Cassel's father is found dead

QB's availability for game in doubt

By Bob Hohler and Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / December 11, 2008
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SAN JOSE, Calif. - At 8:20 a.m. Tuesday, police and paramedics entered a mobile home in San Bernardino and discovered the body of Matt Cassel's father, Greg, a devastating trauma for Cassel's family and yet another shock to the Patriots.

Greg Cassel's death, at 57, threw into question whether his son will play Sunday against the Raiders in Oakland, a must-win game for the Patriots in their late-season push for a playoff berth. Cassel did not participate in practice yesterday at San Jose State University, leaving the team to be with his family in Southern California.

Coach Bill Belichick did not have a timetable for Cassel's return and did not say whether he expected Cassel would play Sunday.

"Right now, we are just taking it day to day," Belichick said. "He's going to take care of what he has to do."

A spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff-Coro ner's Department said the preliminary findings indicate Mr. Cassel, a former Hollywood script writer, died in his home of natural causes.

"At this point, we don't see any signs of trauma," Sandy Fadland said. "It appears to be a natural death."

She said the coroner will conduct more extensive tests before declaring the official cause. Greg Cassel had been recovering from major reconstructive shoulder surgery after being thrown by a horse he was training, but he otherwise appeared in good health in September during an interview with the Globe.

Funeral services for Cassel's father are scheduled for Monday in Granada Hills.

Belichick, whose father, Steve, died the night before a win over New Orleans in 2005, sympathized with his quarterback's loss.

"It's bigger than football," said Belichick. "I've been through that during the season as well, a personal situation you just have to deal with. Like I said, our thoughts and prayers are with him."

Cassel's teammates expressed similar sentiments of support and sorrow. "Matt is more than just a teammate to me," said running back Sammy Morris. "His loss is our loss."

Defensive end Richard Seymour, whose father, Richard Sr., took his own life as part of a murder-suicide in April 2004, said Cassel should be given as much time as he needs to grieve and that whether he decides to play against Oakland or not, the team is behind him.

"It's definitely a tough situation," said Seymour, who indicated he offered his condolences to Cassel yesterday during breakfast at the team hotel. "Some guys have done it and some haven't. It's a personal issue, and it's a personal choice. Whatever he chooses to do, we support him 100 percent. That's a [decision] that him and his family would have to make, but whatever he decides to do, we support him 100 percent."

If Cassel does not play, rookie Kevin O'Connell, a third-round pick out of San Diego State, would get the call.

Mr. Cassel spent his final months rooting for Matt and the Patriots, the walls of his home adorned with images of his children. His neighbors, most of them Latino immigrants, knew little about his sons. Some knew him only as the guy who put up a basketball hoop for the neighborhood kids. But many of them, like Belichick and the Patriots, mourned his passing.

"He was too young to go," said Barbara Gilden, who lived next door. "He was a wonderful person and a good friend to the children here. Everybody is very sad."

Though Cassel was raised by his mother, Barbara, after his parents divorced in 1996, his father was an early inspiration to him and his two brothers, and his father remained close to them until his death. When his sons were young, Mr. Cassel led them on horseback from their small ranch outside Los Angeles into the Santa Susana Mountains, where they marveled at the golden sunsets.

The rides, often physically challenging, were part of the father's life lessons for his boys. He coached them in sports until they were teenagers.

"I wanted to expand their consciousness so they knew they could achieve anything if they worked hard enough," Mr. Cassel told the Globe. "As they grew up, they all put in the work, and that's what's so beautiful."

Mr. Cassel was proud that his oldest son, Jack, is a pitcher for the Houston Astros. He was thrilled that Matt is the starting quarterback of the Patriots. And he was heartened that his youngest son, Justin, was an All-Star pitcher last season in the Double A Southern League for the Chicago White Sox. He also expressed pride in his daughter, Amanda, a senior at Long Beach State University.

Mr. Cassel was born Dec. 31, 1950, in Lubbock, Texas, the son of a decorated World War II bomber pilot who raised Arabian horses. Mr. Cassel played football for Monterey High School in Lubbock, then spent two years majoring in business at Texas Tech before he enrolled in the Ted Liss Studio for the Performing Arts in Chicago, where he met Barbara, his future wife.

In 1975, Mr. Cassel and Barbara moved to New York, where he studied for two years at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, whose alumni include Gregory Peck, Steve McQueen, and Robert Duvall. They were married at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue before they ventured west to launch their Hollywood careers, she as a set decorator, he as a writer.

Barbara Cassel eventually won an Emmy, while Mr. Cassel's career was rockier.

"I was pretty good at selling scripts that never got made," he said, "but I got paid."

He wrote for the television show "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," as well as for television movies produced by Steve Tisch, now president of the New York Giants.

By the 1990s, though, Mr. Cassel fell on hard times. The Cassels, like thousands of other families, were devastated by the earthquake that struck Northridge in 1994. Their house all but demolished, they bounced from one temporary home to another for months afterward. Then they plunged into a financial crisis when Mr. Cassel heavily invested his personal funds in an unsuccessful movie project, forcing him and Barbara to seek bankruptcy protection.

The Cassels divorced soon after, and while Barbara and the children managed to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, Mr. Cassel struggled. By the time Matt Cassel emerged as a starting quarterback, Mr. Cassel was living alone in a mobile home in a distressed section of San Bernardino, unable to tune in Patriots games on his television.

When Tom Brady injured his knee in the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, pressing Matt Cassel into action, Mr. Cassel rushed to a nearby casino, the closest place he could watch the game and savor the golden moment. Though he and Barbara had long been estranged, Mr. Cassel called her that afternoon after Matt helped lead the Patriots to victory.

"Is this a great day or what?" he told her.

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