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Kim Barnes apologizes before she starts reading. She knows this letter, written by her grandson for his college essay five days before his death, will bring her to tears. Every once in a while, in the months since Mario McCullough was shot and killed on March 29, she will pull out the essay and read it.
Every time, she cries.
“When you think of or see the number 2, what is it you think of? To you it might be the number of times it took you to pass your test or how many years it took to save money for a car. To me it is my football number that I wear at Cathedral High School. This is my grandmother’s favorite number and she is who I do what I do for, along with the rest of my family. I want the number 2 to make people think of me. Want people to know my mark that I will leave on the school itself. I want my name to be remembered in a positive way, to be used as an example for others in the future.”
McCullough would have turned 18 on Nov. 3. He was listed on the Cathedral football roster at 5-7. That may have been stretching it a bit. “Grandma, am I too short?” he would often ask. “Just keep working,” she would tell him. “What you put into it is what you’ll get out of it.”
Pound for pound, inch for inch in that No. 2 jersey, McCullough gave as good as he got. His final high school football game was a loss, a bitterly disappointing 35-10 setback in Class 5A regional at eventual state champion New Palestine. But on the field that night, McCullough was at his best. He fearlessly attacked from his free safety position, making seven solo tackles. Six of those were at the powerful legs of the state’s all-time leading rusher, Charlie Spegal.
“He would never shy away from anybody, no matter how big they were,” classmate and quarterback Nathan McCahill said. “That kid … he was tough as nails. I would have taken him against anybody to have my back.”
Cathedral’s team, especially the senior class, has McCullough’s back now. Inside the Cathedral locker room, if you take a sharp left past the coaches’ office, a rosary is draped around the McCullough nameplate with his No. 2 jerseys hanging in the locker and helmet propped up on the top shelf, next to the locker of No. 3 David Perry. When captains Jayden Scruggs and David Guhl carried his white No. 2 jersey back off the field before the game at Carmel on Aug. 28, the reflection from the sun caught the jersey just right and appeared to illuminate against the shadows.
“Nobody is going to wear No. 2 for us this year,” Cathedral coach Bill Peebles said. “He’s still with us in spirit. When the captains come out every day, they carry the No. 2 jersey with them. At the end of every practice, we ask for father (Patrick) Kelly and father (John) Zahn, two priests who have passed away here, to pray for us. And this year we added Mario to our list of people to pray for us.”
The seniors believe he is there with them as the Irish have rolled up a 3-0 record and ascended to the No. 1 spot in the Class 5A poll.
“You can feel his presence,” Scruggs said. “You know he is there. It doesn’t matter to me what I do for myself. I know I need to do it for him because I want to make him proud.”
“Number 2 may not mean a lot now. But by the time my time is up at Cathedral, it will. I will make an impact on people’s lives, the paths of people that I cross. I wear this number during the game that is basically my life. Football is what describes me. When people look at me, or think of me, they automatically think football. That is what I want people to remember me for, along with the good deeds and for my great personality. I want to be used as an inspiration on and off the field and in the classroom.”
Scruggs planned on seeing McCullough that day. March 29 was a Sunday, still in the early stages of the school shutdown caused by the pandemic. Three days earlier, McCahill and McCullough were among a group of Cathedral players throwing passes on the turf field outside Tabernacle Presbyterian Church. McCullough was lighting it up that day.
“He was running routes as a receiver,” McCahill said. “I remember that day really well. He was toasting everybody. He said, ‘I might have to come over to offense this year.’ I said, ‘No doubt.’ If he set his mind to something he could be great at it.”
Scruggs and McCullough were close. They talked on Saturday night and had planned to meet up. But Scruggs visited his grandmother instead and told McCullough he would stop by on Sunday. Later that afternoon, he saw on Facebook there was a shooting near the McDonald’s on North Emerson Ave. “That’s right by Mario’s house,” Scruggs thought. He called Barnes immediately.
“You know how when someone answers the phone and they don’t speak?” Scruggs said. “You know something is wrong. She didn’t say nothing. Then all I heard was, ‘Mario’s dead, baby.’ And then the phone just dropped.”
“Number 2 is what I will leave my legacy with. It’s also the number of the month my great-grandmother passed away. February 27 of 2016. I use football as my getaway from life, as my escape in every problem I have. Football is my passion and what I try to use to try to change my life how I live right now and for the future of my family.”
