By Kerry Whipple Bean | Photos by Caleb Chancey
With her husband and sons deeply connected to the Crimson Tide, Jean Castille understands the passion that surrounds college football.
But football is not first in Jean’s life — not even close.
Faith and family are the foundation of a life she says she lives “deliberately.”
Jean’s family with husband, Jeremiah, extends beyond their six children to include friends and mentees who have shared their home and their hospitality over the years.
Jean — who does not hesitate to begin lunch at a local restaurant with her head bowed in prayer — wears an easy smile despite a hectic life filled with foundation and family activities.
Her story begins in the projects of Phenix City, where she was raised by her mother and grandparents, the youngest of seven children.
“They took us to church, and they taught us the right way to live by example,” she says.
A new friend helped her develop an even deeper connection to God — Jeremiah Castille, then a high school senior planning to head to the University of Alabama to play football.
The pair began dating when Jean was a high school freshman.
“Jeremiah came along and was able to encourage me in my walk with the Lord,” Jean says.
After he went to college, they remained friends, and Jeremiah became involved in campus ministry activities. During Jean’s freshman year of college at Jacksonville State University, the pair began dating again, and attended a Bible conference in Florida together. That conference, she says, is where she forged a deeper relationship with God.
“I had always been a believer,” she says, “but I made a stronger commitment.”
That commitment is a foundation of the partnership Castille has with her husband. The summer after the Bible conference — and two weeks before Jeremiah began football camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — the couple married. “When God called him, he called us as a family,” Jean says.
A football career brought Jeremiah success — but it also brought the couple closer to their life in ministry.
Jeremiah’s six-year NFL career took him from Tampa Bay to Denver, where he is perhaps best known for stripping the ball from the Cleveland Browns’ Ernest Byner in “The Fumble,” a pivotal play that assured the Broncos a spot in 1988’s Super Bowl XXII.
While Jeremiah was busy with his football career, Jean was busy raising a family. Their first son, Tim, was born in 1984, and Simeon arrived about 18 months later. Four other children followed.
Jean says her husband was a hands-on father, despite his schedule. And when he retired from playing football, the couple continued to raise their children in Alabama, where he became a coach.
Castille’s children attended Briarwood Christian School in Birmingham, where Jeremiah coached track and football, but off and on over 12 years she home-schooled each of them. “I felt like it was important for each of our kids to spend time with me,” she says, noting that in the 1980s it was still an unusual choice to homeschool.
Raising six children was a tough task, but the Castille sons and daughters attest to their mother’s strength. Son Simeon, who also played in the NFL, jokes that he was the worst of his mother’s children.
“On average she would have to spank me three times per day,” he says. “The love my mom showed me despite how I acted is what I look back and remember most. All of the times I went to the principal’s office, the fights with my sister, making my teachers cry, she still let me know that she loved me unconditionally.”
Any discipline problems aside, all of the children followed in their father’s footsteps to study at Alabama, with all three boys playing football for the Crimson Tide. Tim — who now has a master’s degree in sports management and spent time as a graduate assistant for Alabama coach Nick Saban — and Simeon both played in the NFL; daughter Leah earned her master’s in social work and is a counselor; and the youngest three, Rachel, Caleb and Danielle, remain students at Alabama. Caleb was a walk-on at Alabama and now is pursuing work as an actor and model, and Danielle is planning a mission trip to Tanzania with Give International.
And over the years, the Castille home became the center not just for their family but for a ministry that has touched lives across the city and state.
“(Jeremiah) knew early on that there was a call in his life,” Jean says. “He was always more serious, more goal-oriented. He was more drawn to the things of God.”
The Castilles’ ministry began to grow organically, with weekly Bible studies in their home, marriage counseling sessions with friends, mentoring at-risk teenagers, who Jeremiah often met while coaching youth sports teams.
Often, Jeremiah would invite a young man to stay at their home, removing him from the kind of tough situation in which he himself had grown up.
“That’s how our ministry kicked off,” Jean says. “We always felt like our house was God’s house.”
And as the Bible studies and counseling sessions grew, Jeremiah and Jean decided to form the Jeremiah Castille Foundation in 1999. The foundation runs Character Camps for young athletes, focused more on their personal development than on football, as well as marriage seminars, Bible counseling, motivational speaking and other activities. Jeremiah is also chaplain for the University of Alabama’s football team.
And those weekly Bible studies still meet in the Castilles’ Birmingham home.
