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The Sad Tale of Casey Ortez

All Casey Ortez ever wanted to do was play football. He loved the game. He lived it and breathed it. When he set foot on the University of Hawaii campus in the spring of 1973, the promising young quarterback was handed a questionnaire. Under “Contemplated Profession,” he simply wrote, “pro quarterback.”

Nine years later, when football had left him behind, Ortez didn’t see a reason to go on.

Growing up in Stockton, California, Ortez was always involved in sports. At Stagg High School, he was a three-year starter in basketball and baseball – the Baltimore Orioles selected him in the 20th round of the 1970 MLB Draft – but football was always his first love. He idolized Joe Namath. He asked to be called “Broadway” and even grew out his hair to resemble the celebrated NFL quarterback.

Ortez signed with Southern Methodist University because he read that their quarterback once threw 47 passes in a single game. After his sophomore season, however, the school fired the Mustangs’ head coach, future College Football Hall of Fame inductee Hayden Fry, and the new coach, Dave Smith, favored the run-heavy wishbone offense.

Cortez decided to leave the program and set his sights on the University of Hawaii.

”I hear they like to throw the football and the girls wear grass skirts,” he told Dallas reporters. “I intend to check out both.”

Cortez was eligible to play for Hawaii right away, and UH head coach Dave Holmes gave him an opportunity to earn the starting QB position. To do so, Cortez had two beat out three other candidates: returnee Tim Feigh, Freshman Alex Kaloi and a transfer from Oregon named June Jones.

During the week leading to the Rainbow Warrior’s season opener – a road game against the University of Washington – Holmes announced that Ortez was his starter. One of the reasons Ortez got the nod, according to the coach, was that at SMU he had experience playing in front of large, hostile crowds.

yard line.Ortez was confident Holmes made the right choice. “I consider myself [to be] one of the best quarterbacks in the country,” he noted to a Honolulu Advertiser reporter.

September 15, 1973. Hawaii 10, Washington 7.

“Shout it from South Bend to Columbus to Birmingham to Baton Rouge,” wrote the Advertiser’s Bruce Spinks. “Wake the town and tell the people of Norman and Austin and Palo Alto and Los Angeles and all the other citadels of college football. Kick down the door and inform the world that Hawaii – the proud Aloha State – has something besides pineapples and hula girls. Make them listen. Make them understand that the University of Hawaii has a football team. And if they still don’t believe it, tell them to ask the University of Washington.”

Ortez and the Hawaii offense struggled early, managing only a 27-yard first-quarter FG by Reinhold Stuprich. The UH defense, on the other hand, was unrelenting throughout the game. In front of 52,500 rabid U-Dub fans, the Rainbow Warriors’ stopped the Huskies five times on fourth down – three times inside the 10-yard line. Defensive tackle Levi Stanley – a future UH Sports Circle of Honor inductee – led the effort with 16 total tackles.

The winning score occurred in the third quarter, when Ortez threw a 24-yard strike to receiver Allen Brown in the end zone. For the game, Ortez was 8 for 17 for 125 yards, 1 TD and 2 picks.

“It’s the best test we could have had, playing in front of more than 50,000 people,” Ortez said after the victory. “I don’t think anyone can stop me and Al Brown now.”

No opponent could stop Hawaii, at least for a while. The next week, the Rainbow Warriors visited Fresno State and beat the Bulldogs, 13-10. Then they reeled off successful over Texas Southern, Cal-State Los Angeles, Puget Sound, UNLV, Cal State Northridge and Santa Clara. The team’s 9-0 start was the program’s best since the 1925 “Wonder Team,” which went 10-0.

Up next was the visiting Pacific Tigers from Stockton, California, Ortez’s hometown.

“I’m all fired up,” said Ortez the week of the game. “This game means more to me than any of the others. To me, losing this game would ruin the whole season. This is my homecoming game.”

Pacific embarrassed UH, 28 to 3.

After the game, all hell broke loose.

In the locker room, Ortez was assaulted by a teammate, defensive lineman Cliff Laboy. According to Holmes, Laboy accused the quarterback of throwing the game. Against the Tigers, Ortez threw four interceptions and lost a fumble. Three of his five turnovers resulted in UOP touchdowns.

The next day, Ortez and several other players didn’t show up at the team’s film meeting. Then, on Monday, Ortez announced that he had quit the team and accused members of the UH defense of gambling on their games.

“It’s a very small group of defensive players. I would say less than 10,” he told the Advertiser’s Spinks. “All they talk about is betting on our games. They’re always talking about the point spread. And I hear them saying things like, ‘I loss my ass.’ When a guy says that it usually means he lost money. They bet on us to win and if we don’t win by enough points they blame me. That’s what caused me to get jumped and nothing else. I can’t play under those conditions any longer.”

Laboy denied the charges. “There’s no truth to it,” he said. “He was just thinking of something to say before he leaves.”

The newspaper also reported that Ortez himself had been accused of gambling on UH games just a few weeks into the season. The school launched an investigation and Ortez was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Ortez and his father, Phil, who had been living with him in an off-campus apartment, returned to Dallas. Ortez’s good friend and top receiver, Brown, joined them. Ortez, however, didn’t leave unscathed.

In a Nov. 23 sports column, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s Bill Kwon wrote: “It’s easy to get mad at Casey Ortez. His narcissistic approach to football had not endeared himself to his Hawaii teammates all season. At the first sign of personal adversity he called it quits. And his parting verbal potshots were as carelessly tossed as some of his passes … But Casey is really to be pitied. Pitied for his inability to get along with people. And for his damaging smokescreen charge of gambling which he laid down in order to skip town.”

While some dismissed Ortez’s allegations, they were serious enough that UH launched another investigation. One month later, the Honolulu Police Department announced that investigators found no evidence to substantiate the gambling charges. Furthermore, HPD said that Ortez refused to answer their questions and admitted that his knowledge of betting by players came “only by hearsay.”

“This bears out what I believed the whole time, that there was no substance to the charges,” said UH Athletic Director Paul Durham. “I think it was a bunch of ‘shibai’ all the way.”

Holmes turned to Tim Feigh as the team’s new starting QB. The Rainbow Warriors fell to San Jose State the next week, then beat Utah, 7-6, to finish the season at 9-2.

Ortez’s UH career lasted nine games. His season stats: 103 passing completions in 178 attempts for 1,385 yards and 10 TDs.

The following year, both Ortez and Brown played for the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos. In 1975, Ortez signed a free agent contract with the Oakland Raiders but was cut before the start of the season.

For Ortez, his lifelong dream of playing in the NFL was effectively over.

He returned to California and parlayed his good looks into an acting career. For a brief time, he dated a pre-“Wheel of Fortune” Vanna White.

But his failed football career continued to haunt him. Phil Ortez recalled, “One day, we were watching a football game at home, and he told me, ‘Dad, you know that’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. I don’t want to do anything else.”

On May 23, 1982, Phil Ortez walked to Casey’s bedroom and found his son unconscious with a towel tied around his neck. He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The official cause of death: “Asphyxia by hanging – suicide.”

Casey Ortez was 31.

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