Maria Carrillo wrestler Cameron Casey overcomes tragedy to achieve

The goals are handwritten on a sheet of paper and taped to the bathroom mirror at the Casey residence, just a few blocks from Maria Carrillo High School. They begin modestly (“No playing video games in Oct thru wrestling season” and “Cut weight smartly”) and proceed to loftier ambitions:

“Win league.”

“Win section.”

“Second day state.”

These are tall orders, but not unreasonable for Cameron Casey, a Maria Carrillo senior. Imagine what he might accomplish this year, having put a little distance between himself and the most trying period in his young life.

As a junior last year, Casey suited up to wrestle hours after learning that his older brother, Raymond Burnside - an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who suffered from PTSD - had committed suicide. One week later, Casey competed in the Puma Classic, his school’s signature wrestling event. He wrestled the day his brother was cremated, too. And exactly one month after Burnside’s death, Casey placed third at the North Coast Section finals, qualifying for the state championships in Bakersfield.

Tragedy has framed the Caseys’ life for a year now. But wrestling added some dabs of color within that outline.

“It gave me something to do every day after school, instead of just being depressed by the fact that my brother killed himself,” said Casey, who just turned 18. “Also, when you’re just that tired from doing sprints or whatever, it’s hard to be upset sometimes.”

Burnside’s death was a cruel blow to Casey because, in truth, he hadn’t known his half-sibling all that long. Thirteen years separated them, and Burnside spent eight years overseas as an Army medic. It wasn’t until he was honorably discharged in 2012 that the two got closer.

“He was really smart,” Casey said. “He just had a lot of foreign experience, and he was a whiz at Jeopardy. That was his favorite show. He’d always call out those answers, and it’s like, ‘How do you know that name?’ There’s definitely good memories.”

Burnside was admired for his compassion and creativity. But dealing firsthand with the mayhem of the modern battlefield tore a hole in him that never healed. He struggled with anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug abuse as he tried to reintegrate, and his mental state got worse over the last months of his life.

On Jan. 27, 2016, the boys’ mother, Lynnette Casey, responded to Burnside’s call of distress at a Santa Rosa motel. These messages had become commonplace. Lynnette was worried as she drove over, of course, but she expected to soothe her son and bring him back from the edge of despair, as she had many times before. Instead, police officers at the scene informed her that Burnside had hanged himself.

Lynnette’s first call was to Culley Casey, her husband and Cameron’s father. The second was to her brother, Bob Vyenielo. The third was to Tim Bruce, the Maria Carrillo wrestling coach. It was 5 a.m. on a Wednesday.

“To say Cameron’s going to be dealing with this,” Lynnette explained recently, sitting next to Culley and speaking through tears in their family room. “He was like, ‘We got this.’ ”

The Caseys circled the wagons at home that day.

“I missed school and hugged my family all day, basically,” Cameron said. “Spent the day together, just crying. I wasn’t thinking about wrestling at that moment, obviously, because the world was spinning around me.”

Later in the day, though, Cameron’s feelings changed. He decided to wrestle in a dual meet against Cardinal Newman, thinking it might distract him. He showed up to the gym after school, as usual. Bruce knew what had happened that morning, but none of Casey’s teammates did.

Casey remembers lining up for a pre-meet face-off, where all of the competitors are introduced in pairs. He shook hands with his scheduled opponent, and a ferocity crackled through him.

“I was in the wrestling groove at that point,” he said. “I was like full wrestling, nothing else. I was like, I am going to (bleeping) destroy this kid.”

Casey’s match, the 170-pound event, was the last one of the night. He ran onto the mat and attached his anklet. But suddenly the referee was raising Casey’s hand in triumph.

It took a moment to figure out what was going on. For whatever reason, the Newman coach had decided not to wrestle his 170-pounder. There would be no outlet for Casey’s grief that night.

In his years of wrestling, he had never shown much emotion in a match. Now he threw his headgear and mouthpiece and stormed out of the gym.

By the time Bruce found him, Casey had regained his composure. But when the coach called him over, he got halfway there and broke down crying.

