Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Castillo moved to the Dominican Republic when he was a couple months old and lived there until he was 5 before returning to the United States. Castillo attended Northwestern, where he earned All-American and All-Academic honors. Chosen by the Chargers in the first round of the 2005 draft, he became only the second Dominican player to be drafted and to start in the NFL. Castillo, one of 24 players of Hispanic heritage in the NFL, was honored by the president of the Dominican Republic when he returned to the country after his rookie season.
The 24-year-old has certainly come a long way. ESPN.com caught up with Castillo and asked him about the progress of the NFL in the Hispanic community here and abroad.
ESPN.com: Why is baseball more popular than football in the Hispanic community?
Castillo:If you look at what more kids are playing, then clearly [it's] baseball, but there is definitely a shift toward football. I know that if you are growing up in a Hispanic household, your mother might never have heard of football. That was the case with my mother, who was uncomfortable when I suggested playing football. At least five or 10 years ago, it was the case that mothers would push their kids toward things they are familiar with like soccer, basketball or baseball.
ESPN.com: What has it been like playing in front of a large Hispanic community in San Diego?
Castillo: When I began playing, the Hispanic family really did not have that understanding of football. Football has really grown and families now really do have that understanding of the game. Once you have a mom who knows what football is and has a favorite team, it makes it a lot of easier for the children to understand the game. You see the love the Chargers are getting from the Hispanic community in San Diego, and you see more and more kids playing every day.
ESPN.com: How important is it for Hispanic NFL players to give back to their respective communities and to serve as role models?
Castillo: I think there is a lot more that can be done. Even with not that much initiative, there has still been much growth. As the number of Hispanics in the NFL continues to grow and they do more national advertisements/endorsements, it will become more popular. Anthony Munoz [Cincinnati Bengals Hall of Fame offensive lineman] was the player everybody knew about when I was a kid because he was so good.
Whenever a player has the opportunity to do something, he will do it. I know Marco Rivera [former Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers offensive lineman] did a football camp in Puerto Rico, and I did a football camp in the Dominican Republic. The biggest thing is for kids is to see a player from the same family structure, socioeconomic background that made it [to the NFL]. That is why we [Hispanic players] do what we do.
We don't want to separate ourselves from any other athlete, but it is more an element of highlighting our heritage. We want the involvement to grow.
ESPN.com: Football, with so many rules, can be a difficult game for much of the world to understand. How difficult has it been for football to gain traction in Latin America?
Castillo: My mother was able to pick up the game in a few years. Once the kids start playing, the mothers will get involved, etc.
ESPN.com: What made you start playing football?
Castillo: It's funny. At first I really did not want to play football. After the first couple of practices when I realized how hard the game was, I wanted to quit. It was the first organized team that I have ever played on. My mom had to push me to do it. She said, "If they can do it, you can do it."
ESPN.com: What are some obstacles to having more Hispanics in the NFL?
Castillo: I think it is not so much an obstacle, but taking time with initiatives to get the game out there in the Hispanic community. I remember when I started playing, other mothers in the Hispanic community would say: "How do you let your kid play the game? It is so dangerous. I yanked my kid off the field after the first tryout." Making Hispanics more comfortable with the game is the biggest thing. Seeing the game on TV, though, is huge. Teams like the Chargers broadcast their games in Spanish so first-generation immigrants can understand the game as well.
William Bendetson covers pro football for ESPN.com.