By Patrick Garbin—Twitter @PatrickGarbin
Playing for Statesboro High School in the early 1980s, CASSIUS OSBORN was a jack-of-all-trades player competing at the highest classification in Georgia. Besides being considered one of the top receivers in the state as a senior, he played free safety on defense, was slotted occasionally at running back, passed for two touchdowns, and even was the team’s placekicker. Therefore, it shouldn’t have been a surprise the role he would play for the Bulldogs.
When I was a kid in the mid-80s, Cassius was one of my favorite players. For one, I thought he had a cool name. Also, he was a unique yet integral part of a run-first team—a big-play wide receiver for a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. Osborn’s 19.9 yards-per-catch career average remains 2nd in Georgia football annals amongst those who made at least 40 receptions; his 24.0 career kick-return average still ranks in the top 10 of those with at least a dozen returns; and you can count on only one hand how many Bulldogs in history averaged at least 20 yards per touch (rushes + receptions + returns) of those with at least 1,000 career all-purpose yards—and Osborn is one of them (20.8 avg.). Speaking of touches, one of the few letdowns—and perhaps the only one—in Cassius’ game was that he didn’t get enough of them at Georgia from 1984 through 1987.
Since his playing days for the Bulldogs, Osborn has been busy teaching school and coaching football and track, including a stint as the head football coach at Portal High School in Bulloch County. I recently caught up with him from his home in Statesboro, Ga., to see what else he has been up to:
PG: I’m pretty sure I know the answer, but I just have to ask: Where did the name “Cassius” come from?
CO: Muhammad Ali—I was told I was named after him. I was born in 1966 [two years after Cassius Clay changed his name], although I was given his former name of “Cassius” for Cassius Clay.
PG: As one of the state’s most highly-touted receivers coming out of high school, you were recruited by schools all over the country. Why did you decide to attend Georgia—a program which was known much more for its running than passing game?
CO: Being from Statesboro, a South Georgia town, I really only had my sights on Georgia and Georgia Tech. Alabama came to me and even said I would immediately replace Jesse Bendross—be their next Jesse Bendross (Bendross, a departing senior, had more than 50 combined catches for nearly 1,000 yards in 1982-1983 for the Tide). But, for me, it was pretty much Georgia all the way, and maybe a little interest in Georgia Tech.
PG: If the Bulldogs, who had a depleted offense from the year before, were deep at one position entering 1984, it was at wide receiver. Georgia returned four of its top five wide receivers from 1983, including Herman Archie (who had more than half—31 of 60—of the receptions made by Georgia’s wide receivers in ’83) and Fred Lane. Did you think that you might redshirt as a freshman?
CO: When I came to Georgia, I arrived very humble. From what I knew of the program, it was Herschel Walker, Sugar Bowls, a Cotton Bowl, SEC titles, and a national championship. I was just glad to be a Georgia Bulldog. But, in my mind, I thought I’d probably sit out and redshirt as a freshman, then maybe play some the next year. When I got there, I was star struck as I was watching Freddie Lane and Herman [Archie] in practice—guys I had seen on television the year or two before. So, I was just glad to be a part of it all.
PG: And here, you not only see playing time immediately but, by the end of the season, you are starting as a true freshman, and starting over Herman Archie at split end. What do you remember about that?
CO: Well, I remember I had a really good [fall] camp and then, as a backup, caught some balls during the season. But then I had a good catch near the sidelines against Florida. And, after that, I recall some coaches saying, “We got to get him (Osborn) in there.” So, my first start was the very next week against Auburn. It hit me at that point, and I was like, “My gosh, here I am—playing big-time football at Georgia. Now, I got to perform.”
(And, indeed, Osborn did perform. Here is his aforementioned catch against Florida in 1984, followed by a few more big plays from his Georgia career…)
PG: Ray Sherman, who recently completed a 41-year college and NFL coaching career, coached for two seasons at Georgia—your last two years as a Bulldog. What do you remember about Coach Sherman?
CO: A great person—great person. A lot of the things I do now when I coach, they’re from what I learned from Coach Sherman. A lot of coaches, they’re so hard on you, you’re scared to make a mistake. But, with Coach Sherman, it was so different. He could be hard, but he was very fair, even-tempered and went to bat for us. Coach Sherman coached us up, we felt comfortable around him, and he made the game fun.
PG: Personally, what were your best on-field moments as a Georgia Bulldog?
