All-Star? Record Breaker? Game-saving hero?
RAYMOND KNUTE CASTELLARI was none of these.
No greater example of a tough and determined
athlete from Centralia has ever existed.
Born in Centralia in 1916 to Italian immigrant parents Romeo and Balda Castellari “Knute” grew up during the Great Depression. Even today it is difficult to imagine the grit and resilience necessary for Americans to live through such difficult times.
Upon reaching high school Knute was already used to challenges. He tried out for football under the tutelage of legendary couch Arthur L. Trout.
By modern standards coach Trout may not have had a lot to work with. In terms of size and weight the players of yesteryear were smaller on average than the athletes of today. But
his players of the early and mid thirties were fearless hitters and many even played both offense and defense.
One glance at the lean, determined faces of the players of 1930’s CTHS football teams reveals that young men growing to maturity back then were certainly pound for pound as sturdy as any who have ever worn the red and white.
Raymond Knute Castellari was called the “toughest boy on the team” and was “afraid of nothing” according to the Sphinx yearbook. He was the “hardest hitting end” and “when he blocks ‘em they stay blocked.”
At the age 18, when his varsity eligibility came to an end, Knute went to work for the railroad. He didn’t hesitate to embrace physical work, outside, in all weathers.
In his 20’s Castellari became a Golden Gloves boxer, under the direction of local boxing manager Darrell Johnson. As early as 1933 Centralia had an established Golden Gloves amateur boxing program with training facilities in Turner Hall on South Walnut Street.
Fighters competed in events all over Southern Illinois, culminating in a regional tournament which was frequently held in Centralia. Winners advanced to Chicago. Crowds of up to 4000 jammed Trout gym to see fighters compete in eight weight classifications from flyweight (112 lbs) up to heavyweight
Knute Castellari was a middleweight, fighting at around 160. He was known as a hard hitter and effective counterpuncher, who went to the center of the ring and slugged it out every match.
Graphic blow-by-blow accounts of his fights in the Sentinel are replete with scenes like “Castellari’s opponent, groggy after a series of rights and lefts, staggered to his corner at the bell”, “Knute directed his blows to Henninger’s body, which reddened from the continuous assault”.
There was sure to be an eye-opening brawl every time Knute strode into the ring. He was a gamer who might catch leather early but could weather the storm and win in the later rounds.
For example, Knute was knocked down twice in the first round by fellow Centralian Ray Taylor, but came off the canvas, pounded his opponent against the ropes and won by a knockout in the second.
Castellari’s fight against Bill Simmons was described as virtually a stand-up, toe to toe battle for the entire match, with Simmons gaining a split decision.
Although he was once knocked out by Joe Delya of Christopher, Castellari certainly won the greater majority of his bouts.
Perhaps the most controversial and nearly legendary Golden Gloves match in Centralia history took place on the night of February 14, 1939 at Trout Gym and involved Knute and his opponent Bruce Hinman, of Flora.
Hinman had a considerable advantage in reach and Castellari was haqmpered by a severe chest cold which “slowed up his attack considerably”.
After the two fighters slammed away at each other furiously for three rounds, the judges’ decision was for Castellari and even the home crowd began to boo. Astoundingly, Knute actually began to boo also. He refused the victory, rushed to Hinman’s corner and raised his antagonists’ hand in triumph. Regardless of his selfless, good sportsmanship the decision stood.
On July 23, 1943, Castellari reported to Chicago to join the U.S. Navy. He would be assigned to the P.T. boat service in Motorboat Squadron 2 in the South Pacific. This was the same outfit in which future U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, served in on P.T. 109. Castellari later was transferred to squadrons 3 and 11, seeing action in the Pacific Theatre of Operations until he was mustered out on November 2, 1945 with a rank of “Bos’n Mate” 2nd class.
During his time in service, Knute continued his boxing career, taking on battle hardened Navy warriors with the same enthusiasm and skill he displayed in the Golden Gloves.
He received virtual rave reviews from Navy sportswriters at ringside. Surviving copies of base newsletters are loaded with comments like, “You couldn’t find a cleaner fighter”, and “Castellari’s last bout would do justice to a ‘main go’ in any arena in the states.”
Perhaps even more telling was the editorial remark, “Castellari, to me, and most who have seen him in the ring, is what America stands for… good sportsmanship and red-blooded men from head-to-toe.”
Returning to Centralia, Castellari settled down to marry, raise a family and resume his job with the railroad.
His football career, however, did not come to an immediate end. During the 50’s and 60’s, it was customary for ex-Orphan footballers to suit up against former players from other towns for an alumni game. One year, Knute was informed that the older men would just play a quarter a piece and then get subbed out.
Castellari pointedly refused that plan. He would play for the entire game or not play at all.
He continued to play in the game, whaling away vigorously “in the trenches” against rivals in their 20’s and 30’s until he was 53.
Former Sentinel sports editor and Centralia Sports Hall of Famer, Bill Niepoetter, was among Castellari’s biggest fans. In 1962, he called Knute “a marvel”.
Seeing Castellari seated on the bench after a series of plays on the gridiron, Niep was amazed how Knute could be grinning, with sweat pouring down his face and not even out of breath. In Niep’s estimation, Castellari, whom was 46 years old at the time, might be able to play tackle football another 20 years.
Castellari was the oldest player on the field in the October ’62 game as Centralia shut down Salem 24-0, with the proceeds going to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
Knute gave back much to the youth of the community y teaching and coaching, boxing, weight lifting, wrestling and football. Under his direction hundreds of Centralians learned the value of hard work in the ring and on the gridiron.
Castellari even found time to play baseball for the Wamac A’s and basketball for the I.C. Railroad team, which won over 80 percent of its games in one season in the 40’s.
The stated objective of Golden Gloves boxing was “not to develop professional prize fighters, but rather to fit boys for the real battle of life which lies before them, instilling in them the idea of honest contest and fair play.”
Raymond Knute Castellari was a prime example of these virtues, and the Hall of Fame Committee welcomes him into the ranks of distinguished Centralia athlete.