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Matt Cassel's story is one of patience, perseverance

ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Matt Cassel, a Pro Bowl quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, will have his jersey retired at Chatsworth High on Friday in a ceremony closed to the public.

February 10, 2011|Eric Sondheimer

When Matt Cassel was 12, he was so secure and composed in front of a TV camera that he could have given an interview to Vin Scully without anyone realizing his age.

He was fun-loving, goofy and seemed to greet everyone with a hug.

His outgoing personality mesmerized friends and strangers alike.

From the first day we met, when he was among the youngest members of the 1994 Northridge team that made it to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., to last year, when he showed up at a football camp at the Rose Bowl wearing a Chatsworth High baseball cap, I've never seen him display a hint of shyness.

"He was hugging people before tree lovers were hugging trees," said Tim Cunningham, one of Cassel's Little League coaches.

He's always been comfortable and confident in any environment, and his gift of putting others at ease has hidden the sweat and tears Cassel surely has expended to reach this point in his life: husband, father, Pro Bowl quarterback and, most important, role model.

I've covered high school sports since the 1970s, and Cassel has earned a special place in my memory because of his perseverance. He had a dream and wouldn't let anyone or anything deter him from reaching it.

Most experts considered him a better baseball player than football player in high school. Yet, against their advice, he gave up baseball his junior year at Chatsworth to focus on being a quarterback. He received a scholarship to USC and quickly learned he had bad timing.

He was the backup to Carson Palmer, a Heisman Trophy winner. Then he became the backup to Matt Leinart, another Heisman Trophy winner. His coach, Pete Carroll, tried to move him to tight end, but Cassel declined.

In five years at USC, he never started a football game. But in an era when quarterbacks transfer when they're told they're second string, Cassel stayed, got his degree and became a Trojans legend for loyalty.

The New England Patriots took a gamble and selected him in the seventh round of the 2005 draft and he became a backup again. This time it was to the best quarterback in football, Tom Brady.

If anyone had the right to throw up his hands and shout, "Enough!" it was Cassel.

Again, he kept working hard, kept improving and kept waiting for his chance. When it came, he delivered. In 2009, he became a free agent and signed a six-year, $62.7-million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. This year, he was named to the Pro Bowl, replacing the injured Brady.

His story is worthy of a Disney movie. You won't find Cassel being tailed by TMZ. You won't see him on the dance floor at the Conga Room. (I don't think he knows how to dance.)

Credit his mother, Barbara, who raised a family of achievers.

Brother Jack was a standout pitcher at Granada Hills Kennedy who made it to the major leagues. Brother Justin was a standout pitcher at Chatsworth who's nearing a spot in the major leagues. Sister Amanda was a standout student and track athlete at Woodland Hills Louisville. They always respected their coaches and recognized right from wrong.

On Friday, Cassel will have his uniform retired at Chatsworth in a ceremony closed to the public. I was asked to say a few words but respectfully declined. The reason: I believe every second he's on campus, the Chatsworth athletes need to hear from him, see his smile, feel his handshake and let him explain the benefits of hard work.

Gone is the 12-year-old kid who liked to roll around in dirt, replaced by a 28-year-old man who still likes to roll around in dirt but has a body of work that should make the most skeptical of teenagers sit up and listen.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latsondheimer

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