“It just came out,” Casey said. “It wasn’t even like that at my house. It was the hardest I ever cried.”

It was a taste of what was to come for Casey: long bouts of numbness punctuated by an occasional flood of emotion and, all too infrequently, the relief of wrestling.

The athletic part went well. Casey qualified for the NCS championships in Union City, though he wasn’t expected to take one of the top three spots there, the bar for advancing to the state competition. He lost a 6-5 decision to Healdsburg’s Anthony Merlo, a top wrestler, in the third round. But Casey won three matches in the consolation bracket to set up a rematch with Merlo for third place. The Healdsburg athlete was leading when Casey flipped and pinned him. The Puma was going to state.

“Amazing. Probably the best feeling of my life,” Casey said. “Like I just had a smile on my face for 10 minutes.”

Lynnette Casey ran from the gym and screamed. She needed a moment to process her feelings.

“I felt like my son was there,” she said, referring to Burnside, “and giving him a big ‘Go, buddy!’”

Cameron wound up losing his first two matches in Bakersfield. This year he’s determined to do better. Having moved up to 182 pounds, he currently boasts a 19-6 record. Cameron places himself third among NCS wrestlers at that weight. But the two kids above him, Merlo and Conner Aiello of Las Lomas, are now listed at 170 pounds in rankings produced by The California Wrestler, and Casey is No. 1 at 182.

Casey is also considering a move back to 170. He and Bruce will discuss that option as the section championships get closer.

Meanwhile, Casey continues to be a quiet inspiration to those around him.

Lynnette, a health tech at Santa Rosa High School, keeps coming back to one word to describe her son: “solid.”

“Cameron’s a really chilled-out kid,” she said. “You could count on one hand how many times Cameron’s been in trouble.”

“Just always paying attention and learning and performing well,” said Culley Casey, a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley.

Cameron came to wrestling later than some boys, trying it on a whim in seventh grade. He didn’t really get serious about the sport, he says, until his sophomore year at Carrillo. Cameron is naturally strong - Culley credits the Vyenielo side of the family - but the secret of his success is no secret at all. He just works a little harder than almost everybody else.

“He’s got a gas tank,” Bruce said. “He trains seven days a week. He runs every single day of the week. He comes in and he does his conditioning with his teammates, then he goes home and does more on his own. He’s gotten to where he is because he does what it takes outside the room to be a success in the room.”

The result is a wrestler built to go deep into matches.

“I can outlast guys,” Casey said. “Because I can go a pretty good six minutes, when some other guys might only be able to go 5½ or five.”

Between high school seasons, he has competed for the Coastal Mountain Wrestling Association, run by longtime SRJC coach Jake Fitzpatrick. Last summer Casey also participated in a 10-day camp at Carlsbad that he called “probably the hardest 10 days of my life, physically.” All of it has given him additional experience against some of the top grapplers in the state.

“And he’s very versatile,” Bruce said. “He’s good at upper body, he’s good on take-downs. He’s good on the mat, he’s good on his feet.”

As Cameron Casey thrives in the wrestling room, the family (which includes a middle sister, Jaime Burnside, who is working on a master’s degree at San Francisco State) is still trying to make sense of Raymond’s death - how a big, friendly guy who played in a punk band and attended peace marches could lose his will to live. Lynnette has joined a couple of veterans support groups, including a committee she shares with Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

“There were so many good things about (military service) for my son,” she said. “It’s just that there wasn’t the afterward fix, you know? … There was just that thing that you actually kill people, and that you actually see all this terrible stuff. It’s traumatic, and it needs to be addressed in a better way for people like my son.”

The grieving is far from over for the Caseys. The family still has plenty of difficult days. Cameron texted Lynnette on Ray’s birthday recently, reminding her that he was there if she needed to talk. But the pain of it all has begun to dull ever so slightly, at least for Cameron.

“I think it’s part of who he is now,” Bruce said. “But I don’t think it’s the main purpose in everything he’s doing. He’s doing this for himself.”

And doing it like a champion.

You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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