Despite holding of one of the most prestigious positions in professional sports — starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys — Matt Cassel isn’t one to get caught up in glitz, glamour and fame.
He is one of the NFL’s true grinders.
The seventh-round draft pick in 2005 by New England did not start a game at Southern California. But Cassel has found ways to survive — and at times flourish — with five different organizations.
As Tony Romo continues to mend from a broken collarbone, Cassel will start Sunday against his old college coach Pete Carroll, and the reigning NFC champion Seattle Seahawks.
Cassel was USC’s backup quarterback in 2002 when Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy.
The next fall, Cassel, a redshirt junior, had one semester remaining before graduating. He and Matt Leinart competed for the starting job. The week before the 2003 season opener against Auburn, Carroll named his starter.
He chose Leinart.
“Really a coin toss,” Carroll said.
After that, Cassel played very little quarterback at USC. He moved out to wide receiver, H-back, and was a regular on the Trojans’ special teams units, including the wedge blocking unit on kickoff returns.
He was also on the hands’ team for onside kick — and made a final recovery to beat UCLA.
“(Carroll) said it was the best play of my career,” Cassel said. “I was like, ‘That basically sums it up.’ ”
So why didn’t Cassel leave USC and go to another program in need of a quarterback?
“I was in a Catch-22 with school … and if you leave at that point as redshirt junior, I would have had to go to a (FCS) school. And then you kind of roll the dice.
“I kind of got stuck in that backup (quarterback) role. But at the same time I always believed in my abilities. I just didn’t know if I’d ever have an opportunity to get to the NFL based on the simple fact that I never started a game.”
Cassel was so impressive during his pro workout day, NFL teams showed vast interest. Jason Garrett, now the Cowboys coach, was a quarterbacks coach in Miami when Cassel was an NFL Draft prospect.
“I was on the phone with him in the seventh round talking to him about coming to Miami as a free agent,” Garrett said. “And he got drafted by New England.”
In 2008, after Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener, Cassel led the Patriots to an 11-5 season. That opened the door for a trade to Kansas City,where he became a Pro Bowl selection in 2010.
He played for Minnesota for two seasons (2013-14), then went to Buffalo in a trade.
On Sept. 22, the Cowboys sent the Bills a fifth-round draft pick in 2017 in exchange for Cassel and a seventh-round pick in 2017. Last week, he started his first game for Dallas against the New York Giants.
“When Tony went down, it really was all hands on deck for us,” Garrett said. “(Cassel) is certainly a very physically capable guy. He goes about it the right way — he is smart, he is tough and he is a veteran player.”
A veteran who says he is still as motivated to play today as when he was drafted in 2005.
Kitna still retired
Two seasons ago, when Garrett lost Romo heading into the final weeks, a friend called.
It was Jon Kitna, the Lincoln High School graduate who played 17 seasons in the NFL — including with the Cowboys from 2009-11.
Kitna said he would sign for one week to help the team prepare for the Philadelphia Eagles, then retire one final time.
But when Romo got hurt in September, did the Cowboys think about reaching out to Kitna, who now coaches high school football at Waxahachie High School outside of Dallas?
“In his mind, he has moved on now,” Garrett said.
“We talk a little bit — he is really busy, and I am really busy. But we try and stay in touch. I love him as a guy, and I think he will be a hell of a football coach.”
Carroll said the signing of running back Bryce Brown on Tuesday was just to secure depth at the position, adding that rookie Thomas Rawls (calf) has a “nasty … strain or bruise.” … Carroll said he will watch wide receiver Paul Richardson (knee) closely this week, and go by “feel” whether or not he would suit up Sunday.
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442