Super Bowl LII: The 1999 John Carroll boys’ last stand with Patriots

Ryan Hannable
February 02, 2018 - 12:17 am

Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — It was Oct. 17, 1998, and John Carroll University needed the game against Ohio Athletic Conference rival Baldwin-Wallace to keep its playoff hopes alive.

Trailing 27-26 in the final minutes, kicker Dave Vitatoe had a chance to win it with a field goal, but he missed, snuffing out John Carroll's postseason hopes in the process.

Vitatoe, now the university's executive director of alumni relations, wanted to hide. He instead dragged himself to a postgame get-together with most of the team.

The first person to greet him was senior quarterback Nick Caserio.

"I will never forget it," Vitatoe said. "He walked up to me and put his arm around me and said, 'Come here.' He pulled me aside and we just talked for a long time. I don't know if we even talked about football or the game. We just talked and hung out. I will never forget that. 

"He understood and he felt for me. I certainly felt like I let the team and him down. He was the quarterback and it was his senior year. It was so cool for him to do that and cut the tension and make me feel part of the team again, instantly."

John Carroll finished 8-2, but missed the postseason. Its senior class nonetheless had a terrific four years, making the playoffs as juniors. 

Little did that team's core know its football journey was just getting started.

***

Four members of the 1998 Blue Streaks are with the Patriots today — director of player personnel Caserio ('99), offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels ('99), assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski ('99) and director of pro scouting Dave Ziegler ('00).

Caserio was the quarterback, beating out McDaniels, among others, but it was clear he deserved it.

"You don't want to play with guys who beat you out, unless you think they deserved it. In Nick's case, he was terrific and he handled it the right way," said John Priestap, who shifted to tight end and served as a senior co-captain along wth Caserio. "He was a very close friend with us despite the competition."

Caserio was a superb athlete with Div. I skills, but not quite enough size. He graduated from University School in Hunting Valley, Ohio, as one of the best athletes in the high school's history. It wasn't just football, either.

Caserio averaged close to 30 points a game in basketball and even outscored future NBA guard Earl Boykins in a head-to-head matchup. He also batted over .400 in baseball.

As a senior, Caserio completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,274 yards with 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

As is the case today, Caserio's best trait was his work ethic.

He watched more film than anyone, often showing up early in the day before class, then during lunch, and then before and after practice. He inherited that trait from his dad, who owned a concrete company.

"Nick was kind of like he is now, real serious," said Case Western head coach Greg Debeljak, a former John Carroll assistant. "A bottom-line guy, not a lot of flash, but had just an unbelievable work ethic. Just incredible. You kind of worried about just how serious he was at that age, but you knew he was going to be a success in whatever because he would just outwork whoever he was going to come up against."

Added former NFL linebacker London Fletcher, who was also part of the 1998 team: "Nick, at the quarterback position, you won't find a harder worker and a guy more serious about his craft. I can't recall having a teammate, pro or college, who worked harder than Nick."

Caserio didn't drink, but was a bartender right down the street from the campus. He was good friends with the rest of the team, but just reserved by nature. 

One of the more outgoing players was McDaniels.

"Josh was definitely more social," Debeljak said.

On the field, McDaniels played receiver, but he naturally assumed a leadership role as the son of a longtime high school football coach in Ohio.

"Josh did it in ways that didn't stand out," said Debeljak. "He wasn't a big rah-rah guy, but you just knew he knew more than everybody. He just did, and probably knew more than a lot of coaches on our staff at that time. He didn't do it in a way that was obtrusive, or in your face, or embarrassing. You knew he knew a lot."

He caught 18 passes for 376 yards and two touchdowns in 1998.

"He would be [Julian] Edelman, [Danny] Amendola," Fletcher said. "He would be an Amendola-type now."

Although his statistics weren't eye-popping, it was clear he had tremendous potential to remain in the sport because of his intelligence.

"He was a math major and his football IQ was just off the charts based on growing up in a coaching household with his dad," Debeljak said. "I think Josh, the football aspect, was way ahead of everybody just because of his background."

The best athlete of the four was Ziegler, New England's director of pro scouting.

Ziegler's blazing speed made him a star kick returner, with over 600 yards between kicks and punts in that 1998 season, although he graduated in 2000.

