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Life Lesson

Monday, June 1, 2015

Cullman Times

Loretta Gillespie

Former University of Alabama football standout Jeremiah Castille made a lasting impression on a local resident years ago, a meeting that established a foundation for many  area young people to enjoy for years to come. T.J. Franey, special projects coordinator for the Cullman County Board of Education, first met Castille in 2008 when he came to West Point Middle School to meet a student after his family’s home burned. That meeting was the nucleus for the Castille Football Character Camp in Cullman County.

At that time there was a fee to attend the camp. “There was a young man who didn’t attend the camp that year because his family just couldn’t afford to send him.”

“I went back to Jeremiah and asked him what it would take to make the camps free of charge,” she recalled.

They discussed the possibilities. Franey went to several people who agreed to become corporate sponsors for the event the following year, so that no child would be left out. From that time on, there has never been a charge for any child to attend the Jeremiah Castille Character Camps in the Cullman area.

That was back in 2009. In the ensuing years there has been an average of 150-235 kids who attend the camp each year. “And there is always room for more,” said Franey, still adamant that no child be left out if they have the desire to attend.

“I can’t think of a better person to encourage our children,” Franey said of the University of Alabama’s football team chaplain. “He makes sure that every child knows how important they are.”

Castille, who grew up in Phoenix City, Alabama, came from a hard-working family who had little time to devote to sports. He had no encouragement at home, but was taken under the wing of teachers and coaches who saw potential in the youngster.

That potential was realized in more ways than they could have foreseen at the time. Not only was Castille a standout athlete but he also accepted Christ into his life at the age of 13.

Although the young man saw friends and family members become involved in street crimes and witnessed the results of their decisions, he says that he was never even tempted by those streets.


“I guess that God put me on a path by giving me a goal and a vision which eventually got me out of that neighborhood,” Castille said.

In college, he was fortunate enough to have learned about football, dedication, determination and life from a man who he says greatly influenced him in the most formative years of his life, Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Castille, a member of the 1979 Championship team, still utilizes much of what Bryant instilled in his players all those years ago. “We stress four things in our ministry,” explained Castille. “Invest, Influence, Impact and Inspire, which were all qualities that Coach Bryant was insistent upon. We heard this all the time from him.”

Now, as the chaplain of Alabama’s football program, Castille says that he thinks about the things he learned from Bryant every day.

He strives to teach children who comes to the Jeremiah Castille Character Camp that having a vision — a game plan — helps them to stay focused and build character. “From the very first session I make sure to show folks that they are special. Coach Bryant always made sure that we felt special and I want to carry that on.”

Franey is quick to point out that the camp is successful thanks to so many who want to take part in making such a good thing happen. “It is our community and their willingness to give back to others that makes the event a success,” she said. “All of the corporate sponsors and private donations make this possible. A special thanks goes to all of them as well.”

Franey describes Castille as a gracious and humble man who really has a burden on his heart to help young people to excel and to be a good example to them.

Although football is the drawing card for most kids, Castille says that helping these young people to learn that character is more important than football is his main goal.

He learned this lesson early in life, about the fourth grade, when he got in trouble for cheating on a test. In a Catholic school this was a major offense, punishable by a paddling. “I call that the ‘board of education’,” he laughed. “That taught me a lesson that has been etched in my mind ever since. It showed me that you can’t cheat in life, and it helped me to make better decisions.

“God will bless us if we do the right thing,” he continued. “We teach these kids life lessons, and sometimes we see an immediate impact, other times it might be six months, but the seed is planted and it will show up.”

Castille knows this because he receives lots of feedback from former camp attendees, both in person and in the mail.

A man who received encouragement, respect and admiration from his teammates, his coaches and his fans, Castille continues to share his message with kids because he knows the importance of having a vision of greatness. His fans gave him as much encouragement as his coaches. “I appreciated those fans,” he said humbly. “It was like the fans were my family. I still thank people because those cheers were like they were saying, ‘I love you’ when I was out on that field.”

Over the years, his mother has become an avid football fan, attending many of his games and speaking engagements. Although his father has passed on, he did live to see his son’s success in life. That he was proud goes without saying.

All camps are free of charge, as is the Saturday evening service at 6 p.m. June 6 at St. John’s Church, in Christ Hall. Guest speaker will be Caleb Castille who has a starring role in the upcoming movie, “Woodlawn.”

In addition, the band “Wings of Hope” will perform. Campers will have time to meet with the coaches and get items and T-shirts autographed. The event is free to the community.

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