‘I’m wearing this for him.’ Indianapolis high school football team honors murdered player


INDIANAPOLIS – This week was the first full week of training for the state’s high school football teams.

The 2020 Cathedral High School Class 5A State Champions play with renewed passion this season as they honor a teammate who has been murdered.

Da’Mario McCullough, 17, was killed last year in a triple shooting in the northeast of the city. Mario, as his coaches and teammates called him, had been the team‘s starting corner.

“It was March 29… it was a Sunday morning,” said cathedral senior Jeff Utzinger. I could not believe it. I didn’t believe it at first.

It was an unforgettable day for the Cathedral High School football team. Their teammate, Mario, was murdered months before graduation.

“We still mourn the loss of Mario. It’s personal. It’s not a statistic for us and it’s not an Indianapolis problem… it’s a national problem, ”said Bill Peebles, Cathedral High School football coach. “He was a tenacious competitor, always but he had a mean, funny smile and he was a very hard worker and a great teammate.”

Peebles, who coached Mario, wanted to find a way to honor his legacy upon his passing. So he asked his teammates how best to proceed.

“We asked the senior captains from last year to make a decision,” said Peebles. “Last year, when the captains went to the draw, they wore his jersey. This year we decided to bring back his number, which could represent Mario, in the way he played and the way he treated his teammates the best and last year’s players and captains finally chose Jeff Utzinger.

Players and coaches say Utzinger embodies much of what Mario stood for as a high school student.

“All the leadership qualities you can think of on and off the field, they both play way past their years and Jeff, like Mario, will be playing college ball,” said Peebles. “He embodies everything Mario was.”

When last year’s seniors approached Utzinger with the proposal, he wasn’t sure what to say.

“At first, I was a little scared. I almost didn’t want to take it, ”Utzinger said. “I’m not wearing this for myself. I wear this for him. He’s on my back every time. He will play with me. Each time, I decided it was the best thing I can do to honor her, through my job.

A true team player, his teammates say Utzinger helps keep Mario’s memory alive, one part at a time.

“He always pushed me to be the best I can be,” Utzinger said. “He was always five yards behind me and when I was really young and super new and he was the team vet… and he was talking to me game by game and telling me what to do, screaming when I messed up , when I earned it, I hope to be the same type of leader for others as I was for me.

Utzinger wishes his mentor and teammate weren’t taken when he was. He wants the violence to stop.

“I mean it’s a huge problem. We have to do something to stop this because he would be playing college ball right now, but instead we have to do it. It shouldn’t be like that, ”Utzinger said.

The grieving team says that despite last year’s state championship, there is still a lot to be proven.

“We still mourn the loss of Mario,” Peebles said. “We used this as a motivator. I used it last year, I use it in a different way now because we know Mario is very well represented by a great young man in Jeff Utzinger.

Reigning state champion Cathedral Irish will open his season at Brownsburg in a few weeks on August 27 at 7 p.m. ET.

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