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

Indianapolis Area Crime

INDIANAPOLIS — This week was the first full week of practice for high school football teams across the state. 

The 2020 Class 5A state champions of Cathedral High School are playing with a renewed passion this season as they honor a teammate who was murdered.

17-year-old Da’Mario McCullough was killed last year in a triple shooting on the city’s North East side. Mario, as his coaches and teammates called him, had been the team’s starting corner.

“It was March 29th… happened to be a Sunday morning,” Cathedral Senior Jeff Utzinger said.  I couldn’t 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 are still mourning the loss of Mario. It’s personal. He’s not a statistic to us and this isn’t an Indianapolis problem… this is a national problem,” Cathedral High School Football Coach Bill Peebles said. “He was a tenacious competitor, always but he had a wicked smile and funny and he was a very hard worker and a great teammate.”

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

“We asked last year’s senior captains to make a decision,” Peebles said. “Last year when the captains would go out for the coin toss, they would carry his jersey. This year we decided to bring his number back, who could represent Mario, in the way he played and the way he treated his teammates the best and last year’s players and captains ultimately chose Jeff Utzinger.”

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

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

When last year’s seniors approached Utzinger with the proposition he didn’t know what to say.

“At first I was a little scared. I almost didn’t want to accept it,” Utzinger said. “I’m not wearing this for me. I’m wearing this for him. He is on my back every time. He is gonna be making the plays with me. Every time – I decided it’s the best thing I can do to honor him, through my work.”

A real team player, teammates say Utzinger helps keep Mario’s memory alive, one play at a time. 

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

Utzinger wishes his mentor and teammate wasn’t taken when he was. He wishes the violence would stop. 

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

The team in mourning says despite last year’s state championship, there’s plenty left to prove. 

“We are still mourning the loss of Mario,” Peebles said. “We’ve used that as a motivating factor. Used it last year, using it in a different way now because we know Mario is being represented very well by a great young man in Jeff Utzinger.”

The defending state champ Cathedral Irish open their season at Brownsburg in just a few weeks, August 27th at 7 p.m.

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