KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The tide of painful memories washed over and froze him to the spot, days and months of heartache dancing over and over again in Miles Postlethwait’s head like some nightmare on a tape loop.
Until a voice cut through.
"It might be hard," the voice said, "but it means more to them than it’s going to hurt you."
Miles looked up. Matt Cassel pressed on.
"You know what? You’re not alone," the quarterback continued. "There are other people in there. If you don’t like it, you can leave."
Miles Postlethwait had avoided going into children’s intensive care units. Too much water there, not enough bridges. It was too close to his own childhood, dozens of operations, always in and out of hospitals. The sterile walls. The beeping. The dripping. The needles. The routine. The isolation. The unknown. The tears.
Oh, it’s not that Miles didn’t like kids; he loved ’em. Still does. But it was probably one of the parts of the Shadow Buddies Foundation that he despised the most. Boyhood pains leave the deepest scars, real and figurative. The last thing he wanted was to open them up again.
"It was a big journey for Miles to do that," Miles’ mother, Marty Postlethwait, explains.
As they huddled in that hospital lobby some five years ago, Cassel could see the angst, the doubt.
Matt was always upbeat, good-natured. He could have a bad day (at the office) and he would still just always be so positive.
Marty Postlethwait, founder, the Shadow Buddies Foundation
He doubled his efforts.
"If I can do it, you can do it."
The loop slowed down. The dancing stopped. The tide crept away.
"Suck it up. Do it."
Miles did. With Cassel by his side, the wind beneath wounded wings, he boarded an elevator, took a deep breath and embraced the past with strength he never knew he had.
"Every time we’ve had a big event, (Cassel has) done everything my mom and I have asked — not only for the organization, but he does it mainly for the kids," Miles says. "Whenever he goes to see these kids, (Marty) has to pull him out of the hospital because he’s spending too much time with them.
"Words can’t describe what he’s done for this community off of (the field). I don’t know if people realize what he has actually done."
Cassel returns to Kansas City this weekend as starting quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, guests for the Chiefs’ third preseason contest Saturday night, back to a team he represented in the Pro Bowl after the 2010 season, back to a city that booed him out the door, back to a stadium that cheered as he lay on the ground concussed.
After being released by the Chiefs in March 2013, Matt Cassel was signed by the Vikings, for whom he will start Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium.
For some, it’s conflicted, too.
"If I was a betting man, I would put a wager that says he will get booed," Miles says. "I guess the fan that pays the ticket, they have the right to do what they want.
"But you know what? I’m a die-hard Chiefs fan, through and through, but I hope he torches them and leaves on a high note."
Marty Postlethwait founded the Shadow Buddies Foundation in September 1995 in honor of Miles, who was born with midline congenital birth defects. The "Buddies" in the name are condition-specific muslin dolls, giving hospitalized and abused children a friend who’s going through the same trials they are. In 2000, Shadow Buddies was named one of former president George Bush’s Daily Points of Light.
Tony Gonzalez was Marty’s first big Chiefs ambassador; when he was traded to Atlanta in the spring of 2009, she was steered toward Cassel, who then was coming in from the New England Patriots as one of the new faces of the franchise, the recipient of a six-year, $62.7 million contract.
On the field, there were ups (a playoff berth and 27 passing touchdowns in 2010) and downs (a broken hand that ended his 2011 season after Week 10). Off the field, Cassel took to Shadow Buddies, and to Miles, the way a duck takes to water. He lit up more rooms than General Electric, gently hugging little girls, high-fiving little boys. He provided Chiefs tickets for their parents so they could take a break from the pediatric ward. He was everybody’s cool older brother, if only for a few minutes.
"It was like he knew no strangers," Marty says. "He embraced them all."
The strange thing is that Cassel could hardly have gotten 2012 — the worst year of his NFL life — off to a better start, public relations-wise. One January night, Cassel’s wife spotted smoke coming from a home across the street from their house in the gated Village of Loch Lloyd, Mo.
The then-Chiefs quarterback sprinted over and pounded on the door until the woman who lived inside came out, then warned her of the danger. Everyone got out unharmed, and fire crews showed up a short time later.
"I wasn’t heroic at all," Cassel told KMBC-TV at the time. "I just ran up to the house and alerted them. The real heroes are the firefighters."
If the honeymoon was brief, the divorce was a long time coming. In July 2012, amid the unbridled joy of the All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium and the red carpets and good-time vibes and Kansas City showing a baseball world that had all but forgotten it how well she could put on a show, there was a celebrity softball game.
When Bill Self came to the plate, the Missouri fans at The K booed.
When Cassel came to the plate, everybody booed.
We can debate the actual beginning of the end, but that booing, captured on national television, was one of the flashpoints. Before he lost a single game in 2012, Cassel had lost his town.
The rest is well-worn infamy, a season that bounced between the various circles of hell, from comedy (the family of a deceased fan jokingly blaming the Chiefs as a cause of death in his obituary) to outrage (the "blackout" game) and genuine tragedy (Jovan Belcher).
And in the eye of the hurricane was Cassel, whose year unraveled like an old sweater.
