PORTAGE – When Parker Brey and Smith Casper agreed to be roommates at Davenport University earlier this year, the arrangement didn’t seem out of the ordinary.
They were just two incoming baseball players looking to find people to live with during their freshman year, and after exchanging text messages and a quick conversation on social media, Brey, of Portage Northern, and Casper, of Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice, were matched up with fellow 2020 high school graduates Dominick Cowdrey (Bloomfield Hills) and Logan Hylek (Grand Ledge).
“They were the first three that I knew that committed,” Casper said of Brey, Cowdrey and Hylek. “Dominick texted me and asked if I wanted to room with him, and I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then Parker asked me on Twitter if I had a roommate, and I said, ‘Yeah, Dom.’
“He said he and Logan were looking for two more, and we decided that all four of us would room together.”
The two teenage ballplayers didn’t know it at the time, but the link between the Brey and Casper families dates back generations to a time before text messaging and social media.
The boys’ grandfathers, Hal Brey and Jim Casper Sr., met each other as roommates at Aquinas College in 1955, and if not for quick thinking by Jim’s widow, Fran Casper, there’s a good chance the two future Davenport athletes would have never known about their interconnected past.
Left: Hal Brey poses for a photo with grandson Parker Brey. Right: Jim Casper Sr. poses for a photo with grandson Smith Casper. (Photos courtesy Jarl Brey and Jim Casper Jr.)
‘It all came to me’
A proud grandmother, Fran scrolled through Davenport’s list of incoming freshmen baseball players until she found the brief biography of her grandson, Smith.
Then, on a whim, she decided to check out the names of his future teammates, and what she found left her speechless.
Among the incoming freshmen was an outfielder from Portage named Parker, the son of Laura and Jarl Brey.
“I read about Smith the first time, and when I went back and looked at it and saw a Parker Brey, that rang a bell,” Fran said. “I saw his father’s name was Jarl, and I knew they had a son named Jarl, and it all came to me.”
Fran was pretty sure this Parker Brey was the grandson of her late husband’s good friend Hal and his ex-wife Judy Margrave. She called her son, Jim Casper Jr., to see if he knew anything about the Brey kid from Portage Northern.
Well, he did know a little bit about him, but only through what he saw on the field, when Portage Northern defeated Brother Rice in the 2019 baseball state semifinals.
“I said I knew of him because Smith played against him at Michigan State, and they hit it off during the recruiting process,” Jim said. “Smith likes him so much they’re going to be roommates together.
“My mom was a wreck when I said that.”
Fran composed herself and told her son that Parker and Smith weren’t going to be the first set of Breys and Caspers to be roommates, and then the memories flooded back into Jim’s mind.
“When I saw Hal’s obit, that face ignited my memory, and I knew it was him,” Jim said.
Hal Brey died in 2016 at age 80, but before his death, he attended the funeral of Jim Casper Sr., who died in 2014 at age 76.
“Hal went to the funeral and said all these nice things about him, and I remember talking to him afterward,” Jim Jr. said. “I introduced him to Smith because Hal said he had a grandson in the same grade that was a ball player, but nobody would’ve ever guessed.”
Brother Rice’s Smith Casper swings at a pitch during a game from his junior year. (Courtesy John Lenihan)
A lifelong friendship
At Aquinas, the bond between roommates Hal Brey, Jim Casper, Norm Farhat and Joe Cronley was so tight, they were known as the four horsemen, said Hal’s ex-wife Judy Margrave.
After their graduation in 1959, Hal remained in Grand Rapids, and Jim moved east to Lansing.
Between running their own businesses and raising families, the two men were always busy, but remained friends and would meet in Portland – the halfway point between Grand Rapids and Lansing – several times a year to share a meal and catch up.
“They were very good friends,” Fran said. “They stayed in touch after college, and they’d meet for lunch every so often, and that’s the beauty of it all – even as they got older and had their own busy lives, they still stayed close.
“To me, it’s so touching that Parker and Smith will be roommates.”
Brey said he was shocked to learn that someone he barely knew had a deep connection to his grandfather, and that it brought back good memories of times with “Pa.”
“It was really cool,” Brey said. “I didn’t know my roommates very well because we’re kind of scattered across the state, so when I found that out it was kind of cool to hear because he’s been gone since 2016.”
There were times Casper was not so enthused about rooming with a player from the team that eliminated Brother Rice from the playoffs, but he has seen first-hand what Brey brings to the table and is excited to share a dorm room and a dugout next year.
“I assume he’s going to bring his (state championship) ring to college, so that will suck,” Casper said with a laugh, “but I’m mostly excited to have three great roommates, especially one from a winning culture like Portage Northern.”
While the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has halted the boys’ attempts to meet face-to-face or train together, they’ve been using social media to stay in contact and are eager get on campus and get back to baseball.
Portage Northern outfielder Tyler Helgeson (7) tosses the ball back to outfielder / pitcher Parker Brey (4) after catching a fly ball during their MHSAA Division 1 state final baseball game against Rockford at McLane Stadium in East Lansing, on Saturday, June 15, 2019. Portage Northern won the game, 10-4, to win the state title. (Mike Mulholland | MLive.com)Mike Mulholland | MLive.com
After 60 years, a phone call
Immediately after Fran Casper learned her grandson would be rooming with Parker Brey, she felt the need to call his grandmother and talk about how fate conspired to bring them together again.
But there was a bit of a problem – the two hadn’t talked since 1959.
“I did a little research, and there were three Judy Margraves listed, so I called them all and the last one was her,” Fran said. “We talked for an hour and a half. She remembered me and, of course, my husband.”
“It just put a lump in my throat,” Judy said about learning the news.
During the 90-minute phone call, they reminisced about old times, including when Fran traveled to Grand Rapids to stay with Judy for a weekend while they all attended a dance at Aquinas College in the late 1950s.
They talked about attending a Davenport game together next spring.
“I think it’s going to be kind of emotional,” Fran said. “It’s really going to be awesome to think about their grandfathers being friends and how special things like this don’t happens very often in life.”
But mostly they talked about their grandsons and how they hope the boys’ friendship lasts as long as that of Hal and Jim.
“It’s interesting that there are these two young men so many years later, who have so many similarities,” Judy said. “They both play killer baseball, both were in National Honor Society, and now they’re rooming together.
“I’m sure they’ll have a good relationship. They’re both serious about what they want to study and both killer baseball players.”
Both agreed the only thing that could make the situation better is if the boys’ grandfathers were still around to see them take the field more than 60 years after they met in college.
“I just wish they were here because I’m sure the grins on their faces would be as wide as a mile,” Judy said.