Bengals CFA Aaron Casey's No. 44 Shows What's In A Number (2024)

The rookie linebacker they call "Ace," already has a winning hand when the Bengals take the field Tuesday for their three-day mandatory minicamp.

Undrafted but far from unknown or underappreciated at Indiana University, Aaron Casey is holding a pair of 4s dealt by Bengals equipment czar Adam Knollman. They stand like bookend heirlooms on his No.44 jersey, the number that transformed IU forever.

"When you see him, tell him how much the Taliaferro girls are pleased and happy for him. That's the message for Mr. Ace," says Renee Taliaferro, daughter of the original No. 44, IU's incomparable George Taliaferro of that pivotal slice of Americana just after World War II.

"My dad would have been over the moon with him. Absolutely."

How Bengals coaches end up seeing the 6-1, 231-pound Casey remains to be seen. But the recent track records of the Indiana linebackers he patiently waited behind and then played with bodes well. Micah McFadden, a 2022 fifth-round pick, had more than 100 tackles in 14 starts for the Giants last season. Casey's good friend Cam Jones, also undrafted, won a ring this past season with the Chiefs as a rookie core special teamer who had 12 tackles in his one start in the finale before suffering a year-ending injury in the Wild Card Game.

But last year, Casey did what they didn't do, roaming sideline-to-sideline and steaming downhill for the Hoosiers' first 100-tackle season since 2016 while leading the Power 5 with 22 tackles for loss.

And he did it wearing Taliaferro's No. 44.

"An honor," Casey says. "He was a trailblazer."

Christian Sarkisian, the Bengals scout who works Bloomington, had the context. So did Bengals linebackers coach James Bettcher, who also visited Indiana's last three pro days. With core special teamer Markus Bailey gone in free agency and the new kickoff rule favoring the size and dexterity of linebackers, there's at least one opening on a 53-man roster that hasn't drafted a linebacker since Bailey in the 2020 seventh round.

"I spent a lot of time with all those guys. They're so similar," Bettcher says of the Hoosier trio. "Like Aaron, they're hard-working tough, high-character individuals. They kept competing, kept competing. With them. Against them. Love guys that can come in and be resilient. Guys who have the highest level of football and off-field character, those are the guys having the longest terms of success because they get through adversity. Maybe they're backing up, or they get cut once or twice. But they become invaluable.

"They tell you what he meant to Indiana football and you can see it here," says Bettcher, who also Zoomed Casey twice before the draft. "Smart. Tireless worker. Always wants something to do extra. In meetings, he asks great questions. Engages. You can see the intangibles and see why he wore 44."

As Knollman, Lord of the Things, mulls the undrafted jerseys this time of year, he doesn't have a lot of numbers at his disposal. Or, as much time to dole them out as they do on X. If a player's college number is open, he pretty much gets it.

Karma, which has a few curtain calls in Casey's story, had No. 44 available. Clay Johnston, wearing it when he made his iconic two-point stop of Derrick Henry in Nashville during the 2021 playoffs, is a free agent. Jaylen Moody, another undrafted linebacker, is playing in Canada after he wore it last year. Casey, who got the nickname from a cousin after they watched "Ace," in the movie "Paid In Full," is now on the screen.

Dawn Casey, his mother and delivery nurse back home in Douglasville, Ga., knows something about good starts. When her son signed with the Bengals, she looked it up and told Ace no one had No. 44. Before he could ask for it, it was in his locker.

"That's my number now," says Aaron Casey, recalling two years ago when then IU head coach Tom Allen and director of player development Mike Pechac approached him about wearing No. 44.

The coaches make sure their players know all about George Taliaferro before and after he died in 2018 at 91. Or "Mr. T," as Pechac still calls him on his way to work when he walks by his statue in Taliaferro Plaza outside of the North end zone of Memorial Stadium.

They show them the documentary dazzling with his Jack Armstrong exploits of playing seven positions in the NFL. How about the first of his three Pro Bowl seasons? While Mickey Mantle was breaking in with baseball's New York Yankees in 1951, how about Taliaferro leading the NFL's New York Yanks with 330 yards and three TDs on the ground, 230 receiving yards and two TD catches in the air to go with 251 passing yards, and a touchdown pass? What about four interceptions? How about not only punting 76 times, but returning an NFL-high 27 kicks?

They also mine Hoosier lore for them to reveal the moment Indiana president Herman B. Wells invited Taliaferro to lunch at The Gables. That was after Wells discovered Indiana's best player could look through a window and see himself in the 1945 Big Ten championship team photo hanging on the wall of a restaurant he wasn't allowed to enter.

They also remind them that Taliaferro became the first African-American player drafted by the NFL in the 13th round of what was then called the 1949 selection meeting before returning to IU later in life as a professor and special assistant to the IU president in charge of campus-wide affirmative action while also helping start Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Central Indiana.

