EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey — Before they became teammates with the New York Giants this off-season, Robert Ayers and Jonathan Casillas didn't think they knew each other.
The two seven-year NFL veterans made their way to the NFL by very different routes, but turns out, they both were born in Jersey City, just a short distance from MetLife Stadium, the Giants' home. And they faced each other on the basketball court at one time.
Defensive end Ayers went to the University of Tennessee, was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the first round in 2009 and spent his first five seasons there before signing a two-year free-agent contract with the Giants in 2014.
Linebacker Casillas went to the University of Wisconsin, went undrafted and signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent in 2009 and made the team. He spent three years with the Saints, earning a Super Bowl ring as a rookie, then had a stop in Tampa Bay before getting traded to the New England Patriots last year, earning his second Super Bowl ring. He signed a three-year contract with the Giants as a free agent in the offseason.
The two thought they never had met, until Casillas' father, Jersey City playground legend Flash Gordon (his real birth name) mentioned something to his son about knowing Ayers from his Jersey City days.
"My dad knew his family," Casillas said. "I had heard of him and knew he was from Jersey City, but I didn't know him. We initially introduced ourselves to each other, but then my dad said that we played basketball against each other when we were little kids."
"His family knew all of my family," Ayers said. "I was told we played basketball together, but I really didn't remember him. I really don't remember much about those days, but it's crazy to think we once played together."
Both left their hometown at an early age.
Now, as Giants teammates and members of the defensive unit, Ayers and Casillas are like long-lost buddies.
"We call each other 'J.C.' for Jersey City," Ayers said. "I'm J.C. and he's J.C. We know the struggles of coming up in the inner-city and I'm proud to say that we made it. Because we're both from Jersey City, we have formed this special bond. We look out for each other."
Casillas says there's a special feeling coming from Jersey City.
"We have to pay homage to our hometown," he said. "I think it's great and fantastic. It helps to form a special unity, both on and off the field. We're like brothers now. I feel that the better defensive units in this league are the ones who stick together. We're all a close-knit group of guys. But Robert and I have a special thing going on, because Jersey City guys stick together."
Ayers played well last year for the Giants for 12 games, until he tore his pectoral muscle and was lost for the season. He had 22 tackles and five sacks, usually getting in on third downs.
But with the status of All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in question after maiming his hand in a fireworks accident, Ayers could be asked to become an every-down lineman this season.
"I always want to be the every-down guy," Ayers said. "I wanted to be that guy regardless of what happened. I wish he (Pierre-Paul) was out there with us and helping us as a team. I don't need his absence to be motivation. I know I can be a disruptive player and the sack numbers will come."
Casillas, who started three games with the Buccaneers and then three games with the Patriots last season, collecting a combined total of 37 tackles, says he hopes to earn a starting spot at linebacker.
"I see myself as a starter," Caillas said. "I prepare myself that way, even if I don't start. I do a good job on special teams and take pride in my special teams play. I'm ready to contribute in whatever way I can to help this team get a ring."
If they earn starting positions come Sept. 13 against the Dallas Cowboys, then Ayers knows Casillas has his back — literally.
"That's what J.C. guys do," Ayers said.
NOTES: Ayers said he was awed recently by meeting Giants Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan, so much so that he asked the current co-host of "Live with Kelly and Michael" and Fox Sports analyst for his autograph. "He's the guy that I watched as a kid growing up," Ayers said. "He was busy tearing people's heads off. My father always had me watching him, so when I got here, I made sure that I met him. I was in awe." Ayers had a Giants cap in his locker and asked Strahan to sign it. Because he grew up in Jersey City, Ayers said that he was always a Giants fan. "There's a great legacy of Giants greats around here. Me and my family idolized these players." ...The Giants enjoyed their first day off from training camp Tuesday. They return to regular workouts Wednesday afternoon.