“It’s okay to cry, but you have to get over it, and get on with your life,” said New York Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas. He talked about success and disappointment during an appearance as the Golden Door Charter School on March 2.
Although he had come back to Jersey City to take part in the National Read Across America Day, Casillas spoke a lot about his own struggles to escape poverty, a success story that later allowed him to play for two Super Bowl championship teams, and recently resulted in his signing a $10 million contract with the New York Giants.
Read Across America Day, which falls on or around Dr. Seuss’s birthday on March 2, encourages more than 45 million readers, both young and old, to pick up and read. Schools and other public places throughout the nation hold sessions similar to this in order to promote reading.
But Casillas also brought lessons about his own life to the school.
Escaping ‘The Hood’
Reading from Dr. Seuss’s “The Places You’ll Go,” Casillas talked about loneliness and the need for kids to stand up for themselves, relating these lessons to his own life. Casillas attended public elementary schools in Jersey City.
“I started out at PS 42 near Five Corners,” he said. “That school isn’t there anymore. I also went to PS 23 and PS 26.”
Later, he went to schools elsewhere in New Jersey before attending the University of Wisconsin.
He asked the students if they knew where Wisconsin was, and a few did, but he connected with those that didn’t, saying until he got there, he hadn’t known either.
“When I got there, I didn’t know anybody. I was far away from home. I eventually made friends, and I was part of the football team. But when I got there I was alone. I had to trust in myself.”
He said part of his inspiration was watching his mother struggle to raise five kids. He and his family started out struggling and on welfare, and his mother began to work hard to get them out of “the hood.”
“She worked jobs with no benefits. She was dedicated and worked hard. While I work hard in football, I can’t compare to parents like her who have to raise five kids.”
Being ‘big’ and listening to your parents and teachers
Some of the students asked him what he did growing up and whether he was rich. He laughed, and said he did chores at home at and in school.
“Do you still have chalk boards?” he asked, and then went on to talk about how he would clean chalk boards and take out trash to help at school, and at home, did similar chores, including taking out the trash, washing dishes and picking up dog waste.
“You have to live with yourself, and need to respect yourself.” – Jonathan Casillas
“Sure I had a dog, whose pooh would I be picking up if I didn’t?” he said, then on a serious note, talked about two rules he has tried to get his own five year old daughter to live by: listen to parents and teachers, and act like a big girl.
“I guess in your case here, this would mean acting like big kids,” he said. “You have to live with yourself, and need to respect yourself. This also means showing respect for others and listening to your parents and teachers who have your best interests at heart.”
Making the best of a bad situation
Casillas went on to talk about one of the most difficult moments in his football career, and how he’d expected to be drafted relatively high up in the National Football League college football draft.
He threw a party in anticipation, but as the hours ticked by, he realized he had not been drafted, and people at the party started to wander away.
“I admit I cried,” he said. “It was difficult. It was a big blow. But instead of feeling sorry for myself, I sucked it up and took this as an opportunity.”
Because nobody had signed him, he was free to approach any team he wished, and eventually signed on with the New Orleans Saints.
“The situation became my teacher,” he laughed. “I didn’t get a lot of money. But I worked hard. I was a kid from Jersey City. I kept thinking of what my family might say. I believed in myself. After my first year on the team, we won the Super Bowl.”
Later, after being traded to the New England Patriots, Casillas won a second Super Bowl ring in 2015.
“This was a lesson. It’s okay to cry. But you have to get over it, and then get on with your life,” he said. “You have to face your fears, and be brave. I think I was brave. But I worked hard, too.”
Students from the charter school threw other questions at him, including some oddball questions as to whether he was as tough as boxing legend Mike Tyson.
“At my age and his, it’s debatable,” Casillas said, laughing. “But I won’t get into a fight with him.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.