"We wanted to honor Mr. T and all the things that he did at Indiana when he was a student-athlete here and all the things that he overcame," Pechac says. "He was such an important person who cared about academics,

cared about what was going on in the community, and obviously was a great football player.

"We wanted to keep this number on the field and add significance to why the person wears it. To say they were representatives of Mr. Taliaferro. Coach Allen and I talked about it and we thought Ace was the perfect guy."

Casey's enthusiastic reaction confirmed they had their man. Players, they know, are funny about numbers.

"It took me by surprise," Casey says. "I was coming into the season looking for a number change. It was after the first season I had played a lot and I had 46, but I was hoping for 20 or maybe 2. A single number would have been cool. But when they told me they wanted me to wear 44, it was a no-brainer.

"You hear the stories about him. We watched the video during camp. How he couldn't go into a restaurant or go into a certain library to study. Things are a lot different now. It gives you a lot of perspective."

That No. 20 he wore as a youth playing football, basketball, and soccer in suburban Atlanta first belonged to Dawn Casey when she played basketball at Washington D.C. power Dunbar High School before she got sick during her senior year. She was good. About 16 points and eight rebounds per game good.

Remember the karma? She knew Ace's father in high school and they even dated their best friends. Uilton Casey, now a CFO for a state agency in Georgia, met her again in college at North Carolina A&T and they've been together since.

"I played forward. You have to put power forward. He wore No. 20 to represent his Momma," Dawn Casey says. "We were hoping he could keep 44. They chose Aaron to represent Mr. Taliaferro based on Aaron's character, his intensity, and to keep it in the NFL means so much because he's still representing George Taliaferro."

Mike Pechac, who is also Indiana's NFL liaison, heard Taliaferro tell some of those stories straight out of history.

Taliaferro, who caddied for The Champ when Joe Louis visited his hometown of Gary, had a lifelong love affair with golf and they would tell Pechac how he spent half his round finding balls on the old IU course so he could give them to the First Tee program. Fifty years later, Taliaferro could be seen giving talks holding the "Colored," sign he unscrewed from Bloomington's Buskirk-Chumley Theater, a single, simple act of desegregation while he was still a student.

"Mr. T was just one of those guys anytime you were around him, you learned something," Pechac says. "He was always asking, 'What can I do to help?'"

Pechac and Allen bridged the past with No. 44 and then watched Casey make his own bit of history. Certainly not as earth-shaking, but memorable just the same. Pechac believes what Casey did his junior year at Michigan State belongs in Hoosier lore.

Casey spent the week trying to practice on a foot that had swelled horribly. He could rarely jam his foot into a cleat and when he did, he couldn't tie it. He spent the week leaning out of a cart until a few hours before the game in the locker room, where they had finally drained it enough that they were able to shove his foot into a shoe Pechac figures was two sizes too big.

Casey then got in the middle of a furious Indiana comeback that sent the game into overtime, where he went to Allen and told him if he played one more snap he'd hurt the team. As the Hoosiers savored the win, Pechac can still see a picture of Cam Jones, not playing that day, lifting Casey on his shoulder and carrying him to the locker room.

"It's probably one of the gutsiest performances I've ever seen," Pechac says.

Casey. Jones. McFadden. Pechac, struck how all three Indiana linebackers bided their time and used extra years of eligibility to get better, believes the Bengals got a draftable player.

"(Casey) didn't play early on. He never complained, did great work on special teams, and just did his job," Pechac says. "He could have left, but he's in this situation now because he didn't. Because he had the 20 tackles for loss. He was the verbal guy. He was the one making calls and checks. All those little things that the scouts told him he needed to improve. Just like Cam did. He trusted the process and now he's in the NFL."

It is not lost on Mr. T's family that Casey wore No. 44 that day in East Lansing.

"What we love about Mr. Ace is that he asked to wear the number again," says Renee Taliaferro of that senior year. "My sisters and I are so appreciative of the way he's worn the number. He's very popular in Bloomington.

"And do you know that he gave us both jerseys? We each have a No. 44 he gave us."

Renee and Donna, Mr. T's local daughters have been co-captains on game day and even more. Their mother Vi, a powerhouse in her own right as the first African American to serve as both a magistrate and as a judge in the Monroe County Circuit Court, passed last year and to ease the pain Renee would find herself at Indiana practices.

"Just to be around young people. To be out in the sun and the fresh air," Renee says. "And Ace would come over and spend time talking. Whenever we came to practice, he took the time. My sisters and I, we can't say enough about what a nice young man he is."

More karma? It turns out that Renee, a 30-year flight attendant for Delta, worked the Bengals charters in the first years of the Marvin Lewis Era.

"It was cool hearing the way they talk about him with so much joy," Aaron "Ace," Casey says. "How everybody looked at him as both a person and a player. Really cool."

He didn't get the call like George Taliaferro did all those years ago. But he's got a shot.

"He's always got fans here," says Renee Taliaferro of No. 44.

Bengals CFA Aaron Casey's No. 44 Shows What's In A Number (2024)
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