Player Profile: Antoine Cason
Coming out of high school, Cason was listed as the #37 cornerback prospect in the nation in 2004. Although he received offers from Oregon State and Boise State, he chose to take his talents to the Arizona Wildcats.
Not many true freshmen start their first year in college, but Cason did. After his junior year in 2006, he was eligible for the 2007 NFL Draft, but Antoine decided to stay at Arizona his senior year to complete his degree in Political Science. He won many, many prestigious awards during his college career, including several All-Pac-10 honors, and the coveted Jim Thorpe Award in 2007, which is awarded to the best defensive back in the country. Antoine Cason is now considered to be one of the best cornerbacks in Arizona Wildcat history.
After garnering multiple awards and earning his degree, Cason was ready for the 2008 NFL Draft, where he was hailed as one of the best defensive backs available. Sports Illustrated projected him as a mid to late first-round pick, and indeed he went late in the first round – 27th overall – when he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers.
Cason started out his Chargers career playing nickel. Cason played in all 16 regular season games (starting in 3) and both playoff games at cornerback and on special teams as a rookie. It didn’t take him long to log his first career NFL interception.
It was September 14, 2008, at Denver. Charger fans shudder at the mere mention of this game played in Week 2 at Denver, refereed by the now-infamous Ed Hochuli. With 5:41 left in the game, the Chargers were behind 30-31. Josh Lewin with the action. “Cutler takes the shotgun snap. Cutler, looking left, rolling right. Being pursued, fires, and is picked off in the end zone! The Chargers coming the other way. The Chargers have held and they have the football, it’s Antoine Cason!” Cason has intercepted the ball in the end zone, and returned it 10 yards. The NFL was just learning the name of this talented rookie.
His second NFL interception – a pick-6 that was also his first NFL touchdown – came against Tampa Bay’s Jeff Garcia on December 21, 2008. Cason iced the victory and kept the Chargers’ playoff hopes alive with an incredible 59-yard INT return for TD with 3 minutes left in the game. As has become the Chargers’ habit recently, the last 4 games of the 2008 season were all absolute must-win, playoff-caliber games. Josh Lewin again called the game, “Garcia under center. He’s been sacked twice today.. he’s buying time, flicks it …” And Garcia let the ball fly. Quentin Jammer reached for it, and the ball was tipped right into the hands of Antoine Cason. “And it’s going to be picked off! On a bobble, it’s Cason! Racing down the left sideline! The rookie looking to go! Antoine Cason’s first NFL touchdown! With three minutes left in the fourth quarter! San Diego scores again and it’s 59 yards for Cason!” The Chargers sidelines erupted and the TV cameras caught Philip Rivers howling with delight and pumping his fists in the air.
Just like at Arizona, Cason was letting his presence be felt right out of the gate. Cason posted impressive stats by the end of his rookie year. He had logged 74 tackles (59 solo) and 2 INTs. He played in the postseason in the Wild Card Playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts and continued to shine in the Divisional Playoff game at Pittsburgh with a first quarter sack of Ben Roethlisberger on a 3rd down play. On the safety blitz, Eric Weddle caught Big Ben, and Cason – always looking to play physical – helped bring down the big quarterback. While the Chargers defense is sometimes criticized for its lack of physical play, Cason has been tutored by one of the most physical cornerbacks in the league – Quentin Jammer. Jammer and Cason make up a hard-hitting, always physical secondary. You will not see Cason (or Jammer) ever backpedal away from physical contact. In fact, they can’t wait to throw themselves into each and every play, hitting hard and causing pain, which is just how they like it.
After the 2008 season, musical chairs were played in the Chargers secondary. Despite his very respectable rookie-season stats, Cason was taken out of the nickel back position and replaced by Steve Gregory. Cason began playing the cornerback position, but as a backup to Antonio Cromartie. About the change, Cason said, “It happened, and there was nothing I could do about it. I wasn’t happy, but it made me stronger as a person and better as a player. Trust me when I say that I never stopped working hard.”
Cason put his head down, never complained, and excelled at whatever position he was asked to play. “Whatever they call, I play,” he said.
