Dave Casper: man in middle of Houston's pass patterns

Every Sunday when 6 ft. 4 in., 240-lb. tight end Dave Casper goes to work for the offensive unit of the Houston Oilers, it's like stepping onto a battlefield. Tight ends have to be able to catch passes thrown over the middle, where the defensive traffic is so heavy that almost every tackle seems like a pile driver falling on a cup of custard.

It is one of those positions where if you begin to hear the footsteps of opposing players, you might just as well retire. And when Houston's quarterback isn't throwing to his tight end, he's either got Dave in a pass-blocking situation or knocking down an opposing lineman so that one of his running backs can turn upfield.

To most National Football League coaches, Casper is a prototype tight end - fearless, durable, with hands the size of shovels and a low center of gravity. The fact that pro football is only about the l6th favorite thing that Dave likes to do has never interfered with the quality of his performance.

All Casper did last season was lead Houston in three offensive categories - most receptions (36); most yards gained receiving (573); and most points scored (36). What the statistics don't tell is how many times Dave kept drives going by making a crucial third-down catch or by springing some halfback loose for a long gainer with a well delivered shoulder block.

Somehow, though, Casper was not chosen to play in the Pro Bowl, the NFL's all-star game, an honor he received five straight times from 1976 through 1980. The decision not to pick Dave may have stemmed from Houston's woeful l-8 record during last year's strike-abbreviated season.

Nevertheless, his playing signature - the important pass caught over the middle with the defense zeroing in - was as prominent as ever. Knocking a football loose from Casper's hand is about as easy as knocking the hinges off a jail cell door.

When Casper played for Notre Dame, the Irish appeared in two bowl games, went 27-5, and turned in an undefeated, untied season in 1973, his senior year.

When the Oakland (now Los Angeles) Raiders drafted Casper, they already had two serviceable tight ends, but chose him on the theory that you should select the best player available. Dave was a prominent member of the Raider offense all through his six-plus seasons in Oakland, piling up impressive individual statistics while helping the team win 36 of 42 regular season games plus one Super Bowl.

Al Davis, the Raiders' wily owner, normally wouldn't have traded an accomplished veteran like Casper. But Houston practically begged Davis to take one first-round draft pick and two second-run selections for him. Even for a player of his caliber, that's a lot of compensation, so the Raiders made the swap early in the 1980 season.

One reason the Oilers were so eager to obtain Dave was that they had traded earlier for Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler, so this deal reunited a proven passing combination. The idea was to beef up the aerial attack to balance off the ground game headed by Earl Campbell.

The Oilers did make the playoffs that first season, but lost in the first round (to the Raiders, ironically enough). They've been a disappointment since then, and at this point Stabler has been traded away, though Casper and Campbell , of course, remain key factors in the rebuilt attack.

Casper has always been outspoken when it came to discussing his chief occupation. He would like to abolish all routine training camp activity and simply start the season. He finds practice dull, team meetings boring, and play books about as interesting as technical manuals.

''Training camp is a perfect example of masses of people doing something that's always been done and never questioning the results,'' Dave has said. ''Maybe it's time somebody looked for an alternative. Anyway, training camps probably injure more players unnecessarily and cause players more physical problems down the road than anything I can think of.''

Obviously, Dave has always been able to put his reservations aside on game days. But while he may appear unbridled on the field, his off-season job as a stockbroker keeps him in three-piece business suits.

He also has ventured into real estate, purchasing an unspoiled island in Missouri's Ozark Mountains last year.

What Casper plans to do with the island is mostly speculation, although he expects to build a permanent home there sometime. First, however, the land must be cleared of trees and the stumps removed. It wouldn't suprise anyone if he undertook this huge project himself, with no more help than a power saw and crowbar.

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