Cheshire teenagers Jotham Casey and Chisom Okoro started their football journeys in different ways. Like a lot of local players, Okoro was introduced to the game in the Cheshire Junior Football program, while Casey picked up the sport as just a sophomore at Cheshire High School.
While not taking identical roads, the 2021 CHS graduates have both earned the opportunity to extend their playing careers this fall. Okoro, a lineman, will compete at the University of New Haven, while Casey, a kicker/punter, will travel to Maine and play football at Bowdoin College.
“Ever since I started playing football, I’ve heard a lot about the college game,” stated Casey. “I’m happy that I can help my family financially. I also love the sport and the family aspect it brings.”
“I’m very excited to take my career to the next level,” added Okoro.
At CHS, Casey and Okoro contributed heavily to a resurgence in the football program. The Rams went 3-7 with a young lineup in 2018, but in just one year, Cheshire bounced back to go 8-3 and make the state playoffs for the first time in a decade.
In the Class LL First Round, CHS fell 17-14 at Simsbury.
“Playing for Cheshire football has been a special experience,” stated Casey.
In returning among 20 seniors last year, Okoro and Casey hoped to make another run at states, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference chose to cancel 11-on-11 tackle football in the fall and spring.
Despite the setback, Casey and Okoro look forward to joining classmate Cole Feinauer (Colorado State University) as college players.
“It is tough leaving on a low note because we didn’t get to play last season,” stated Okoro. “I still enjoyed all of the relationships with the players and coaches because they formed me into the person I am today.”
Okoro had planned to take multiple college tours, but due to health restrictions, he shortened his list to schools in the Northeast. In choosing UNH, he is excited to play football close to home and pursue his academic prowess as a chemical engineering major.
“It felt right to stay in Connecticut and finish what I started here,” stated Okoro, who also considered Western New England University and Western Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. “My parents have come to almost all of my games since I started in CJF. It was hard to think about them not being able to see me play in college.”
Cheshire Head Coach Don Drust feels that Okoro will fit in nicely for the Division II program that plays in Northeast-10 Conference.
“Chisom is a tireless worker on the field and continues to be a tremendous person off it,” said Drust. “UNH is getting a leader and someone who will make all of the right decisions. Chisom will work as hard as he can for everyone in the locker room.”
Okoro plans to contribute on the defensive line or outside backer for UNH Head Coach Chris Pincince, but adds that he will play anywhere to get on the field.
For a long time, Okoro has wanted to play in college and perhaps pursue a professional career, but he recalls being miserable when he started out in junior football.
“Once my teammates and coaches like Randy Bourdeau helped me, I started enjoying every time that I came to practice,” reflected Okoro.
From the start of his career, Okoro has been a lineman. As a sophomore at CHS, he showed potential in earning 55 tackles and 2.5 sacks on defense. He was recognized with the Greg Schena Award.
“It gave me motivation for my last two years,” stated Okoro. “It showed what the coaches thought of me and how I could live up to those expectations on the field and in the classroom.”
As a junior, Okoro shined as one of the state’s top linemen. He led the Rams in tackles (95), tackles for a loss (20), hurries (nine), and caused fumbles (three). He also picked up two sacks and a fumble recovery en route to earning Defensive Player of the Year, as well as All-Class LL and All-Southern Connecticut Conference Tier II honors.
“I couldn’t have earned those (honors) on my own,” said Okoro. “My teammates put me in position to make plays.”
Okoro also joined 2020 graduates Will Bergin and Sean Cangiano in starting on the offensive and defensive lines. On offense, Okoro became a starting guard in 2019.
“In my sophomore year, I was told that I might have to play both sides of the ball. I was dreading that, but it was good to see that I could play both positions,” reflected Okoro. “I like playing on defense more, but as coaches, the Bowmans (John, Shaun) made being on offense fun.”
Beyond his physical tools, Drust feels that Okoro’s effort is what makes him excel on the field.
“For film, a lot of college coaches ask to see the first and last plays of the game because they want to see if a player is consistent,” explained Drust. “Every snap in practice and games, Chisom never stops working.”
