In the News

From ‘best town ever,’ Jared Casey learned a secret amid his improbable rise to KU hero

Kansas City Star | Vahe Gregorian

PLAINVILLE, KANSAS About 300 miles northwest of Kansas City, across amber waves of grain and endless sky, past the wind turbines on Interstate 70 and oil derricks on U.S. Route 183, this remote village at the head of Paradise Creek abruptly was cast into the national spotlight the last few days.

Because of a story that is life-affirming in countless ways, including a profound one that had been a secret for 20 years … and that we’ll come back to.

More publicly, in the aftermath of the exhilarating tale of Kansas freshman walk-on Jared Casey’s overtime catch to beat Texas on Saturday, enhanced by the enchanting extra dimension of the viral video of his parents’ reaction, ESPN and Fox Sports swooped into town on Wednesday. And, really, who could resist this story about a place that Jared’s mother, Karen, calls “the best town ever” and the spine-tingling, indelible moment it produced?

“It’s a happy story, but it’s not specifically about us or Jared,” said Jared’s father, Jerry, noting that as part of a team of 120 players Jared’s role was one/120th of the effort. “It’s about (how) in the turmoil we’re in, not only in this country but in this world, it’s just a feel-good story … that just worked out in kind of a fairy tale ending.”


The ripples extend all over, from headlines across the nation to the Applebee’s commercial Jared taped the other day in Lawrence. And surely in the universal lessons of striving and readiness reverberating from the young man who had never taken an offensive snap at KU before Saturday playing a key part in the Jayhawks first conference road win since 2008 — in a matchup coach Lance Leipold aptly called a victory for David over a lavishly funded Goliath of superstar recruits.

Small wonder that Grant Stephenson, the Plainville High football coach who also taught Jared in religion and leadership, felt goosebumps break out and got “a little teary-eyed” and had trouble sleeping after learning what happened on Saturday. He felt some of that surge again Wednesday as he considered what it meant to “little ol’ Plainville” and reckoned that “the rest of America, too, seems to be pretty excited about it.”

And no wonder that in Washington, D.C., U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, has been stopped dozens of times about “the kid from that small town” … a town few knew was Moran’s own hometown. That helped compel his congratulatory call to Jared, whose past exploits he had tracked through his subscription to the Plainville Times.

Not only is it special for Jared, Moran said in a phone interview, but “I’ve seen where it’s been said that sorrow is diminished in a small town, because it’s shared, and glory is everyone’s victory. And so the thing about when a kid from Plainville, Kansas, does this kind of spectacular thing, it’s something that adds … a realization that what we have in a place like Plainville is special.

“It affirms that we’re doing something right in the way we raise our kids and that good things can happen no matter where you come from. So there’s a kind of American dream story in this.”


In this case, the dream starts in a place where the Caseys are getting a few extra honks when someone passes their now-famous 2010 Kia Sedona minivan (264,000 miles and counting) that they drove to Austin … and were getting ready to saddle back up to Fort Worth for Kansas’ game at Texas Christian on Saturday.

It’s a place where several store windows on West Mill Street were decorated with drawings in tribute to Jared and “Plainville Proud” by elementary school students. A place where, during his interview in Lawrence on Wednesday, Jared made sure to send a shout out to the Short Stop convenience store and give endorsements to Cardinal Drive-In and B & B’s Restaurant.

It’s a place where Kansas State basketball coach Jack Hartman used to coach football and where there’s one flashing yellow light through town and where really just about everybody knows everybody.

By way of example, the first person we randomly bumped into on the street, J.J. Johnson, a self-described jack of all trades for Palmer Lighting, said he jumped off the couch on Saturday (even with his wife, Traci, leaning on him) when Jared made the catch. He started screaming, “That was Jared, that was Jared!” “Oh my God, we were ecstatic,” said Johnson, whose wife taught Jared in third grade at Sacred Heart Grade School and started crying. The small Kansas town of Plainville is bursting with pride about Jared Casey’s big game last weekend for the Kansas Jayhawks in their upset at Texas.

Emblematic of a way of life he calls “like a big, giant extended family,” he smiled and added that Karen Casey had been his daughter’s daycare provider and considers her “like a second mom to my daughter.”

It’s also a place, alas, contending with what Moran called “a way of life that struggles to survive.” As the wind rustled by a number of shuttered storefronts Wednesday on Mill Street, the scene was reminiscent of images from “The Last Picture Show,” set in north Texas. “We’ve got farming, and we’ve got oil,” said Jerry Casey, who works for Western Cooperative Electric and is a longtime football and basketball official.

