As the fall semester passed the halfway point and winter sports practices began, all eyes were on Shippensburg University men’s basketball team.
The men’s team, coming off of one of its best seasons in school history, welcomed many new faces to the program this year. One of those faces almost did not make it to Shippensburg University, however.
One of those faces could have been finishing his first collegiate football season at a Division I school on full scholarship. One of those faces could still be making acrobatic catches over helpless defenders.
That same face could also be sitting on the sideline with a concussion.
The face is that of John Castello. Castello, a six-foot five-inch, 225-pound tight end with the muscular build resembling a strong, physical football player, was a star on the football field at Mars Area High School. After scoring 10 touchdowns in his final two years in high school, Castello eventually said no thanks to multiple full scholarship offers to play collegiate football due to the fear of concussions, as well as preserving his long-term health.
“Concussions were the main reason. I hear all these stories about these guys getting hurt with these brain injuries and the disabilities they have later in life and I just couldn’t see myself doing that,” Castello said. “I just really didn’t want to do that and it was a hard choice picking between football and basketball, but that kind of made it a lot easier.”
Concussions have become a growing topic of discussion in recent years, as the NFL and football coaches across America have been working hard researching ways to try to prevent concussions in the extremely aggressive sport of football.
In the NFL, rules have been put in place to reduce “targeting”, or vicious plays by the defense on defenseless receivers, in an attempt to prevent concussions. In recent years, the NFL has also changed its protocol on handling players with concussions.
Former players however, have shared horrific accounts of what affects concussions have had on their lives. In the movie “Concussion” some of those accounts were showcased, and the movie had a direct effect on Castello, as many of the players’ stories revealed in the movie, played in the NFL just 27 miles away from Castello’s high school.
“Mike Webster from Pittsburgh, and the movie concussion being filmed in Pittsburgh kind of hit home for me,” Castello said. “That really kind of made me take a step back and look at it. Especially with the positions I was playing, that was an issue.”
At Mars Area High School, Castello was a standout at the tight end position. At six foot five inches, the 225-pound tight end with strong hands and broad shoulders was a matchup nightmare for defensive backs and safeties. With powerful legs and a quick lengthy frame, offensive lineman were no match for Castello when he lined up on defense.
That made it no surprise that numerous colleges came calling. With offers from Bucknell University, Holy Cross University, New Hampshire University and Lafayette University, the recruiting process was a circus for Castello.
“It was kind of hectic. I’d be sitting in class my senior year and I’d get a text from my coach saying to come down, there’s a coach here to talk to you,” Castello said. “It was a little weird, but going to see these colleges play at visits, that was really awesome. I would talk to these coaches and sometimes they would leave without offering and then I’d get a couple that would offer me a full scholarship, and having college completely paid for you, that felt so good. It was a really good time for me.”
After all of the colleges came to visit and the football season was in the books, Castello started to think about his future with the offers he had received. That’s when he made his decision to pursue basketball.
“[The decision] must have been after my football season was over my senior year. It was during basketball season a little bit when I made the decision to play basketball and I had to tell these football coaches that I didn’t want to play and I had to start getting my name out there for basketball,” Castello said.
The feedback Castello initially received for his decision was mixed.
“My family was completely supportive. My mom, my dad, my sisters, and my brother and friends were all supportive,” Castello said. “Then you kind of got some outside voices saying why am I doing this and saying some mean things, but whatever. The football coaches were kind of surprised and some weren’t too happy.”
Castello recalls one coach in particular, who tried to do everything he could to convince him to reconsider.
“I remember one coach, he kept on calling me and calling me and he wanted to come to my house and talk to my parents about all this and I said hey I just really don’t want to do this,” Castello said. “It was kind of a mixed bag. The support I got though, really helped me a lot.”
With the support of his parents, Joanne and Jeff Castello, as well as his sisters Kate and Maria and his twin brother Steven, Castello found his decision to play basketball to be quite simple.
“I love basketball and I kind of loved basketball more than football. That’s pretty much the bottom line. But those were the two reasons, I loved basketball more and the concussion issue,” Castello said.
Even without the heavy recruitment in basketball, Castello was a machine on the court, racking up more than 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his high school playing career.
In his first season at SU, Castello has already made an impact. Castello has appeared in all seven of the Raiders contests so far this season, and has averaged 11.1 and 9.1 rebounds per game. Castello has started the last five games after an injury to Manny Span thrust him into action. Castello has also been recognized as a two-time PSAC Eastern Division Freshman of the Week through the season’s first three weeks.
“It’s been great. I wasn’t sure what my role would be coming in,” Castello said. “Unfortunately, Manny goes down and I got the opportunity to start. I’m thankful I got the opportunity to start. I just wish it wouldn’t have been that way. I’m just trying to do what I can to help the team.”
Castello’s performance has not gone unnoticed by his teammates. Junior Dustin Sleva recognizes the impact that Castello has had on the team this season.
“I knew John was going to be good coming in here. He’s got a football mentality,” Sleva said. “He goes after boards and everything and my dad was his principal at Mars [Area High School] so I really helped get him here and he’s a tremendous help to us this year.”
Head coach Chris Fite also had high praise for the freshman.
“He’s been great. We always knew he was going to be really good in this conference and he would complement the players that we have,” Fite said. “Unfortunately, Manny Span got hurt and that threw John into the deep end but he certainly has responded well and he’s been a nice addition.”
The Raiders have enjoyed a strong start to the 2016-17 season, reeling off seven straight wins to open the season. The Raiders currently sit at 7–0, and 4–0 in the PSAC.
“You can’t ask for anything better than this. You can’t write anything better. As long as we keep it rolling I’m going to be happy. It’s been great so far,” Castello said.
Despite a challenging decision to choose basketball, Castello appears to have made the right decision. The Raiders, who hope to contend for the PSAC championship as well as earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament, will count on Castello to continue to produce in the upcoming weeks. Castello is ready to approach the upcoming games with a strong focus and endless amount of determination.
“We’re trying to win every game and just take it game by game. Sometimes people overlook an opponent and were just trying to stay focused and we’ve got a really good group of guys and we just want to take it game by game,” Castello said.
With a strong start to his career, there is just no telling what Castello might accomplish on the floor. With the risk of serious head injuries out of his mind, Castello’s head is entirely in the game of basketball.