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'Denver is getting someone who has a lot of heart': Why Jurrell Casey's arrival in Denver carries more meaning than football

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Elaine Kay, Courtney Balar, Lagra Newman and Bettie Kirkland are all bummed out.

These four people, all key figures in Nashville-area organizations committed to supporting their community, are coming to terms with the departure of one of their strongest supporters — metaphorically and literally.

Jurrell Casey, the former Tennessee Titan whose talents the Broncos acquired via a March trade, made his mark in Nashville not just on the football field, but also in the communities that supported him for so long. And now that the two-time Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee is leaving, there's a void for each of them.

For years, Casey served an important role for each of their organizations. Sometimes he provided financial support. Sometimes he provided emotional or motivational support for the people they serve. No matter what he did, though, he made his impact felt however he could, always fulfilling the promise implied whenever he'd ask, "What can I do to help?"

They, of course, will find new sources of support in the coming weeks or months, but now, in the interim, all they're left with is the fond memories and gratitude for what Casey and his wife, Ryann, did for them.

Newman, the leader of a charter school in north Nashville that serves an area that traditionally had been one of the lowest-performing school communities, put it bluntly:

"It's heartbreaking."

The thrust of the Caseys' work in Nashville has centered on one thing: the school-to-prison pipeline.

Disrupting this trend where vulnerable children are driven from public schools into criminal-justice systems by a series of harmful policies or practices was their main goal, in some part because of both their backgrounds: Jurrell’s brother is currently serving a prison sentence of at least 25 years, and Ryann has served Nashville as a public defender since 2016.

Throughout both of their lives, they have experienced or witnessed the pain that falling into the criminal justice system can create, so they started The Casey Fund. The fund supports organizations working to prevent people from heading down avenues that lead to being incarcerated or from stumbling back into those paths once they serve their sentences.

In 2015, Bettie Kirkland and her organization came across a story in a local newspaper about Jurrell and his brother. In reading Jurrell's words, they found someone who shared their principles and goals.

"When we saw what Jurrell was saying about his brother who was incarcerated, the love, compassion, and thoughtfulness just came through," Kirkland says. "We reached out to Jurrell and told him about Project Return's work and mission, and we invited him to come have a look for himself."

In the years since, the Caseys have supported Project Return's mission through The Casey Fund, providing the organization with financial backing to help people like Jurrell's brother find the support they need to avoid being incarcerated again.

"Jurrell, along with his wife Ryann, played a huge role in just highlighting the importance of the work that Project Return does in the community," Kirkland says. "They lent their powerful voice to our cause, and did so in a way that really aligned with Project Return: talking about people as fully human and understanding that people need hope and the opportunity to succeed. I truly think that Jurrell wants his brother Jurray to be treated the way we at Project Return treat people, whenever his brother does get released."

To address the other end of the pipeline, the Caseys worked primarily with Purpose Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Nashville's public school system that helps children in a community that previously underperformed academically.

"We first met Jurrell when we coordinated a career day at Purpose Prep," says Lagra Newman, who founded the school and runs it. "… Jurrell's table [had a] line of [children], especially our little boys … all waiting to see him, shake his hand, give him a high-five or get his autograph. He definitely was the star of the career day show."

Many kids would love to play in the NFL, but the message Jurrell was there to communicate that day in 2018 was not about how great it is to play football for a living. The objective was to get across that whether you want to be a football player or something else, you must place great importance on your academics.

"I think that was what was so powerful," Newman says. "It wasn't just about who he was as a Titans player; it was who he was as a person, who he was as a college student, who he was as a [high-school] student, who he was as a father, a husband and certainly as a community member."

Purpose Prep has achieved significant success in Nashville since it opened in 2013. In 2018, it was named a Reward school, which the Tennessee Department of Education designates as "the top distinction a school can earn in Tennessee." It was the first time a north Nashville school had received that honor, Newman notes.

"When you look at the demographics of Reward schools in Tennessee, they do not look like the demographics of Purpose Prep," Newman says. "They're not majority-black schools and certainly not a Title I school. What we're doing is we're proving that it's not your race or your affluence that should determine the type of quality education that you receive and the outcomes that you produce. If we set expectations high and we provide you with the supports that you need, you can absolutely out-perform. … And that's why we're so grateful for Jurrell for uplifting that, because our story is one that need to be told."

Jurrell and Ryann have served Purpose Prep in a number of ways since then. Ryann is on the school's board of directors, and Jurrell has attended some board meetings, funded back-to-school supply shopping sprees for families in need and contributed at the school's annual fundraiser.

Beyond the tangible impact, Jurrell's importance at Purpose Prep has a deeper connection, Newman says.

"Yes, he's an athlete, but more importantly, he's a servant and somebody who's a community servant, a leader in improving his community and improving people that he cares deeply about," Newman says. "… He showed his interest and investment in a school where he knew the children would be inspired every time they'd interact with him — and the adults."

