” Casillas said. “We learned about the Bible and learned about life lessons. It was good for me. I learned how to care for others, learned how to have a sense of responsibility. I learned a lot of that from my Jersey City youth program. The New City Kids program helped to shape me into what I am today.”
Casillas said that New City Kids, which was based then at Five Corners on Pavonia Avenue, but now occupies space at 240 Fairmount Ave., put him on the right track to becoming a solid adolescent and a caring young man.
“It’s very much guided by the Bible, with the lessons the Bible teaches,” Casillas said. “New City Kids always tries to give back.”
It’s how Casillas became extremely giving of his free time, beginning during his days as a football player at New Brunswick High School, then the University of Wisconsin and eventually a player in the National Football League.
“I always want to do things that involve kids,” Casillas said. “I try to go to the little kids, like ages 7 to 8, to deliver a message to them.”
Casillas’s program includes students at Woodrow Wilson School in New Brunswick, but he also deals with students from the Golden Door Charter School in downtown Jersey City.
“I stress the importance of education,” Casillas said. “It’s how I got where I am today.”
Casillas also worked with the Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick.
“Seeing those kids really touches your heart,” Casillas said.
Casillas said that the first patient he met was a 15-year-old victim of a gunshot wound.
“What can you say to him?” Casillas said. “Those kids are just appreciative to see a Giants player. You can tell them a joke and then pose for a picture. They appreciate it.”
Casillas is also involved with the ShopRite food drive and Special Olympics, but a certain program is near and dear to him.
Casillas’s main cause is called the Forward Progress Camp in New Brunswick. Every year, Casillas hosts a camp for 200 youngsters that starts with instructional classroom sessions about various facets of life. The camp, the fourth annual, was held in June.
“This is my baby, my main charity,” Casillas said. “We talk to the kids about several different things. This year, we had six different life skills courses in the morning.”
Casillas had police officers who work in the DARE program talk about drug awareness. Instagram sensation Renny talked about social media and bullying.
In the afternoon, Casillas then took to the field for the second part of his camp, football skills, with a little help from Giants teammate Mark Herzlich and Casillas’s former teammate with the New Orleans Saints, Jonathan Vilma, the former New York Jets standout.
“I know what it’s like to grow up in certain situations,” Casillas said. “If there’s a kid who is in need of guidance, I bring him aside and talk real talk, like special one-on-one.”
Needless to say, Casillas knows the importance of giving back to the community, including the place of his birth and his residence for the first 12 years of his life, Jersey City.
“I’m blessed,” said Casillas, who is now 30 and entering his ninth season as an NFL player and his third with the Giants. “I’m not giving away money. I give of my time and my effort. I realized when I played with the Saints that giving of your time in community service is valuable. Especially with kids, they’re glued to everything you do.”
Casillas said that he truly appreciates what he has. He knows that the football portion of his life could end at any second, but the philanthropy and generosity will remain.
On the Field
Casillas is excited about the 2017 season.
“We have a lot of guys, especially on this defense, who have played a lot of football,” Casillas said. “Guys like Snacks (Damon Harrison), DRC (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul), (Olivier) Vernon, all of these guys are older and all contributed in a big way last year. I think we have a motivated and confident bunch, from the leadership on down to the players. We didn’t finish as strong as we would have liked last year and left a lot of meat on the bone. That’s our motivation for this year.”
The Giants won 11 games last year, the highest win total in a season since they won 12 games in 2008, taking the Eastern Division title. But the Giants lost in the NFL Wild Card game to Green Bay, 38-13.
Casillas registered a career-high in tackles last year with 96, second on the team to Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins, who had 125.
It’s part of the reason why the Giants elected Casillas as the defensive team captain.
“It’s very humbling,” Casillas said. “All these guys receive the highest of accolades, and they chose me to be their captain. I understand the weight of that, the responsibility that comes with it. I understand the Giants pride and the culture. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, help the younger guys out, helping the community.”
Giants head coach Ben McAdoo knows Casillas’s importance to the team.
“He’s always had a big role with this team,” McAdoo said. “And he’s going to continue to have one this season. He has a lot of experience now. He enjoys paying it forward, giving back to the community, helping the younger guys out. That’s what you want from a veteran leader. That’s what you want from your captain.”
As training camp began in August, Casillas seemed ready to get it all going, perhaps having the best year of his career.
“I’m home, both literally and figuratively,” Casillas said. “I’ve been living in New Jersey my whole life and I’m acclimated to living here all year round. I love getting the chance to return home to Jersey City. I’m just trying to do all the right things, and now it all feels like second nature.”—JCM