“But (when kids graduate), there’s really no jobs here for them to come back to.” Just like his fondest wish is that the victory over Texas primes the pump for more ahead for KU, though, he hopes all this attention on Plainville will spur people to think “maybe it’s not a bad place to relocate to. Or to put a small business.”


Perhaps foretelling some of what was to create this buzz for Plainville, the first time Karen met her future husband was before a football game when she was a cheerleader at Bazine High, southwest of Hays. She was helping organize concessions that night when he brought in caramel apples on behalf of the family.

“And I was, like, ‘Whoa, I’ll take those apples from you,’ ” she recalled, laughing. Even if she didn’t say the “whoa” part out loud, that was the spark that led to them soon starting to date. The delightful couple has been married 37 years now and equally proud of all seven of the children (ranging in age from 36 to 20) they raised in their four-bedroom house. Their other two sons still live in Plainville, where the oldest boy, Justin, is an assistant football coach.

Jared is the youngest, and like his siblings has thrived in various ways. He was valedictorian of his high school class of 40 students, using most of his speech to cast light on others, and an accomplished athlete: Competing in Class 1A, he was a three-time all-state football player who rushed for more than 2,000 yards. “Jared made coaching easy … He always had a good attitude, and he always made good decisions,” said Stephenson, who also taught him in leadership and religion classes.

In track, he excelled in discus and shot put. In basketball, his father said, Jared was the Northwest Kansas player of the year and, perhaps not surprisingly, enjoyed some moments of last-second success.

Like that time in the waning seconds of a game that he swished a 3-pointer from the corner as he fell out of bounds, his parents recalled. But for all the thousands of shots he took in their driveway, in the wind and the snow and the rain and the dark, Jared figured you don’t see many 5-foot-11, 240-pound guards at good basketball schools.

So football was his top option. He had offers from several Division II schools but chose a preferred walk-on opportunity at Kansas because he “bleeds KU,” as his father put it.


Now, his moment is infused in the blood of KU, where Jared figures the ball he caught belongs not to him but to the program and knows he has to move on from this surreal experience. Still, his catch from Jalon Daniels will always be part of KU lore and part of an improbable journey.

Including the part that his parents had wanted to tell him for years but never could quite say, the part about what happened 20 weeks into Karen’s pregnancy with him 20 years ago when she was 36. Tests indicated the baby had what Karen Casey said was a 75 to 80 percent chance of having trisomy 18, a dire genetic disorder.

According to Children’s Mercy Kansas City’s website, “Most babies with trisomy 18 die in the first few days or weeks of life, even with invasive medical interventions.”

Karen was devastated, and Jerry said his heart sunk to his boots when she told him that their baby would probably only live a week or two. Soon, though, he told her the tests could be wrong and that they otherwise had to keep their faith in God. He urged her on in the dark moments, and she believed as hard as she could.

Still, when they went in for her Caesarean section, she said, “I was so scared.” On July 15, 2001, in the minutes after Jared was delivered at 10 pounds 7 ounces and 22 inches long, as Karen was being attended to, Jerry was riveted to the nurses and doctor as they evaluated the baby. Moments later, the doctor looked at Jerry. He gave him a thumbs up. Karen couldn’t see that.

So Jerry leaned over and said, “Everything’s OK.” She started crying. Then he kissed her … and then he “probably” started crying, too, he said with a smile.

One way or another, all of that figured in the pure emotion captured in the video. It also came on a day when Karen also had been struck by a child who approached them outside the stadium before the game and said “believe … believe … believe” before disappearing into the crowd.

Despite the fact he was in Longhorn gear, she embraced the message so strongly that she was clinging to the word in the crucible of overtime. She hopes one day to somehow be able to convey her gratitude to him.

The indescribable range of emotions had become cathartic by Tuesday, when they were in Lawrence. All of a sudden, it was clear that this was the time to tell Jared the story of his birth — a story they told his siblings later that day and Wednesday. It was a reminder of all God has given them, Jerry said, and certainly another sort of measure of how far he’s come. Jared was stunned, and said, “Wow.” They said wow, too, and hugged him and kissed him. “‘And,’” Jerry said, “‘look at you now.’”

Another part of a fairy tale that will live on, especially in Plainville and Lawrence but with no boundaries, either. “I recognize this is a football game; it’s the catch of a pass,” Moran said. “But it is something that reminds us that we can achieve no matter where you come from.”