SCOREBOARD Giants defensive stalwarts Ayers, Casillas are ‘J.C.’ all the way

Different roads to Meadowlands began in Jersey City

When they arrived at the start of training camp with the New York Giants a few weeks ago, there was no way that Robert Ayers and Jonathan Casillas knew each other.
After all, the two seven-year NFL veterans came from totally different backgrounds.
Defensive end Ayers went to the University of Tennessee, was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft and spent the first five years of his career with the Broncos before signing a two-year contract as a free agent with the Giants in 2014.
Linebacker Casillas went to the University of Wisconsin, went undrafted and signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent in 2009 and made the team.
Casillas spent three years with the Saints, earning a Super Bowl ring as a rookie, then had a stop in Tampa Bay before getting traded to the New England Patriots last year, earning his second Super Bowl championship ring.
Casillas signed a three-year contract with the Giants as a free agent in the offseason.
But as it turned out, Ayers and Casillas had something deeply in common, namely their place of birth.
Both Ayers and Casillas were born in Jersey City, just eight miles away from MetLife Stadium, the Giants’ official home.
The two thought they never had met, until Casillas’ father, Jersey City playground legend Flash Gordon (yes, that’s his real name) mentioned something to his son about having known Ayers in his Jersey City days.
“My Dad knew his family,” Casillas said. “I had heard of him and knew he was from Jersey City, but I didn’t know him. We initially introduced ourselves to each other, but then my Dad said that we played basketball against each other when we were little kids. That’s just wild.”
Sure enough, as it turns out, Ayers and Casillas lived only blocks apart on Garfield Avenue when they were youngsters in Jersey City.
“His family knew all of my family,” Ayers said. “I was told we played basketball together, but I really didn’t remember him. I really don’t remember much about those days, but it’s crazy to think we once played together.”
Both left their hometown at an early age.
After living in Jersey City through grade school and playing for nearby Hoboken High School as a freshman, Ayers moved to the home of his aunt in Clio, S.C., in order to stay away from inner-city trouble. Ayers became an All-State linebacker at Marlboro County High in South Carolina, earning the full scholarship to Tennessee.
Casillas also moved away from Jersey City, settling with his mother in New Brunswick, where he played high school football before earning a scholarship to Wisconsin.
Now, as Giants teammates and members of the defensive unit, Ayers and Casillas are like long lost buddies with that one special connection, namely the place of their birth.
“We call each other ‘J.C.’ for Jersey City,” Ayers said. “I’m J.C. and he’s J.C. We know the struggles of coming up in the inner city and I’m proud to say that we made it. Because we’re both from Jersey City, we have formed this special bond. We look out for each other.”
“We had that special feeling that anyone from Jersey City has for each other,” Casillas said. “We have to pay homage to our hometown. I think it’s great and fantastic. It helps to form a special unity, both on and off the field. We’re like brothers now. I feel that the better defensive units in this league are the ones who stick together. We’re all a close knit group of guys. But Robert and I have a special thing going on, because Jersey City guys stick together.”
Ayers played well last year for the Giants for 12 games, until he tore his pectoral muscle and was lost for the season. He had 22 tackles and five sacks as a situational player, usually getting in on third down scenarios.
But with the status of All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in question after maiming his hand in a fireworks accident, Ayers could be asked to become an every down lineman this season.
“I always want to be the every down guy,” Ayers said. “I wanted to be that guy regardless of what happened. I wish he [Pierre-Paul] was out there with us and helping us as a team. I don’t need his absence to be motivated. I know I can be a disruptive player and the sack numbers will come. But I want to be a complete player and I’ll do everything they ask of me to make sure that can happen.”
Ayers was awed recently by meeting Giants Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan, so much so that Ayers asked the current co-host of “Live with Kelly and Michael” and Fox Sports analyst for his autograph.
“He’s the guy that I watched as a kid growing up,” Ayers said. “He was busy tearing people’s heads off. My father always had me watching him, so when I got here, I made sure that I met him. I was in awe.”
Ayers had a Giants cap in his locker and asked Strahan to sign it.
“He was having lunch in the cafeteria and I approached him to have him sign my hat. I went up to him like any other fan. I said, ‘It’s always been a dream of mine to meet you,’ and I introduced myself. I’m sure he knew who I was. I still have the hat sitting in my locker.”
Because he grew up in Jersey City, Ayers said that he was always a Giants fan.
“There’s a great legacy of Giants greats around here. Me and my family idolized these players. It meant a lot to me and I try to enjoy it every chance I get.”
Casillas is enjoying his homecoming.
“It’s been fantastic,” Casillas said. “My mom and dad have been out to see me already. My daughter has been here and that didn’t happen often when I was in New Orleans or Tampa, only for a brief visit. I’m very family oriented and I’m always about the family first. So this is huge for me.”
Casillas, who started three games with the Buccaneers and then three games with the Patriots last season, collecting a combined total of 37 tackles between the two squads, says that he hopes to earn a starting spot with the Giants at linebacker.
“I see myself as a starter,” Casillas said. “I’m a very confident person. I prepare myself that way, even if I don’t start. I do a good job on special teams and take pride in my special teams play. I’m ready to contribute in whatever way I can to help this team get a ring. I have two and I’m working on my third. I think I have the ability to perform under pressure. I have the durability. I think I’ve proven myself in this league.”
And if they earn starting positions come Sept. 13 against the Dallas Cowboys, then Ayers knows Casillas has his back – literally.
“That’s what J.C. guys do,” Ayers said.

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