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The Impact Of 'Concussion': High School Football Player Changes Course

John Castello decided to stop playing football when he learned about the risks of brain injury.
Dave Marmarelli
DGM Photography
John Castello decided to stop playing football when he learned about the risks of brain injury.

For many high school athletes across the country, a scholarship to play college football is a dream come true. But after high school football player John Castello saw the movie Concussion, he turned down multiple football scholarships.

"I watched interviews with Dr. Omalu and that kind of really gave me some insight onto what could happen if I kept on playing football and some of the injuries that could occur," Castello tells NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

Concussion chronicles the experiences of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who was the first to publish research on the degenerative brain disease he called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It's a degenerative brain disease linked to the kind of repeated hits absorbed by NFL players.

Castello, a senior at Mars Area High School near Pittsburgh, says the movie caused him to consider the consequences of head injuries like he never had before. He says he had a non-concussion head injury his junior year, but was never concerned about any type of lasting brain damage he could get in football.

"I kind of just shrugged it off, didn't think it was much of anything," he says. "And after I watched the movie I really thought, hey there could be some repercussions to playing football if I would get a concussion or another head injury."

He was offered full scholarships to several colleges to play football. He turned them down. It was a tough decision, because his family doesn't have the means to easily pay for college.

"College isn't cheap, so it's not like we could just pay for all these colleges. We definitely had to consider that in making the decision," Castello says. Colleges were mostly understanding when he declined their offers, though some "had a tough time hearing where I was coming from," he says.

Coaches at some of the schools downplayed the risks too, Castello says.

"Some of the coaches, they kind of shrugged it off, they said, 'We've only had a couple concussions with our guys over the past years, and we have new helmets and pads that prevent these injuries,'" he recalls.

John Castello gave up a football scholarship — but got a basketball scholarship instead.
Dave Marmarelli / DGM Photography
DGM Photography
John Castello gave up a football scholarship — but got a basketball scholarship instead.

With that option closed, he turned to a different sport — basketball. "I wanted to play in college, and since I can't play football I just decided I might as well play basketball," Castello says. "[My family and I] were kind of going into it blind, hoping we could get some money."

He says it's his favorite sport now.

"You're tackling guys and you're hitting them in football, and in basketball you're not supposed to really touch guys all that much," he says. "It's different but I like it, I like the difference."

He doesn't regret his decision. He thinks going the other way could have caused problems in his knees and hips later in life, in addition to any possible brain damage. He worries that he could have been in a lot of pain.

"I'd rather be paying off student loans than having trouble getting down the stairs ... in the morning," Castello says.

Things turned out OK for him though — he then got scholarship offers to play basketball for Division II schools. He's now committed to playing for Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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