He started the 2009 season with a bang, Week 1 on Monday Night Football in Oakland against JaMarcus Russell and the Oakland Raiders. After Darren Sproles’ touchdown put the Chargers up 24-20, the Oakland QB had one more Hail Mary pass in him. After all, Russell’s big arm was the reason Al Davis drafted him. With 13 seconds left in the game, Josh Lewin called the action. “Russell scrambles for a moment, and he’s going to heave it way down the field. Hanging high like a punt, it’s picked off! The Chargers have it! Down inside the 10, it’s Antoine Cason to seal the deal in Oakland!”
In week 2, the Chargers were back home, facing the hard-hitting Baltimore Ravens. With 11:25 left in the 4Q, Joe Flacco and the Ravens were driving downfield on 3rd & 8. Josh Lewin again with the action, “Flacco’s got to get the ball to the 22. Here comes the Chargers pass rush!” Shawne Merriman had broken free and got a hold of Flacco’s arm as he threw. Cason saw the ball coming his way and jumped high in the air. “It’s picked off!,” shouted Lewin. “Cason brings it back! Has the sideline at the 40, belted down at the 44, and the Chargers have the ball!” Cason had returned the ball 22 yards and in sheer joy, high-stepped it to the center of the field, ball still in hand, as Weddle and Jammer celebrated with him. (Incidentally, the Chargers secondary did get burned that day by one Baltimore Raven wide receiver who recorded 4 catches for 58 yards and a touchdown: Kelley Washington, who is now making plays for San Diego.)
After being placed in the backup role, Cason’s playing time in 2009 diminished significantly. However, he kept up his confidence, his superior play, and finished the 2009 season with 41 tackles, 38 solo and 2 interceptions. He played in all 16 regular season games and the Chargers only post-season game.
Before the 2010 season began, the Chargers made another big change in the secondary. Tired of the non-physical play of Antonio Cromartie, the Chargers traded him to the Jets. (Cromartie moved to New York with his new wife, Terricka Cason, Antoine’s cousin.) A huge opportunity opened up for Cason, but he was still all business and a team player. “I honestly didn’t give it too much thought,” he said. “I have nothing to do with this team’s off-season activity, but I believe that I was going to get my shot either way. No matter who was here, I was going to come in here and compete for a starting job. I set a goal that I will be a starter by my third year, and here it is. It wasn’t like they traded him away and I’m just the replacement, backup type guy. I’m here because I can play football, and I’m confident I can be a good cornerback in this league and be successful.” His last point was the most important one: “I’m not here just to be on the team. I’m here to start. And that’s something that I’ve emphasized since I’ve been here.”
Antoine Cason then began the most important season of his young career. The Chargers needed him to step up and fulfill the expectations the team had for him when they drafted him in the first round. Cason was going to start at cornerback on one side of the field, with Quentin Jammer on the other side. Cason loved playing at corner, saying, “I love the competition. The one-on-one part of [the game].”
The 2010 season started, and once again Cason was hot right from the start. September 19 (Week 2) was the regular season home opener for the Chargers and the Jacksonville Jaguars were in town. Cason would eclipse his stats for the entire 2009 season in just the first half of the game. He started dominating in the first quarter of the game. With 9:54 on the clock, on play action, Garrard dropped back and let it fly. The announcers called the game, “With some time, looking down the field, he launches the ball in the direction of Underwood, and this one is intercepted! It’s picked off! He’s at the 10 yard line, the 20 yard line, and finally, Antoine Cason is brought down at the 27 yard line.” Cason was just getting started. With the Chargers up 7-3 early in the second quarter, Garrard was trying to march the Jags down the field. Josh Lewin had the action, “Second down and 11 on the 19. Garrard’s pass is deflected by Shaun Phillips… intercepted! Cason again! His second pick of the day!” On the field, Jammer celebrated with his young prodigy. The Chargers would go on to force 4 more INTs, making it 6 INTs for the day.
His superior performance on the field against the Jags (2 INTs, 4 passes defensed and a forced fumble) earned Cason his first NFL press conference. He stepped up to the media podium after the game, and a shy smile spread across his face. “Have you ever been to the media center at Chargers Park?” asked one of the reporters. “Once,” replied Cason, “but it wasn’t for me.” That got a laugh from the room. During the interview, Cason spoke honestly and openly. Like his counterpart, Quentin Jammer, Cason has an easy manner about him, is shy yet friendly, and soft-spoken. He talked about his goal of making it to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, “I feel I can do that,” he said confidently.