“If I’m not putting my complete effort into the whole game, what is the point of me being out there,?” said Okoro. “I want to play hard, no matter the outcome.”
Okoro was disappointed to not get to play his senior season, but still enjoyed being elected as a co-captain with classmate Nick DiDomizio last year. For his leadership, Okoro received the Coach Cunningham Award.
“Knowing that my teammates thought so highly of me was one of the best feelings,” said Okoro. “It was an honor to lead with Nick.”
In college, Casey is excited to play on the D-III level. He looked at the University of Connecticut, Hobart College (New York), and the University of Colorado, but felt most comfortable when visiting Bowdoin.
“First, I’m a big fan of nature. Bowdoin is located in Maine and it is beautiful up there,” explained Casey. “I think that I thrive in a small community, so that was another plus for me. For academics, Bowdoin is also a big school for my major (biochemistry).”
For football, Casey looks forward to kicking and punting for Head Coach B.J. Hammer. Bowdoin competes in the New England Small College Athletic Conference.
“I’m excited for him to have the opportunity to go play for them,” said Drust, of Casey. “Off the field, Jotham is as good of a person and leader as he is an athlete. He puts his team, family, and community first.”
Casey originally thought that he would be competing in soccer in college. He grew up playing that sport from first or second grade through his freshman year at CHS.
“I played in some of Cheshire’s private clubs and in the FSA (Farmington Sports Arena) club,” recalled Casey. “I’ve been a big fan of the sport ever since I was young. Soccer has a world community.”
His eyes were opened to football during the summer before his sophomore year.
“A bunch of friends said that the football team needed a kicker. I tried it out and had fun,” reflected Casey. “I didn’t really know too many people, but when I got in the weight room, I made an immediate connection that helped me find my spot on the team.”
In his debut in 2018, Casey made a 27-yard field goal, kicked an extra point, also punted in a 17-10 road loss to Shelton.
“I was very nervous for that game,” recalled Casey. “Making those kicks secured my love for the sport.”
As a sophomore, Casey made four of five field goals and added 19 extra points. To hone his skills for the next year, he hired a personal trainer and attended kicking camps at Wesleyan University, UConn, and the University of New Hampshire.
“It gave me opportunities to see other kickers and how they operate,” stated Casey.
The extra work helped him make all of this three field goals and convert on 44 of 46 extra points in his junior season at CHS. In a career-long kick, Casey booted a 44-yard field goal to help Cheshire seal a 24-12 comeback win at unbeaten Shelton.
“That was a great feeling,” recalled Casey. “The coaches asked me if I could make the kick and I said, ‘Yes.’ The energy in the stadium was fantastic. Shelton was a big game for us and everybody showed up to do their best.”
As a punter in 2019, Casey also had six kicks downed inside the 20-yard line.
“I find kicking field goals easier than punting. There is a lot of specific technique in punting,” stated Casey.
Along with playing football, Okoro and Casey also shined as throwers in track and field. To end his Cheshire career in javelin this year, Casey finished second in Class L (173 feet, three inches; personal record) and took eighth in the State Open (157’6”).
“I started throwing in my sophomore year,” reflected Casey, who co-captained the boys’ outdoor track and field team. “It took a couple of years to get the form down.”
Okoro also made his first State Open appearance as a senior, earning 19th place in shot put (41’11.50”).
“It was a little bit of a surprise to qualify,” said Okoro, who placed fifth in Class L (44’9.25”). “It was good to make the State Open and perform there.”
After having his best season in the spring, Casey is considering throwing javelin, as well as playing football, in college.
“I think that I have a lot of room for growth in throwing,” said Casey. “I feel doing a second sport keeps me in good shape for football.”
While Casey and Okoro have graduated from CHS, they plan on following the football team this fall.
“I’m pretty excited to see what they can do. I’ll be following every step of the way,” said Okoro.
Casey is currently working on kicking with junior Micah Galloza and senior Dylan Vazquez.
“I have more experience, so I can teach them what I know,” stated Casey.