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Jurrell's always placed a high priority on helping children, especially those in hospitals like Elliot.

Elliot, not yet 10 years old and fighting cancer, met Jurrell through the Rally Foundation at an event the organization's Nashville branch hosted for boys in the Rally Foundation's Rally Kid program. That year, though, Elliot was the only boy in the program. So it was just him and Jurrell, and Elliot's family.

"It was just special," says Elaine Kay, director of Rally Nashville. "They set up lunch, and Elliot's adopted brother and his parents and his grandparents were there, and it was just Jurrell. And Jurrell just made him feel like a million bucks."

After that outing, Jurrell became close with the family. He took Elliot's parents to dinner once and at one point treated Elliot and his friends to dinner with him.

"There were so many laughs with Elliot," Kay says. "He was such a special kid. Jurrell saw that real quick and treated him extra special."

But toward the end of 2018, Elliot's fight with his cancer worsened. He was in hospice care when Elaine reached out to the Caseys sometime around Christmas to see if they could give Elliot a visit.

Jurrell's season unfortunately ended prematurely when he suffered a knee injury during a Dec. 22 game, but even though he was in a cast and a wheelchair, he and Ryann agreed to make the trip out to Vanderbilt Children's Hospital.

Knowing Jurrell was on his way piqued Elliot's spirits.

"Elliot was so cute," Kay recalls. "He was, like, 7 going on 77. When he found out Jurrell was coming up, and Ryann was pushing him in the wheelchair and his leg was in this cast and obviously he was in pain and stuff, Elliot was like, 'OK, everyone out of the room, I just want this to be Jurrell and me and my parents.' And then right before, they were like, 'We're coming up.' And then he was like, 'No, wait. This will be a special moment for everyone. Everyone back in!'"

When Jurrell arrived, he had Elliot sign his cast and the two proceeded to spend a few hours together one last time. Three or four days later, Elliot was gone.

Jurrell made a habit of visiting children like Elliot over the years — both for Rally's Nashville branch and for Starlight Children's Foundation, a national organization that helps children by providing games or other fun experiences to brighten their time in the hospital.

As part of that partnership with Starlight, Jurrell even had his own hospital gown design made. Starlight produces custom gowns for kids that are more comfortable than normal ones and button down the side. Jurrell's featured a caricature of himself and his "Unstoppable" slogan on the front, with his last name and jersey number on the back.

In conjunction with that, he announced that for every sack he made that season, he'd donate $999 to the foundation. As the season went on, he also encouraged fans to join him in donating.

By the end of the year, he had raised more than $10,000 and donated about 1,000 gowns to children in Tennessee hospitals.

As great as those contributions were, though, it was Jurrell's natural bedside manner that made him a favorite among the kids

"The thing that really stood out to people was just how down-to-earth and comfortable and how really good he was with seriously ill kids who were in the hospital," says Christopher de Haan, who was Starlight's senior V.P. of marketing and communications when Jurrell worked with the foundation. "Having been at Starlight for so many years, I've done events all across the country. We'll have celebrities come in, and it's really tough. Sometimes people will have to take a few minutes to go to a separate room, have a cry because what they're looking at is so traumatizing — seeing these little kids in these horrible situations, having to deal with so much. But he just sat right down at the little table with these kids and did coloring with them. … He was just a natural at it.

"… You don't find that a lot of times with folks."

Maybe now you can see why people in Nashville are so glum to see Jurrell go.

But Broncos fans should also now see why they should be even happier to welcome him to Denver. Jurrell is the kind of player and person who will make you proud, whether he's in the locker room or in the community.

"I would say with Jurrell, he's not just one who gets out and just lends his name to things," says Courtney Balar, the director of corporate development for United Way of Greater Nashville, for whom Jurrell was a spokesperson. "He and Ryann both really like to get personally involved with the causes that they care about, which I think is really admirable, given how crazy his schedule is, how busy they are. He really wants to know what's going on, get involved, do whatever they can to help. And they're just great people. We've been so lucky to have them in the Nashville community.

"They're just the kind of people that you want in your community."

As the Caseys prepare to move to Denver, though, they won't completely uproot from Nashville. The Casey Fund will continue to operate in Nashville, albeit in a reduced fashion. At the same time, they're starting to think about how they will expand in Colorado — and that's something people in Denver should be excited about.

"Denver is getting someone who has a lot of heart for his community and for his family," Newman says. "… I know the impact he had in Nashville will absolutely carry over into Denver. He gives his heart to what he does and what he participates in. You're getting somebody who's really genuine. You're getting somebody who's incredibly humble. And you're getting somebody who's constantly thinking about his platform and how it benefits others. Whether that's the exposure that he can provide an organization or what he can give personally, financially, he's constantly just thinking about the privilege that he has as an athlete and as a professional athlete and what that means for uplifting the community around him."

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