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.
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.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
For many high school athletes across the country, a scholarship to play college football is a dream come true. Today, we're going to meet one high school senior who was not just offered one but several scholarships to do just that - but he turned them all down. John Castello, who studies at Mars Area High School just north of Pittsburgh, joins us now to talk about why.
JOHN CASTELLO: Hi, thank you for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me what led you to that decision.
CASTELLO: I watched the movie "Concussion," 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.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So nobody had ever spoken to you about this before - your coach, your family. It wasn't something that really was on your radar at all.
CASTELLO: No, it really wasn't any of my concern. I wasn't really worried about it. You know, I had a head injury my junior year in football and then, you know, I kind of just shrugged it off, didn't think it was much of anything
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So looking at the film with Will Smith, you thought, hey, I'm a football player. I'm, you know, in high school. And if I keep this up, something terrible could happen.
CASTELLO: Yeah. Yeah, you know, I watched interviews with Dr. Omalu and...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Dr. Bennett Omalu is...
CASTELLO: Dr. Bennet Omalu is a surgeon who, you know, studies the effects of football on the brain. And seeing what he discovered and what some of those guys went through, I really thought that was - it was a definite possibility. And I didn't want go through all - anything like that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How much were they offering you to play ball at these colleges?
CASTELLO: They were all full scholarships, so it was quite a bit of money, you know...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A lot of money.
CASTELLO: ...Over the course of four years.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, this obviously must not have been an easy decision. You don't come home from a family with a lot of money, I read, so it wouldn't be like your parents would easily pay for college without having some sort of help.
CASTELLO: Yeah. Yeah, that was a big thing. We definitely had to consider that in making the decision. But, you know, we'll be able to survive. We'll be able to handle it. But it was another challenge to think about.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what did the colleges say - the ones that were offering you these football scholarships? Did you talk to them about the possibility of head injuries? And what was their response?
CASTELLO: Well, some of the coaches kind of - 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, and - just trying to kind of downplay it a little bit, you know?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you've now decided to play basketball, I read. Did you know that basketball was going to give you the same opportunities?
CASTELLO: No, I didn't, actually. You know, I thought - you know, it was a possibility. We were kind of going into it blind, hoping we could - you know, my family and I, when I say we - we could get some money.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, a lot of people would look at you and say, you had such a promising future in football, possibly. You had a free ride to college and, you know, you gave that all up. Do you really feel like, you know, it was the right thing?
CASTELLO: Yeah. You know, I think I would rather be - not to say that I couldn't get injured with anything else in life, because I can. I think living a life injury free is much better than not having to pay off student loans. But at the same time, being in pain and having trouble walking and maybe possibly knee and hip surgeries and things like that - and, you know, head injuries of course, with the memory - so I think I'd rather, you know, I'd rather be paying off student loans than having trouble getting down the stairs or something in the morning or, like, something like that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And now you have equal offers for basketball or...
CASTELLO: Yeah - yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you chosen a school yet?
CASTELLO: Yeah, I've actually committed to Shippensburg
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Awesome. All right, well, congratulations. John Castello is a senior at Mars Area High School in Mars, Pa. Thanks, John.
CASTELLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.