CO: During my senior year, I had a couple of good catches, including a long touchdown, and a couple of good kickoff returns against LSU (156 receiving and kickoff return yards on just four touches). I was named the team’s Volvo Player of the Game. It went back and forth, and it was a really good game, but we lost that game [26-23]. So, another great moment for me was my first touchdown catch during my freshman season, which came at home against Ole Miss (a 28-yarder from David Dukes in an 18-12 win over the Rebels).
PG: You were invited to the NFL Combine after your senior season. What was the combine like back then, and did you think you had a legitimate shot to make it to the NFL?
CO: The combine was essentially brand new back then. Again, I was star struck when I got there. I saw guys like Lorenzo White, Thurman Thomas, and Tim Brown, who had just won the Heisman Trophy. And here, I was just an ole country boy. Still, I honestly thought I really had a shot to make it, especially after I caught the ball so well at the combine. But then, it was my turn to run the 40. Now, I’m just going to be honest, Patrick, but I had always been a 4.4-40 guy during college, and was when I arrived at the combine. But there, they timed us using Accutrack (electronic timing system). And, it helped if you had been trained using that system—and some guys had been—but I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t believe I didn’t run a 4.4. It hurt me so bad. In fact, I soon got a call from Coach Sherman, who had gone to the Houston Oilers [as an assistant coach], who said , “What in the world, Cassius?” That was it—I didn’t get to run the 40 again. I actually got phone calls from a couple of [NFL] teams that said to me something like, “We were going to pick you in such-and-such round, but you only ran such-and-such, but we’ll keep you on our radar.”
PG: Although you weren’t drafted, you still signed as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and made it with the team until getting cut in late August.
CO: Yes, and it was the Steelers’ receivers coach, Dwain Painter, who ironically had been at Georgia Tech (offensive coordinator, 1982-1985), who brought me in. But, by the time I got in, I had missed the rookie mini-camp and arrived for the team’s regular camp. I got there, and I was given this big [playbook] and it was like, “Here you go…” I didn’t even know what position I was supposed to be at—X, Y, whatever. I probably should have gone to Coach Painter to see what was going on, but I guess I was just trying to make it on my own. But, I would go out there every day [at practice] not fully understanding everything. Still, it (playing in the NFL) wasn’t in my plan—wasn’t my time. But, I did get that far [nearly making the team], and I am grateful for that.
PG: If you don’t mind me asking, why were you late for camp?
CO: I could have dropped out of school and made it to the first day of mini-camp, but I went back to school (UGA) because I had to take a final exam.
PG: So, where did you go from there?
CO: After I got cut, I went back and finished up my degree. I came back here (South Georgia) in 1990, and worked in the general public for less than a year before working in the school system. My old high school brought me back to coach football and track and gave me a job teaching. I taught in Bulloch County for 27 years before I just completed my first year at Metter Middle School in Candler County, where I plan to close out my teaching career. At Metter High School, I am the head track coach and an assistant football coach.
PG: Tell me about your family.
CO: I’ve been married to Debra for three years. Together, we have six kids, so we have an army: Darrell, Juhwan, Dylen, Cashonti, Dakota, and Daylen.
PG: I’ve seen online that not only you kind of have a side business, but so do a couple members of your family—right?
CO: Yes, for about three-four years, I held a 6 to 14-year-old football camp through the Bulloch County Rec. Department. We didn’t do it this past year. I realized I need to make the camp cheaper to give back to the community, so my aim is to get sponsors going forward. Hopefully, by securing sponsorships, the camp can resume soon. Also, my wife and daughter have an embroidery business based out of Statesboro—Deb and Dakota’s Embroidery and Fashion Boutique.
PG: I also saw online you holding an award while pictured with Mark Richt and Phil Simms several years back. How were you honored?
CO: Yes, in 2012, I was honored by the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame University of Georgia Chapter for my post-graduate work and for what I do in my community. It’s a relatively new award, a real neat honor, and was a big accolade for me.
PG: Man, it sounds like you and you’re family are really busy, Cassius. Do you have any time to have any sort of association with the UGA football program?
CO: Because of all those years coaching football, I hardly had any spare time. Still, we try to go to at least one game, maybe two, per year. This past year, we attended the Nicholls game, when the 1986 Bulldogs were one of the teams honored on the field. My family likes going, and we enjoy the lettermen’s tailgate at the cemetery near the stadium.