With concussions on the brain, Mars standout Castello shuns football for basketball
February 2, 2016 12:08 AM
Despite being a standout football player, John Castello of Mars Area will pursue basketball in college because of a fear of concussions and head injuries.
By Mike White / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday is a big day for high school football players as thousands around the country will sign letters of intent that mean they have formally accepted college scholarships.
Mars High School senior John Castello could have been part of the excitement, signing with one of the many colleges that offered him a full scholarship.
But his head just isn’t into it.
Castello’s recruiting story is a most unusual one, a tale of a kid turning down more than a dozen football scholarship offers. But Castello’s story also indicates the effect concussions — and the thought of head injuries — now are having on football and kids.
Castello is a 6-foot-5, 225-pound senior at Mars High School and was a standout tight end/defensive end on the Planets football team. He wasn’t recruited by the Pitts, Alabamas and Ohio States of the world, but he had scholarship offers from many Football Championship Subdivision schools, including Delaware, James Madison, Holy Cross, New Hampshire, Lafayette and Bucknell.
In December, Castello said no thanks to them all. He decided he would rather play basketball in college, even though he wasn’t being recruited for basketball at the time.
Concussions and the fear of head injuries in the future were the main reason for Castello’s decision.
“It’s definitely a unique situation with John, especially here in Western Pennsylvania,” Mars basketball coach Rob Carmody said.
Castello’s decision wasn’t made hastily. A well-spoken youngster with a 3.5 grade-point average, Castello had been thinking about his college future for months. And he decided against football, even though he never had a concussion from it.
The recently released movie “Concussion” had an effect on Castello. The Pittsburgh-filmed movie centered around Dr. Bennet Omalu and his work dealing with concussions and football players.
“The head injuries were a huge reason for my decision,” Castello said. “I’ve liked both football and basketball for some time. I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do. Then, that movie ’Concussion’ came out and some interviews came out. I watched one interview with Dr. Omalu where he was talking about [former Steelers center] Mike Webster. After watching that, I said it’s not worth it.
“Yeah, it would be free college. But your whole life is in jeopardy. You’re putting your body in harm’s way every single week. It was definitely a tough choice, but I think I made the right choice.”
Castello said many of his teammates back his decision, and his parents, Jeff and Joanne, fully support him. But other adults — and some other high school kids — don’t quite understand.
Castello knows the underlying theme of his critics. Is he maybe too soft for football? But he was a first-team WPIAL all-conference selection on offense and defense.
“It’s kind of tough to for them to be in your shoes,” Castello said. “Unless you’re playing football, you don’t know how often you get hit. I know some people don’t understand completely. But that doesn’t bother me too much.”
Although Castello wasn’t being recruited for basketball in December, he received a basketball scholarship offer a few weeks ago from Shippensburg University, an NCAA Division II school. Carmody said more schools might become interested once they know Castello doesn’t want to play college football.
It’s not as if Castello doesn’t have basketball talent. He averages 17 points and 15 rebounds a game for Mars, the No. 2 team in WPIAL Class AAA. Castello needs six rebounds to reach 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds for his career.
“John is a very unique kid who comes from a very tight-knit family that is very humble, very quiet and very faith-based,” Carmody said. “He makes his decisions based off that. When he made his decision, it was tough on him. I talked to his parents and John. I said with basketball, I thought there was a chance a Division II school would take a chance on him, but I wasn’t sure.
“He’s not doing this to be phony. It’s just who he is, and I think it’s awesome.”
Castello said he was a little afraid at first to tell Mars football coaches about his decision to play basketball in college. They had helped to get him recruited. Virginia and Syracuse had inquired about him recently for football.
“I support John and his decision,” said Scott Heinauer, Mars’ football coach and athletic director. “You can’t force a kid to play football. If basketball is in his heart, that’s what he should do.”
Come Wednesday, Castello said he will go to school and probably follow where some of the top WPIAL football players are headed. But he won’t second-guess himself.
“I have two sisters and a brother, and one of my sisters is in college now, so it’s not like my parents have all this money just to pay anything for college,” Castello said. “I know it’s unusual and strange, and some people might look at me and say some things. But maybe I can influence some other kids to pick basketball over football, just because of the injuries.”
Mike White: email@example.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.