"Every time he touched the ball he had a chance to score." Debeljak said.

He just didn't look like a football player. 

On one team trip, an airport worker tried to guess each player's position. When he reached the diminutive Ziegler he guessed student-trainer.

The last member of the Patriots who played on the team is Schuplinski, which is appropriate.

The current assistant quarterbacks coach paved lanes as a fullback, quietly and without fanfare. The team moms loved him.

"Very quiet," Vitatoe said. "Smiled a lot. Very friendly. Off the field, you just loved having him around. A great guy."

Added Debeljak: "He wasn't flashy, but he did a ton of work behind the scenes."

He finished the season with 26 carries for 247 yards.

The four never expected to be reunited later in life, but 20 years later, here they are going for another Super Bowl title.

***

McDaniels deserves the most credit for bringing the others to New England. Back in college, he was the only one who envisioned a future in the game.

"I was surprised that Nick got into coaching and scouting," Fletcher said. "I saw him more as a guy going into business. A successful entrepreneur. He was going to be successful at whatever he did, but I saw him going on and owning his own business."

It was clear these four shined when it came to how seriously they took the game.

"They thought at a higher level when it came to football and they took it just a bit more seriously than the rest of us," Priestap said. "I remember thinking how these guys truly are exceptional. It was almost like being in an academic course with someone who has a thought process above yours."

So, how did all of them end up in New England?

Let's start with McDaniels.

The year after graduating from John Carroll, his dad helped him get a graduate assistant position at Michigan State under Nick Saban. Also a GA that year was Brian Daboll, who became a defensive assistant with the Patriots.

Daboll wanted to move up the ladder in New England, so he recommended McDaniels to Bill Belichick as a replacement. Little did they know then, the John Carroll pipeline had started.

Belichick and McDaniels hit it off immediately and when an entry-level personnel position became available, the latter threw Caserio's name out there and eventually he was hired. Today he is Belichick's right-hand man.

Ziegler joined McDaniels in 2010 as a Broncos pro scout. Prior to that, Ziegler was an assistant coach for Kenston High School, John Carroll (while earning his master's degree in school counseling), Iona College and Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Arizona. 

He stayed with Denver after McDaniels left, but then in 2013 was hired by the Patriots and has quickly rose through the organizaton.

Schuplinski would be just as happy coaching high school football, but he's been with the Patriots since 2013 after six seasons as the special teams coordinator and linebackers coach at Case Western under Debeljak. He began as a coaching assistant, but how he's the assistant quarterbacks coach who received credit for Jacoby Brissett's success last year as a rookie.

This will be the last year all of them are together, as it's almost a certainty McDaniels will become the next coach of the Colts when Super Bowl LII is complete.

***

Four players on the same college team working for the same professional organization is very rare, and there were many explanations as to why that is.

"I think it is respect," Priestap said. "You're talking about the cream of the crop from our group at John Carroll. Josh had a great deal of respect for them and I think that is why others were inclined to join him when he had an opportunity. The respect they have for one another, as well. I think respect is the common denominator."

"They don't mind the hard work aspect of it," Fletcher said. "They all started as the low guy on the totem pole and working their way up. It doesn't surprise me that they have ascended to the levels they have ascended to because their work ethic. Those guys, they have had those qualities back in college. Tremendous work ethic."

Added Vitatoe: "They value loyalty, they value trust and they value competency. I think they know what they are getting out of their former teammates. And guys that went to John Carroll, they are getting someone that is smart and has a strong work ethic, and someone that will be loyal and someone they can trust to do the job. That friendship has morphed into a professional relationship that has really worked for them."

While McDaniels may have been the one to help get them an interview, he noted they all have excelled on their own and ascended through organizations because of the hard work they have put in, not just because they went to John Carroll.

"The guys that have come here from that school have always represented themselves well," McDaniels said. "That's what it is. They do a good job of putting out well-rounded individuals and I have been fortunate enough to call some of those guys my friends. … Really proud of our ties to that school and we're all proud of that. These guys have all earned their way. They have stood up, done the right thing and really cemented the recommendations that they have got in order to get their foot in the door.

"From there it is on them and they have maneuvered their way up and all the rest of it with the positions they have held."

While the season didn't end the way any of the John Carroll players wanted 20 years ago, a win Sunday night would end their run together in style.

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