Induction Year: 1985
In 1969, one of the biggest problems confronting LSU football coach Charlie McClendon was what to do with Tommy Casanova.
Although he didn't have a single down of varsity experience, McClendon was already calling Casanova one of the top athletes he had seen at LSU—comparing him to 1962 All-American Jerry Stovall.
Stovall excelled on both offense and defense, but college football players didn't go both ways when Casanova came along.
As a freshman, he led the Baby Bengals in rushing with 209 yards in 54 attempts. But he also returned punts and kickoffs, and was an outstanding defensive player.
McClendon moved him to the left cornerback position the following spring, but the 6-1, 186-pound speedster from Crowley also returned kicks and played on offense in spot situations. Norm Hodgins, who two years later, was another double-dipper.
In his sophomore and junior seasons, Casanova had 72 rushing attempts for 302 yards, and intercepted three passes each year.
Casanova was the cover boy for Sport's Illustrated annual College Football Preview issue in the summer of 1971. He was acclaimed as the nation's most complete player and a top contender for the Heisman Trophy.
A pulled hamstring muscle in the second game of the 1971 season, a 37-0 rout of Texas A&M, knocked Casanova out of the lineup for five weeks and took him out of the Heisman Trophy picture. When he returned at the end of the season, he was overshadowed by junior quarterback Bert Jones.
“Tommy was one of the most gifted athletes I ever coached,” McClendon said. “There's no question in my mind he could've been an All-American running back. He could really have jazzed up our offense.”
His top individual performance came in a 61-17 rout of Ole Miss in 1970—a victory that wrapped up an Orange Bowl bid for the Tigers. Casanova tied the national record of two punt returns for touchdowns in one game (61 and 74 yards) and LSU equaled the team record of three as Craig Burns also had a 61-yarder. The Tigers also intercepted five passes in a game that was close until Casanova's first punt return touchdown lat in the second quarter. As the score mounted in the second half, long-suffering LSU fans who hadn't seen their team beat the Rebels since 1964 bombarded the field with oranges.
A couple of weeks earlier, at South Bend, Casanova dropped a Joe Theismann pass in the end zone one play before Scott Hempel kicked a 24-yard field goal with les than three minutes to play to give No. 2 ranked Notre Dame a 3-0 victory over LSU.
Casanova and his teammates got another shot at the fighting Irish in Baton Rouge near the end of the 1971 season. Once again, Casanova had an opportunity for an end zone interception. This time, he caught the ball (his only interception in an injury-marred season) for a touchback as the Tigers' defense repeatedly turned back the Fighting Irish. With Jones passing for one touchdown and running for two more, LSU scored a 28-8 nationally televised victory in a game that McClendon called “the greatest win in Tiger Stadium in my 19 years at LSU.”
Other than the interception against Notre Dame, Casanova's only statistics in 1971 were seven punt returns for 26 yards.
“I wanted to play both ways,” he recalled. “Just about everybody who ever played football fancies themselves as a running back. But I knew if I had a pro career, it would be as a defensive back.”
The Cincinnati Benagls made him their first draft choice, and Casanova played six seasons in the National Football League before hanging up his cleats because of knee problems.
“My last year,” he said, “I was in pain virtually the whole season. Football was not fun. I was concentrating more on limping than my assignments. If I'd played another year, it would've been strictly for the money, and I told myself I wouldn't do that.”
Although he played only six seasons, he ranked No. 2 on the Bengals' career punt return list and No. 4 on their career interception list when he left the game.
Looking back at his college career, Casanova singled out a 21-20 victory over an Auburn team led by Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley as the highlight. It was the first football encounter between LSU and Auburn since 1942, with LSU scoring on its first offensive play (a halfback pass from Jimmy Gilbert to Andy Hamilton) and hanging on to win by the margin of an extra point kick that George Bevan blocked.
“It was a total team effort,” recalled LSU's total team football player.
Casanova completed work on his medical degree after his playing career, and is now an ophthalmologist (eye surgeon) in Crowley .
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