Cason has continued to be a nightmare for NFL quarterbacks. In Week 11 against Denver, he intercepted Kyle Orton in the 2Q on 3rd and 3. With the score tied at 7-7, Josh Lewin had the action. “Orton’s under center from the left hash, quick drop, being pressured, gets hit, it’s picked off! Coming back the other way is Cason with a stutter step down the sideline, tackled at the 41 of Denver, hanging on to the ball, Antoine Cason picked off Kyle Orton!”
At the beat down of the Colts on November 28, Cason never quit. With under a minute left in the game, he handed Manning the final indignity of a 4th INT in the end zone to seal the victory for the Chargers.
Cason is enjoying playing the position of cornerback. “Of course everybody likes interceptions, but you have to put it all together every play,” Cason said. “That’s what makes you a complete, consistent corner. I’m working on everything across the board, but of course playing the ball.” His strong play at corner has produced 60 tackles, one forced fumble and 4 INTs so far this year.
On December 5 of this year, at home against Oakland, Cason added another position to his resume: punt returner. Cason took over the job of returning punts in the middle of the game after Darren Sproles suffered a concussion. As a punt returner, Cason is currently averaging 12.4 yards per return – nearly twice the yards of Sproles, who was averaging 6.9 yards. Coach Norv Turner likes Sproles taking a bigger role in the offense, but also likes to see Cason shine on defense, so the two players will share return duties. “I hold my breath every time I see Antoine returning one,” Turner said. “It’s hard to find guys that play at the level at corner he does. I think it’s helped Darren get more involved in the offense, but … We can use both of them and be smart about how we use them.”
The following week on December 16, it was Thursday Night Football at Qualcomm against the 49ers. In the first quarter, QB Alex Smith tried to run in a touchdown, but Cason laid a hit on him that kept him out of the end zone. Charger fans loved seeing that aggressive, tough, physical play from both of their cornerbacks.
Antoine Cason performs whatever position the Chargers ask of him, and performs at an exemplary level. It’s that “Whatever they call, I play” attitude that has made him a favorite in the locker room and in the front office. (Albert Haynesworth, take note.)
Antoine Cason has a few favorite things aside from football. His English bulldog, Bailey. American muscle cars, especially the Mustang. Bowling (his average is around 200). But Cason’s biggest off-season passion? Los Angeles Lakers Basketball. His entire family of Division I football stars are die-hard Laker fans. Cason still lives in his hometown of Long Beach and has always been a huge Lakers fan. This summer he spent a lot of time at Laker regular season games, and then thrilled to see the Lakers in the playoffs. “I went to all the playoff series, it was a crazy experience. To top it off, I went to game seven Lakers and Celtics. It was something that I will never forget.” Asked if he had good seats, Cason smiled and replied, “I was midcourt seventh row, so it was pretty fun.”
Cason also shines off the court with his charity involvement. The Chargers organization has this to say about Antoine, “In San Diego, he’s been one of the first to volunteer for community outreach. He has helped deliver food to needy families through the San Diego Food Bank. His largest endeavor, however, was joining forces with former Arizona teammate, Matt Brooks, to create a campaign to fight cancer known as ‘Cason Cares.’ Cason became involved after losing his grandfather, Royce Rambo, to cancer in February ’06. The goal of Cason Cares is to raise money for cancer research. Cason and Brooks sold rubber wristbands for $3 apiece and the pair made a generous donation to the American Cancer Society before an Arizona men’s basketball game in December ’07.”
Antoine is also involved in a program entitled Touchdown Vs. Shutdown, which is an after school program for at-risk youth he started with Shaun Phillips and Stephen Cooper. Cason donates money for each tackle he makes in order to help San Diego youth take advantage of the same type of after school program he enjoyed growing up.
Most recently, Lorenzo Neal’s Football Camp was renamed the Antoine Cason Football Camp and will take place next summer (June 29 – July 2, 2011) at San Diego State University. Founded in 1983, the newly renamed Antoine Cason Camp is the best teaching football camp in the nation having graduated over 85,000 athletes, many currently playing at the college level. This will be their 27th successful year of football instruction.
Hard working. Team Player. Community Presence. Sports Fan. Dog lover. Antoine Cason.
The San Diego Chargers and their fans are lucky to have him.