Any athlete will more than likely be able to tell you the very first player he idolized, and for Sandwich High School football coach Kris Cassie, that answer is pretty simple.
"My passion for football started when I was a little kid watching Walter Payton on television," said Cassie, who in his first two seasons as head coach has led the Indians to 4-5 records after the program went 7-29 the previous four seasons. "I fell in love with the game, and that's why I started playing.
"Football has been a part of my life since a very young age."
Cassie played football and wrestled at Prospect High School before just focusing on the books while attending Northern Illinois University.
"Originally started as a computer science major and quickly found out that sitting in a room writing code all day — while it's a noble job — just wasn't for me," Cassie said with a laugh. "A lot of my buddies played on the football team, and I hung out with and trained with them all the time. One day some of us were talking, and they were like, 'Hey, you know you can go back and coach it?'
"I started thinking after that ... maybe teaching and coaching was the career for me. I love lifting weights, I love football, maybe this is a way to reconnect with the game. I worked for the Prospect Park District for a summer, working with little kids coaching baseball, and I thought, 'Maybe this truly is the route for me.' "
That next year he changed his major toward a path in physical education/teaching.
He was hired by Sandwich High School to teach and coach football right out of college in 2001. He coached middle school football and helped scout on Friday night's for the varsity program.
"When Derek Avery took over (in 2004), he brought me up to the high school level, and I've been doing it ever since," said Cassie.
Cassie was first the head coach of the Indians freshman team, while over the next few years coaching the linebackers, was the head sophomore coach, defensive coordinator and SHS athletic director. After being away from the sidelines while AD, he returned in 2014 under coach Chris Van Dyke as linebackers coach. Then, when Van Dyke stepped down, the opportunity was there for Cassie to be the head coach of Sandwich football.
"It was in that very first year coaching the freshmen when I knew I had made the right career choice, saw I could make an impact and make a difference," Cassie said. "It was the first game of the season against Walther Lutheran, and we won 26-0. That group — the first I had in youth tackle — didn't win a whole lot of games when they played in grade school.
"I remember Brian Bartholomew standing on the sidelines and saying to me, 'This feels so good, Coach.' It was the process of it all, the kids all coming together and working for the same goal. We finished 6-3 on the season, and I was hooked."
"When the players found out Coach Van Dyke was stepping down, I had two of them — Dylan Baumbach and John Conrad — show up at my PE office telling me that I needed to be the next head coach. My confidence was high, but you always wonder, 'Am I ready?' and 'Can I do this?' But when those two showed up telling me I needed to be the guy, I was like, 'I need to do this for these kids.' "
Cassie says that football is just a way of life for him and also his family. He says his wife is the "football secretary," as she runs the Indians' social media and spearheads all of the fundraising efforts, while his two daughters were water girls on the sidelines and his son the ball boy.
"Over the years it's transformed into working with young men and great assistant coaches — all of whom have the passion for the game as well as my family," Cassie said. "The job is teaching the game of football, you hope if they want to that they go on to play college ball and keep in touch with you. It becomes part of your life and who you are.
"The game doesn't define me, but it's a big part of my life. It's a labor of love, and it doesn't even feel like work when we are doing it. When we call ourselves a football family at Sandwich, these guys truly become one of my family."
Cassie says that many have influenced him along his coaching journey, including his coaches at Prospect — Hall of Fame coaches Joe Gliwa (football) and Gary McMarrow (wrestling), as well as former Sandwich wrestling coach Lon Gerrish and former SHS head gridiron coaches Derek Avery and Dusty Behringer "to name just a few."
"When I was a young coach, it was all about winning, and I was hard on the kids," Cassie said. "But now as I've gotten older, I focus less on winning and losing and more on forming relationships and the process ... making sure our techniques are correct, that kids are training in the offseason and building bonds. You're around each other so much as a football team — starting in June and going all the way through late October.
"Of course, you still want to win football games, you're ultimately judged on your win-loss record, but you learn as a coach by doing all of those other things the players will want to push harder for you if you are truly invested in them.
"Coaching has been an absolutely rewarding experience for me."