The story of how starting quarterback Casey Kacz earned his role for the Columbus Lions last season brings to mind the baseball legend of Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, two New York Yankees greats.
While Kacz would fit the role of Gehrig, former Lions signal-caller Antwon Young would play Pipp.
Like Pipp, Young was a gifted player. He took home the Professional Indoor Football League’s MVP award in 2012 behind center for the Richmond Raiders as he was responsible for a whopping 73 touchdowns that season, 55 through the air and 18 on the ground. However, the injury bug bit Young often, causing him to sit out much of the 2013 season in Richmond and parts of the 2014 season in Columbus. Last season, Young again succumbed to injury in just the second game of the year prior to a key matchup against the Trenton (N.J.) Freedom.
Pipp suffered an injury prior to a game for the Yankees and was benched, leading to Gehrig playing in his place. Gehrig played so well in his debut that Pipp would never get a chance to reclaim his starting role.
Enter the Lou Gehrig of the 2015 Columbus Lions.
Kacz torched the Trenton defense, tying a Lions single-game record with eight touchdown passes and setting a franchise record for passing yardage in a game with 350 yards. Kacz led Columbus to a key 70-60 road win over the Freedom and was named the PIFL’s Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts.
“My players made plays that game,” Kacz said. “I had receivers going downfield making plays, and the linemen gave me a lot of time. I didn’t feel the rush, all I saw was the defensive backfield.
“They say opportunity presents itself to those who work hard. Going into camp, I just wanted to work as hard as I could to make the team. The opportunity presented itself, and luckily, I was mentally prepared for it. Antwon did a great job building me up and encouraging me, and the teammates believed in me.”
Coach Jason Gibson wasted no time in naming Kacz the starter the rest of the way.
“Casey had been pushing Antwon in camp anyway,” Gibson said. “But Antwon was a proven vet, a leader, and a phenomenal athlete. After that injury, Casey came in and cemented himself. The players jelled around him, and the rest is history.”
The 25-year-old Kacz finished the season with 2,361 passing yards, 52 passing touchdowns and five rushing scores in leading the Lions to the PIFL championship. He was also named the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
A native of Amherst, N.Y., Kacz was a three-year starting quarterback at Division III Buffalo State. He was named All-Conference in each of his three seasons, throwing for over 6,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in 28 games during his career. He was also a dual threat, setting a school record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 849 yards on the ground, scoring 18 times.
“We ran the option at Buffalo State, but I’m a pass-first quarterback,” Kacz said. “If I see the defensive line’s getting in (the backfield) or the ‘O’ line is breaking down, I have the ability to run. That’s sort of my backup plan, but good to have in an arsenal as a quarterback.”
“He’ll make people miss, and he’ll make some crazy plays sometime,” Gibson said. “He’ll Brett Favre it every now and then and make you hold your breath, but if I need a yard, he’ll get it.”
While he clearly won’t go on to start 2,130 straight games for Columbus like Gehrig did for the Yankees in his storied career, Kacz has firmly entrenched himself as the starting quarterback in the Lions’ first season in American Indoor Football. He will start under center when the Lions open the season Sunday at 4 p.m., hosting the Georgia Firebirds out of Albany at the Columbus Civic Center.
“This time last year, I was fighting for my life,” Kacz said. “I had the attitude that I’d do anything to make the team. Now I’m trying to elevate my game to a new level, to be more efficient as a passer and to be more efficient as an offense. My goal is that our defense struggles, our offense can pick them up every game.”
“He’s an (Arena Football League) level quarterback,” Gibson said. “Teams will be calling him quickly. There’s a huge learning curve between your first and second year. He just happened to get it his first year. Now, the whole game slows down. He’s making throws he’s not even seeing in the perfect spots.”