Athlete. Mentor. Chaplain. The Real Deal. The Untiring Life and Ministry of Jeremiah Castille
Words and Image by Al Blanton
The year is 1982.
The Alabama football team is bussed to Tuscaloosa County High School for an intersquad scrimmage in the sweltering gauze of August. Jeremiah Castille, the 5’10” defensive back staring down his last season with the Tide, is a leader among men who wear white tube socks and stocky pads in crimson-stained huddles. His 68-year-old coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant (who is six months away from his death bed), takes off his ball cap and erases the sweat off his crinkled brow with his shirt sleeve, and in that iconic graveled voice, tells his assistants to flee to the stands. I’ve got this.
“Coach Bryant made all assistant coaches sit in the stands during that scrimmage,” recalls Castille. “He coached the entire scrimmage by himself. Every position. Did all the substitutions, going up and down the field for six hours. At the age of 68, Coach Bryant still had energy and enthusiasm. That influenced me to get up every day and live life to the fullest.”
Three decades later, Castille is still frequented by memories of Bryant. Those phantom lessons learned so long ago have served as a foundation for his life and his ministry.
Today, the indefatigable Castille serves as the front man for The Jeremiah Castille Foundation as well as Chaplain for the Alabama football team. His cause and purpose is youth: talented, ill-disciplined, capable, troubled, brilliant youth. He mentors young men with T.L.C.—Tough Love to Character—and any colt that finds himself parked in Castille’s stable will be fed with more grace and mercy than fire and brimstone.
Castilleism (borrowed from Bryant) says that leadership is to be demonstrated. Which means that the first order of business is an exercise in mirror-gazing. “Coach Bryant would tell us to go into our dorm room and look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you left it all on the field,” says Castille. “To thine own self be true. If a man can’t look in the mirror and be true to himself…well, I have to look at myself and be accountable to God and myself. Am I leaving it all on the field? It’s challenging.”
To help remain true to himself, Castille employs a healthy triumvirate of mental, physical, and spiritual discipline in his life. “So for me, I believe the mental, physical, and spiritual are all integrated and connected,” he says.
That might mean working out with a group of youngsters at 5 a.m., running with an athlete who is trying to snag a college scholarship, public speaking, fasting, praying, or conducting Foundation “Character Camps” in the summer.
“The whole focus of our camps is to help middle and high school football players learn the importance of developing character,” he says.
The two-day camps—which draw between 150 and 200 kids— are run similar to an NFL combine, except that the Gospel is presented on the second night at a host church. Castille has been hosting these camps for over 10 years in places like Cullman, Decatur, and Cedartown, Georgia.
“It’s awesome to see young people come and respond,” he says. “We get a chance to influence their lives with our camps.”
But mentoring youth is never absent of challenges. “The biggest thing is getting them to understand reality. How the real world operates. For instance, our tagline in our camp is energy, effort, and enthusiasm. What kind of work it takes to be great at something,” he says.
Castille points to television and the Internet as the blade of illusory advertising for today’s young athletes. “The Internet allows kids to see salaries. LeBron, some of these head coaches, and how much money they make,” he says. “What they don’t see is the preparation. LeBron didn’t just wake up and become the best basketball player in the world. So we teach energy, 110% effort, and being enthused about it.”
Over in Tuscaloosa, Chaplain Castille finds a sense of hope for Generation Yers in Coach Nick Saban, as well as two former players whom he describes as the “real deal.”
“Coach Saban works with the kids at Alabama, getting them to realize that they are role models, whether they want to be or not,” Castille says. ‘Two other guys come to mind—Barrett Jones and Carson Tinker. Those two guys are tremendous role models. For Tinker, I think it goes back to how he was raised. The mettle being put in him as a child made him who he is. I mention these two guys because the media makes you think there are no good role models.”
Addressing the “plight” of today’s world, Castille lends a bit of steely wisdom to whether or not the needle of morality is moving toward evil or good. “I don’t get caught up in how the world is moving. There’s no new sin under the sun. Sin is sin,” he says. “I go with what the word of God says. As days get closer to the return of Jesus, it’s gonna get darker. So that means the light of God’s people should shine even brighter. I try to concentrate on doing what Matthew 28 says, ‘Go into the world and make disciples.’ I try not to focus on what the world is doing, but what God is doing.”
That said, Castille does believe that Christians should ready themselves for greater persecution. “It’s part of being a believer. The constitution gives me the right to verbalize what I believe just as it gives someone else. I should be able to communicate what I believe, just like someone else,” he says. “Do I believe that’s being threatened? Yes! Tremendously. It’s gonna get worse, but to what extent, I don’t know.”
So how does a Christian effectively communicate the Gospel in a world that is increasingly hostile to Christian witnessing?
“It’s not something you push down people’s throats,” Castille says. “It’s a way of life. How we live speaks very highly; it communicates the Gospel. What’s gonna attract the younger generation? It’s not words, it’s our lifestyle. I have a friend who cuts my hair, and he has this saying. He says, ‘Preach the gospel, and when necessary, use words.’” (Francis of Assisi would be proud).
So, Castille continues to run with young men, not because there’s dormant hope to get back to the glory days, but because he believes that’s what leaders do—“I can tell you how to do it, or I can show you how to do it.” Castille comes at those he mentors with a “spirit of gentleness” instead of a judgmental eye, understanding that “if you’ve got skin on, you’ve got stuff”—including him.
That’s the spiritual aspect. Physically, the 53-year-old runner still looks like he could suit up for the Buccaneers—veins branching out of his forearms, shoulders like kettle bells—and cover MegaTron. He’ll tell you he doesn’t like pizza, but after a 21-day Daniel fast, me might splurge on a large pepperoni. Mostly though, he is careful about what he puts in.
While many former athletes will be reduced to fading stars after their athletic life, never again reaching those sweetish pinnacles of success and mirth, Castille shines more brightly than ever before. Perhaps this is because he was able to find purpose outside of football early in his career (young athletes should take note). “The transition for me versus the average athlete was different because what I did while I played football is what I do today: ministering to the players. Leaving football meant I had more time to be involved in that mission field. I was a Christian that just happened to be a football player. Football was the vehicle to minister, and a part of my walk with the Lord.”
Having a Matthew 28 mentality means that Castille isn’t making too many friends in the pits of Hades. “I want to win as many people out of this world as I can win,” he says. That might sound awfully haughty to some—certainly not cottoning to New Age skeptics or looser theologies—but for the Christian, it is his call and aim.
As onlookers watch the Real Deal Castille as he zooms past, they might not readily notice the irony of his life. And this is where we find the good stuff:
As a player, Castille’s job was to prevent players from finding the goal line. As a Christian, Castille’s job is to help them cross it.