Ashley McGee is at the Castille home at least twice a week, for a women’s fellowship and Bible study. Jean made McGee meals when her baby was born, offered baby-sitting and even paid some bills for her family along the way.
“She is always putting others first before herself. She sees the best in everyone; no matter what, she is always telling me and the other ladies she mentors to love people,” McGee says.
“She is a true mother, not just to her kids, but to the community. She continuously is giving her time, talent and financial resources to others. She sees motherhood as a calling from God and takes it seriously. She has been such an inspiration to me.”
The McGees, in fact, have started their own ministry in Birmingham, None Suffers Lack, and the Castilles serve on its board.
For the McGees and others the Castilles have mentored, the line between friends and family is blurred.
“It was like we were their kids as well,” McGee says. “They did not treat us any different just because they did not birth us. When I needed advice on certain tough life decisions, she was there guiding me through.”
Sharing their home over the years with a few extra teenagers was simply a way of life for the Castille children.
“My mom has a heart of gold,” oldest son Tim says. “Not only did she put up with her six kids, but after we moved to Birmingham there was rarely a moment where we didn’t have someone living with us. She always wants to help people that are trying to better themselves and their situation. My mom should have had an empty nest two years ago when my youngest sister went to college, but they had two other young men that she and my dad were mentoring.”
When Tim’s wife, Dee, was pregnant with their first child and nursing her mother through cancer, Jean dropped everything to come to her aid.
“My mother-in-law, without any hesitation, put my needs in front of hers and flew 1,700 miles to be by my side,” Dee says. “Jean spent a week at the hospital loving on my mother and me before my mother passed.”
Tim and Dee have two daughters, who call Jean “Honey” and enjoy princess parties and sleepovers with their grandmother. But if you ask Jean, she will tell you she has three grandchildren.
After Dee’s mother died of cancer, Tim and Dee’s niece began to stay with Jean during the day while her mother, Dee’s sister, works. Adopting the single mother and daughter into her already-large extended family was simply a natural transition.
A few years ago, Jean began cleaning a friend’s house as part of a reciprocal agreement; that grew to cleaning a few other friends’ houses to make a little extra money. But even that job, for Castille, is a ministry.
“I go through their houses and I pray for them and pray for their children,” she says. “I love on them. They’re like my family, my children. It’s a blessing to do what I do and know that they appreciate it.”
Amid all that Jean does for others, there is one activity she treasures for herself: tennis. Active on the court since she was a teenager, Jean remains competitive, playing in women’s tournaments and teaching classes. A few years ago, a dream came true for her when daughter-in-law Haley, Simeon’s wife and a singer, won a songwriting contest and a trip to California to meet Serena Williams. Haley says her mother-in-law was the natural choice to accompany her on the trip.
The sport also allows Jean to spend one-on-one time with her husband.
“Tennis has been a great way for Jeremiah and me to bond together,” she says.
Making their marriage a priority is important for the Castilles. “We got married with the intent of being married forever,” she says. “We do date nights, take vacations together.”
When Jeremiah travels with the Alabama football team as its chaplain, Jean often goes along — less so now than she used to.
“For years I went to every last one of those games with him,” she says. “Football has always been a big part of what we do, but it has not overshadowed what we were called to do ministry-wise.”
When the Castilles mentor young couples through their marriage ministry, they have 31 years of a successful union on which to draw their lessons.
“We are so close,” Jean says. “We are so glad to be married. For a lot of the young guys coming to our house, for them to see us together, that’s a blessing.”
Now that many of the young men and women the couple mentored have grown up — and become productive members of the community — they still consider Jean their “spiritual mother,” she says, calling or sending messages on her birthday and Mother’s Day.
“We call our house the ‘open door community center,’ ” Jean says.
For the Castilles, inspiring their children — both biological and otherwise — to follow in their footsteps and give back to the community is part of their legacy.
“It’s all about the next generation,” she says. “They’re going to pass that on. It won’t die out. There are so many people that start out strong and don’t finish well. We want to pour into other people so they have a strong foundation.”
Jean says she and her husband know their limits and take a break every now and then, but “stay connected to the vine. We are committed to being refilled by the Lord.
“Jeremiah and I love people,” she says. “Any way that we can come alongside the Lord and be an encouragement and help them, we can have some small part in their lives where they have more positive in their lives than negative.
“We have lived our lives intentionally, glorifying God. We always say we want to live our lives with no regrets.”