Scruggs gathered with other teammates later that afternoon for a prayer service outside at Cathedral, then stopped by Barnes’ home, which is where Mario lived. It was a triple shooting. Two were dead. Mario’s younger brother, 16-year-old DaMonty McCullough, survived.
“I decided to go the crime scene to see his grandmother,” Scruggs said. “They were like family to me. I was over there every weekend. I saw his body there, which was not a smart decision on my part. I don’t think there will ever be closure on it. I was with him every day it seemed like. But now that we are playing football and there are signs that he’s with us and I think we’re making him proud, I think there’s some satisfaction that I know I’m doing something for him.”
John Jennings, 18, was also killed in the triple shooting. The killings remain unsolved, according to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.
“Something didn’t feel right that day,” Barnes said. “Something was telling me to stay home. I was about to be home when my grandbaby called me and said, ‘Grandma, Mario and Monty got shot at the tire shop!’ I thought, ‘Why would they be around there?’ I immediately called both of their phones. When I called Monty’s phone, nothing. When I called Mario’s, I could feel that boy’s spirit go through my body. I knew then Monty was still alive and Mario wasn’t.”
“I want a better life for my family and my children that I may have in the future. It all started when I was younger. But my journey continues right now and this gets me a step closer to my goal. The number 2 that I wear on my jersey is more than just a number and football is more than just a game to me. As a young person, everyone has or will come up with their own goals and that is exactly how it should be.”
Peebles described McCullough’s personality as an “Eddie Haskell-ish,” referring to the 1950s “Leave it to Beaver” sitcom. “Great smile,” Peebles said. “And he would get away with what he could get away with.”
Like the rule against facial hair in the school. Kathy Saum, the vice principal for student conduct would have to remind him once in a while.
“He’d smile and do it,” Peebles said. “He always had that smile. He was a great leader and a really good student. He was going to be a successful kid and probably have a great college career. He was a Division I talent, but his height might have kept him to Division II. But he would have been a really good one there.”
Scruggs and McCullough had often talked of playing football in college. They hoped it would come at the same school. When Scruggs received his first offer from Division II West Liberty (W.Va.) in April, it was a week after he had been a pallbearer in McCullough’s funeral.
“When I received that offer, the coach told me he was going to offer me and Mario at the same time,” Scruggs said. “He would have accomplished his dream that he’d had since he was a kid, but he wasn’t able to get it. I’ll have to do it for him.”
Cathedral is 3-0 with surprisingly lopsided wins over Westfield (56-20), Carmel (44-28) and Penn (52-7). McCullough was such a vital and vibrant part of the Irish defense and special teams that his teammates say playing with emotion and purpose should be the expectation now that he is gone.
“That’s really our only option,” said Scruggs, who had a pair of custom-made Nike shoes delivered this week with Mario’s image on one shoe and the words ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ on the other. “There’s nothing else to do because that’s what he would want.”
Barnes is a spiritual soul. There are little things that have happened in the months that have followed her grandson’s death that give her comfort. Moments where she can feel his presence. But she has taken it hard, too. She has lost 80 pounds. The gun violence in the city makes her want to move away.
“Everybody is losing somebody,” she said. “You look around and think, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ People will tell you it’s going to be OK. I’m doing better, but the pain still sits in my heart.”
She does take solace that her grandson affected so many lives. So many classmates talked about his smile, his laugh, his welcoming personality. One of her favorite stories was from a classmate who said Mario sought him out during lunch and sat by him when no one else did. “He lived life,” Barnes said.
She is going to do something for him, too. Barnes dropped out of high school at Tech years ago and went back to earn her GED. Now she is planning to earn her college degree at Martin University.
“I’m going to do something he’d want done,” she said. “That’s what I can do for him.”
“I believe you need to make goals and then strive for them as best as you can. If you have to give up fun time and give up some time with others to achieve your goals, then so be it. This is one of my steps to achieve my higher goals in life. What I mentioned already is to create a better life for my family. My family is my No. 1 priority in my life. The number 2 I wear at Cathedral is a great outlet for me to achieve my goals and dreams. I will continue to exceed and pass my expectations on the field and in the classroom. Soon I will know the impact I left on the people around me and the impact that they left on me.”
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.
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