Saturday, February 24, 2018
Sports

Academy at the Lakes football coach hangs up his whistle

Throughout a seemingly endless career, the thought of one day reaching retirement rarely crossed John Castelamare's mind.

But after 43 years of coaching high school football in the Tampa Bay area — including 26 as the head coach at Ridgewood, Wesley Chapel and Academy at the Lakes — Castelamare knew the time to leave the game he loved would eventually arrive.

In the spring, it finally did.

After finishing up a practice session at AATL one afternoon, Castelamare followed the same routine he had for many years: lock everything up, leave the field and make the commute from Land O'Lakes to his Port Richey home in time to be in his easy chair around 8:30 p.m.

But on this night, the exhaustion was overwhelming.

"Doggone, I'm tired," he recalled grumbling to himself.

In that fleeting moment, Castelamare decided he was ready to put away the playbook for good.

"I just knew it was the right time," said Castelamare, 65, who officially stepped away July 7.

• • •

After playing college football at Nebraska, Castelamare, a New Jersey native, moved to Tampa and began coaching in 1971 as an assistant at Madison Junior High, then took a similar position at Leto High soon after.

His first opportunity to be a head coach came in 1985 when Ridgewood named him its second coach in school history.

With a limited talent pool, Castelamare never won more than five games in 12 years and was let go after the Rams finished 0-10 in 1996.

Suddenly, Castelamare's career was in limbo. He questioned if he would ever find another position.

Castelamare got the answer as Wesley Chapel picked him to start its program when the school opened in 1999.

As construction crews put the finishing touches on the school, Castelamare and his assistants — including current Pasco High coach Tom McHugh — went to work laying the foundation for the football team.

"I didn't even have a school yet," Castelamare quipped. "We didn't even have a field or anything, because they were still building it."

Things started slowly for Wesley Chapel, which finished 1-9 in its inaugural season and 5-5 in Year 2. But Castelamare's belief that the team could succeed never wavered.

He was right.

Using his run-heavy, wing-T offense, Castelamare guided Wesley Chapel to its first district championship in 2001 and two more in '03 and '04.

While he was ecstatic at the success, Castelamare said maintaining it was tough.

"I'll tell you something, that was the hardest thing to do," he said. "I don't care who we played. I don't care if the team came in there at 0-7. They gave us fits, because we were supposed to win it and then they'd play their hearts out and try to beat us. We had to practice for everything."

Castelamare spent five more years at Wesley Chapel, where he molded the likes of current Oakland Raiders receiver Greg Jenkins and Florida Gators fullback Hunter Joyer into stars, before being forced to step down following the 2009 season when his extension request in Pasco County's Deferred Retirement Option Program was denied by the school board.

Castelamare accepted an offer to coach at AATL, a private school that competed in a six-man league, a few months later. He led the program to two state semifinals and helped expand the team to a seven-man, then an eight-man squad in four years.

• • •

If there is anything Castelamare wants people to remember about his career, it's the discipline he demanded from his players and the heart he put into leading his teams.

From having his assistants at Wesley Chapel serve as a makeshift jury at practice to determine if a player needed to be reprimanded after acting up in class, to eating the same meal (an Ultimate Skillet) in the same booth at Village Inn more than 30 times as a tradition after every win at AATL — there was never a second Castelamare didn't enjoy.

While he will continue to teach physical education at AATL, Castelamare said he is ready to start a new chapter of his life —one he hopes will include more time with his wife, mother, two daughters and, of course, his easy chair.

"I'm going to miss (coaching). But, you know, I've been very fortunate," he said. "Now, I just get to enjoy my time. I get to go out on my boat and go fishing for a little bit and go to the gym in the morning.

"I'm really beginning to feel it now that I'm not on campus for summer workouts. And it's pretty nice. I can get used to this life."

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