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Remembering a role model

`Anthony made it OK to be gay in Banning,' classmates said of the charismatic football team captain.

July 28, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

MOST everyone around Banning High School liked the big kid. Anthony Castro was handsome and athletic, a talented swimmer and fierce wrestler, captain of the football team.

"The hardest-working player and pretty much the hardest hitter," teammate Marc Reichling said. "He was a regular guy."

And he was gay.

His story unfolded in an unlikely setting. Banning is a rural, working-class town straddling the San Gorgonio Pass, brown fields flanked by mountains, at the fringe of the Los Angeles sprawl.

It is not a place where homosexuals have felt particularly welcome. In the fall of 2002, as Castro started high school, the big local news involved an eighth-grade girl expelled from gym class by teachers who suspected she was a lesbian.

Ashly Massey faced insults from classmates and derogatory graffiti on campus.

The ACLU and the National Center for Lesbian Rights took up her cause, suing the school district, which eventually agreed to provide diversity training for teachers and students.

Against this backdrop, the stillcloseted Castro was fighting his own battles.

His father was in prison, and relations with his mother had deteriorated. He left home. His grades faltered.

A friend steered him to Phil Takacs, a school counselor, who is also gay. They formed a bond and Takacs realized the teenager needed a stable home.

It was a tricky situation -- a counselor taking in a student, both of them homosexual. Takacs conferred with district officials and, with the help of Castro's grandmother, went to court to obtain educational and medical rights on behalf of the teen.

In the months that followed, Castro's grades improved and his dark moods subsided. Takacs rewarded him with shopping trips because Castro had showed up at his home with only a garbage bag full of clothes.

"Phil is one of the best dads I've ever seen," said Jim Broncatello, who recently retired as Banning High's principal. "There's no doubt in my mind that Anthony considered Phil his father."

The more secure Castro felt, the more he asserted himself on the football field.

At 6 feet 1 and 210 pounds, solid if not particularly quick, he was suited to playing fullback and linebacker. Yet when the starting quarterback was ruled academically ineligible, Castro volunteered to fill in.

"He stepped up when no one else would," Coach Garth Jensen said, adding: "He could have been an all-league fullback."

Teammates respected his work ethic and toughness, the fact that a chronically sore back never stopped him from lowering his shoulder into oncoming tacklers.

By his senior year, Castro decided to be open about his sexual orientation.

"Are you gay or something?" classmates would ask, wondering why he never dated girls. Castro began answering: "Would it make a difference if I was?" or simply, "Yeah, I am."

His athletic status quieted most insults as word spread. Then came a run-in with a fellow wrestler who was anti-gay.

Castro challenged him to a match. It wasn't much of a contest -- he pinned his foe in less than a minute.

That final year of high school, Castro played three sports, participated in student leadership and was on the yearbook staff. Classmates knew him as upbeat, quick with a joke, and Broncatello saw him fit in easily with groups that ranged from teachers to jocks to kids who considered themselves outsiders.

Other gay students -- boys and girls -- took note.

"They started being much more themselves," Takacs said. "I had three kids come up to me and say, you know, Anthony made it OK to be gay in Banning."

Sports played an important role.

"A lot of people looked up to Anthony," said Randy Le Vezu, an openly homosexual student. "Probably because he was an athlete and he had a phenomenal personality."

Jensen, who resigned as the school's football coach after last season, said he used to espouse a version of "don't ask, don't tell," figuring that discussions of sexual orientation had no place on the field or in the locker room. Castro changed his view.

"I can see the courage of these players to come out," Jensen said. "They're just trying to lead a normal life, and that's to be commended."

On a Sunday afternoon in January, about six months after graduating, Castro and some friends were riding in a pickup near Beaumont. The truck lost traction and rolled into a ravine.

At 19, Castro was killed.

As many as 600 students and teachers showed up for his memorial service at the Banning High gymnasium.

Reichling, who had succeeded him as football team captain, had "RIP Castro" stitched into his letterman's jacket.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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