"I was shocked," Miles Postlethwait says now. "I understand when a quarterback’s playing bad, there’s (the) saying that the quarterback gets too much of the credit and too much of the blame. It (was) too much of the blame."
But the All-Star booing was nothing compared to October 7, 2012. During the Chiefs’ 9-6 home loss to Baltimore, Cassel threw two picks and fumbled twice, a lousy day ended when he suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter. As Cassel was helped off the field, Arrowhead erupted in rapturous applause.
Doubtless most fans were cheering not for Cassel’s injury, but for his removal from the game, the communal desire to see someone else’s hand on the wheel. But it infuriated Chiefs players as they listened on the field and on the sideline — so much so that tackle Eric Winston stood before a circle of cameras and microphones after the contest and called out Kansas City fans as "sickening."
The downward spiral picked up steam after that.
Chiefs fans cheered when Matt Cassel had to leave the game with a concussion against the Ravens in 2012.
Cassel lost his starting job. He stopped speaking to reporters and was often seen silently and stoically departing the postgame locker room on Sundays, almost zombie-like, as the losses mounted. Miles saw the strain affecting Cassel in private, too, that strength starting to ebb.
"To be blunt, it sucked," Miles says. "Especially when you go to lunch with the guy and you go to dinner and you can see him and you can tell he’s emotionally drained.
"I know it was hard for him to go out in the community and go to dinner because he didn’t want to have someone say something to him. Which is sad. He’s a football player, he’s not a president. It’s just a game."
It was very disappointing to me that Kansas City would even begin to treat somebody like that.
In hindsight, what happened in 2012 — a 2-14 record and its myriad of horrors — was not solely Cassel’s fault, nor solely his burden. For all its intricacies, the NFL is largely about getting the combination of coach and quarterback right, first and foremost. General manager Scott Pioli had poisoned a once-proud organization from the top down. From 2009-12, the Chiefs cycled through five different offensive coordinators, a revolving door that only exacerbated the challenges in continuity.
Cassel wasn’t the only problem. But it was clear he probably wasn’t going to be part of the solution, either. Fans couldn’t boo Pioli in person, so they became doubly hard on No. 7, his star acquisition, his golden child, the shoulders on whom he’d thrust the offense.
So the decision to cut Cassel in March 2013 was, really, a long time in coming. The Hunt family took the nuclear option. They had no choice. The short-term returns have served as vindication enough; the Chiefs underwent the greatest single-season turnaround in franchise history, leaping from two victories to 11 in the fall of 2013. Instead of handing the coaching reins to the unproven and volatile (Todd Haley) or the proven, lovable and unsuccessful (Romeo Crennel), the franchise plucked the best free-agent whistle on the market in ex-Eagles boss Andy Reid, a known commodity who also needed a change of scenery professionally. Instead of a former collegiate and NFL backup in Cassel, the Chiefs invested in a former No. 1 overall pick at quarterback in Alex Smith — who, like his coach, arrived in Kansas City with a point to prove.
"It hurt," Marty Postlethwait says. "Matt’s at an age where he could be my son. And it does hurt when the players give and dedicate so much of their time and energy to an organization. When they truly have the same heart and believe in what we do, you become very close and very attached. It was just hard. It was very disappointing to me that Kansas City would even begin to treat somebody like that."
He tried not to let it show in public, let alone in hospitals he continued to visit on behalf of Shadow Buddies. Cassel’s problems were football-related, first-world stuff, nothing compared to the tiny faces in front of him.
"Matt was always upbeat, good-natured," Marty says. "He could have a bad day (at the office) and he would still just always be so positive."
Some 18 months later, all parties are in a better place. Shortly after his release Cassel signed with Minnesota, where the Vikings were struggling with their own coach-plus-supposed-franchise-quarterback problems, all while failing to capitalize on the salad years of one of the best running backs in the NFL — actually, a scenario not that dissimilar to what he’d gone through with the Chiefs a few years earlier.
Minnesota changed coaches, drafted Louisville star Teddy Bridgewater to throw into the mix with Christian Ponder and Cassel, and decided to use the spring and summer to sort them out. The former Chiefs signal-caller is 17-of-22 passing this preseason and was 12 of 16 for 153 yards last Saturday against the Arizona Cardinals, good enough to garner a start at Arrowhead — his first start at the Truman Sports Complex since Nov. 18, 2012.
"I think, in the end," Miles says, "everything worked out the way it should have."
Through it all, Cassel still keeps in touch with the Postlethwaits. He’s continued to promote the Shadow Buddies program in the Twin Cities — the foundation’s site (www.shadowbuddies.org) even offers a Cassel doll in a little purple jersey that reflects his new club. Marty and Miles have had this game circled on the calendar for a long, long time.
Those who knew Matt Cassel in this environment figure to be rooting for him Saturday.
Deep down, Miles says, he thinks Cassel has, too.
"I hope he comes in here and has confidence," he says, "and I think he’s going to have more to play for (than) any other normal game.
"I think he wants to show people what they missed out on. And I hope he does."