FOOTBALL: Rooney’s odyssey comes to an end

Michael Casagrande

From the plains of Iowa to the hill at Western, senior wide receiver Casey Rooney’s college football career has been an odyssey.

Today, Rooney is one of the Toppers’ brightest stars, but his road to Bowling Green was not always smooth.

Coming out of West High School in Sioux City, Iowa, Rooney was a lock to attend the University of Iowa. As a quarterback, Rooney was an all-state selection. But only days before signing day, Hawkeye coaches gave Rooney news that would forever change his career.

A sudden need for offensive linemen meant the scholarship Rooney was promised was no longer on the table.

“I was pretty disappointed and upset,” Rooney said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was racing to find a college to go to and actually play.”

The heralded high school quarterback was left without a college and suddenly had a decision to make.

After spending a year at the Air Force Academy, Rooney found himself at the University of Memphis.

During preseason drills in 1999, Rooney was expected to be redshirted but was moved from the quarterback position to wide receiver. The redshirt was removed and Rooney was on the field as a wide receiver when the Tigers took the field against Ole Miss. Rooney didn’t know at the time, but that move was permanent.

“I was young when I got there,” Rooney said. “I just wanted to play.”

But after two seasons, Rooney was getting restless. He missed his natural position so he packed his bags again. This time Rooney was headed to Western with a chance to play quarterback.

After another redshirt season, Rooney was ready to compete again in 2002, but senior Jason Michael was named as the Topper’s starting quarterback.

Again, Rooney was the odd man out.

And again, Rooney made the move to wide receiver.

Rooney led the team last season with 29 receptions for 602 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Rooney’s leaping grab on Western’s final drive against Georgia Southern in the Division I-AA semifinals may have been his best. It put Western on the two-yard line with less than a minute to play in a game the Toppers eventually won.

The catch was especially meaningful to Rooney because he said it gave him some sense of redemption. Earlier in the game, Rooney and former coach Jack Harbaugh argued about a penalty whistled on Rooney. Rooney ended the discussion by shoving Harbaugh.

“I was kind of relieved,” Rooney said. “I had two personal fouls that game and I was just thinking the whole fourth quarter ‘I lost this game, I lost this game,’ so I’m glad coach Harbaugh actually gave me the chance to come back and redeem myself.”

As the Toppers began preparations for their title defense this spring, Rooney looked to be the man to succeed Michael as the starting quarterback.

But for the third time, Rooney was moved away from his favorite position. This time it was freshman Justin Haddix that assumed the role.

Many factors went into the decision to move Rooney back to wide receiver, coach David Elson said, but telling Rooney wasn’t easy.

“It was a tough decision,” Elson said. “We just felt that we had enough talent in the other core of quarterbacks that we knew one of those guys would emerge as a guy who could run the offense and it worked out well.”

The disappointment lasted for a while, but Rooney is finally at peace with his role on the team.

“I was disappointed of course, but I understood,” Rooney said. “Now after I’ve seen what’s transpired with Haddix and his good arm, I think we are already gelling.”

In two games this season, Rooney has two receptions and one touchdown.

Offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach T.J. Weist likes Rooney’s will to succeed and his competitive spirit.

“He’s a competitor,” Weist said. “Casey is very competitive. That’s what makes him make plays when other guys don’t. When the game is on the line, that’s why he comes up with the catch. He wants it, so he goes and takes it.”

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected].