They say the tales of the Jersey Legends are real... so let us tell you a story about the one who goes by the name of Jonathan Casillas . From going undrafted to not 1 but 2 Super Bowl rings, the New Brunswick native takes over the football field when he steps on the turf. (side note, make sure highlight reel includes football games, charity work, LB camps, read across America).
But, the question is... what happens when the lights go out and the stadium empties? That's a Jonathan Casillas you don't often hear about. The one who has battled doubts about his own capabilities. But, that's also the same Jonathan Casillas who write that very draft date on his hand to remind himself to continue pushing forward. He emphasized that it somehow became the best and worst day of his life. It was the first day he questioned whether or not he was good enough. He then went on to sign with the New Orleans Saints and later, the New York Giants.
"I felt like everything I put into football was coming to fruition on draft day so I thought... And then for me to not get a phone call until the late 6th round and then for me to not get drafted, that was a heartbreaking type of experience but at the same time, it helped me get a chip on my shoulder... It put things into perspective like sometimes you can work as hard as you possibly can. You can do all the right things and still get the short end of the stick."
Casillas then went on to explain how he had the option of choosing between teams, he chose to go with the New Orleans Saints. "I was able to pick between a couple of teams. That's the thing when you don't get drafted, if you have any suitors, you can pick... I ended up going to the Saints. History was made. We won the Super Bowl XLIV that year and it's the only Super Bowl in NOLA history and I'd like to say I was a little part of that."
There were a lot of memorable moments and every veteran has their favorite memories after being in the NFL for nearly a decade. When we asked Casillas about his favorite things, he didn't respond with anything spectacular he'd done or with two Super Bowl rings he owns; instead, it was moments when his daughter would run up to him after a defeat.
“A lot had to do with my daughter. I love my family being at the games. She remembers the Giants days, me being the captain and the hometown team. We had some tough seasons playing for the Giants and i hate losing. To have my daughter there after the games, it helped me get through that. Like i said football means a lot and winning is everything. It cures a lot, you feel fine when you win but when you lose, it’s really hard. I just remember some losses and some wins, just seeing my daughter and her saying certain things to me like ‘It’s okay daddy, I still love you so much.'"
He continued to reminisce and tell stories of how he would often spend some time with the kids who would be on the sidelines. Several times, he would walk up to the kids who retrieved the T when they kicked off, and congratulated the youngsters on their performance. Jonathan Casillas explained how a player's actions can make a child's day by giving them some attention and praise, which leads us to the Forward Progress Camp, established eight years ago with Laurie Lazovick. Woodrow Wilson Elementary School guidance counselor Laurie Lazovick was his academic coach from freshman year through high school. Through community service initiatives, the two built a strong relationship and brought the Forward Progress Camp to life.
"We created my camp 9 years ago because I wanted to do something specific to me, something that I can put my name on and i didn’t want it to be a traditional regular football camp. Those camps are amazing, especially the ones that are run the right way. I wanted to be more than just a football camp. That was like our slogan “more than just football.'" The mission of the camp is to provide kids with an environment that will teach them how to dream big, work hard and never give up on themselves. There are a lot of fundamental football activities incorporated with life lessons and academic resources. The camp will resume this summer on June 11th as the board of directors attempts to discover alternatives to cope with Covid while simultaneously broadening the camp nationwide starting with the tri-state area.
Casillas extends talks of mentoring skills further with Forward Progress, which includes Read Across America under the canopy. The campaign to stress the value of reading for children will be a year-round effort in which he will tour 1 or 2 schools each month. He recalled how draining it was to visit 15 schools in a week and how complicated it was due to travel and scheduling.
"I had to change my whole schedule around to do it so what I'm going to do instead is to make it a year long initiative so it's not just Read Across America for Dr. Seuss' birthday. Reading is important everyday... We will tour 1 or 2 schools a month and hit a lot of places in Jersey and then make frequent visits back to these schools to check progress. Not only will we have these readings but we will also hold group discussions about being grateful, being respectful, and being kind to people."
The theme of this year's campaign was "Kindness," and kids were pleased to be able to express what they felt they did was kind. At his daughter's school, Casillas encourages pupils from kindergarten to eighth grade to come up and speak. He wants to continue spreading the love by offering hope, as well as helping people realize their potential.
Jonathan's devotion to the youth is enhanced by his being a father. While most would consider it a full-time job, Jonathan has a different perspective on it. Jonathan begins by stating that his daughter is his greatest friend, implying how much their bond has strengthened during recent years.
"She's like my little midget friend. She looks like me, a little cuter than me, maybe has a little bit more style than I have. She def has the was. She's my partner in crime, she's very mature especially for such a young girl and she's very independent, more than I was when I was that age."
He continues on with so much pride as he speaks about how proud he is and how parental guidance may be the key to a brighter future with the younger generation.
"She's a special kid and I am honored to be her dad. Fatherhood means everything and being a girl dad means everything. I think our youth in general can push boundaries and break down barriers that we don't even know exist. They're in a different time. They're so much more advanced technology wise."
After ten years, Casillas was attempting to figure out what else he was passionate about and how to improve from there as he prepared to retire. Cannabis was a popular topic among many things, especially because it looked like a hot economic bargain in 2017-18, when everyone started getting the buzz about cannabis and living in Jersey. It was always talked about. He was more immersed in thinking about how he could do it and yet remain distinct. What he really wanted to do was make it about health and well-being. Cannabis has had a bad reputation for over a century, and minorities, rape, murder, and other serious narcotics have been unfairly linked with it for so long and now it's legalized for recreational use in the Garden State. His main goal was to continue to push the envelope forward in terms of the stigma that has plagued this community for so long. He wanted to concentrate on the athletes and develop goods that were suited only for them. Casillas was originally working with CBD, but because New Jersey has legalized it, he's linked up with a firm called Clade 9 who just submitted an application to grow the process in Plainfield, NJ. He is the Head of the Social Equity Department, which is related to Forward Progress and all of his other community work, basically linking all his endeavors into one. Jade's Garden is Jonathan's personal brand, which he says will take a little longer because he is a perfectionist, therefore he'll be moving slowly with Jade's Garden but working with Clade 9 will provide him not only leverage but also momentum and expertise to launch his own individual brand.
"The way they put their licenses up in Jersey, they put a heavy emphasis on social equity and also minorities. Me being apart of this company, I check a lot of those boxes and of course, I’m a New Jersey resident. Just like I do with Forward Progress, I really want to get after this social equity, I really want to provide a lot of jobs and opportunities for people that look like me and come from places that I come from."
Even after his retirement as a professional footballer, Jonathan Casillas has not taken his foot off the gas. He's using his experience and expertise to expand on his mission towards making the community better. He is a man of his word, an outstanding father figure, and a worker when it comes to building his business empire. The Jersey Legend is all in when it comes to changing the game for the youth.