Another face appears every few seconds. All these people he hasn't thought about for years. Ms. Scudillo, his high school guidance counselor, who coaxed him to a 3.9 GPA. Christina Labocki, his high school girlfriend. Steve Mucha, his old football coach. Tony Caccusus, his first friend in elementary school. All the folks back in New Jersey who, four years ago, read about him in the Bergen Record under the headline "An All-Around Great Guy." He sees their faces as he lies in bed in his Evanston apartment on this April night in 2005. Tears flow. What are these people going to think when they hear what he's done?
And what about the members of his family? The 45 who were in the stands for the Penn State game last November. The ones back in the Dominican Republic who watched him play on ESPN2. The ones who idolize him for being the first Castillo to go to college. When they read the sports page, they're going to find out.
So many already have, which is why his inbox had 40 new e-mails the last time he checked. All were from friends offering support, never asking for details, knowing the level of scorn he's facing now that his name is linked to the most damaging issue in sports. His cell won't stop ringing. Sometimes it's his mom, who's been fielding calls from people asking, "Is this true? Did he really do this?" Sometimes it's his agent, who's afraid his client might consider suicide. They can't leave messages. Luis Castillo's voice mail is full.
He stares at the ceiling, thinking about the letter from the NFL his mom received, about all the people who don't know yet. I'm done, he thinks. I'm humiliated. I'll never play pro football. I've embarrassed my family. I'm a 3.5 student at Northwestern, a three-year starter, and now I've tarnished everything.
The words and the old faces cross back and forth in his mind as he tries to sleep.
SEPTEMBER 2, 2004. It's the first game of Luis Castillo's senior year at Northwestern and the Wildcats are at Texas Christian. On the second play of the game, TCU quarterback Tye Gunn steps up in the pocket, within an arm's length of the oncoming Castillo. At 6'3", 305 pounds, Castillo is a defensive tackle with a quick first step who NFL scouts say could be drafted anywhere from the first to the third rounds. He wants it to be the first.
TCU guard Shane Sims stands between Castillo and Gunn. Don't go for it! Castillo tells himself. You're going to get hurt. But he can't stop. After three years of rushing the quarterback, stopping is counter to all his instincts. His left arm reaches for Gunn and Sims' helmet slams into it. Castillo feels a rip in his elbow, something he's felt before. As a sophomore, he'd partially torn his ulnar collateral ligament. He knows he's done it again. He finishes the game, but the next day, Northwestern doctors examine Castillo and tell him he needs surgery.
He wants to redshirt, but Northwestern coach Randy Walker talks him out of it. "We need you this year," Walker pleads. So Castillo is injected with painkillers before every game, avoids lifting weights during the season and doesn't practice at all. Meanwhile, he checks his Big Ten stats online every week and his ranking is falling as fast as his draft status. He'll finish 36th in the conference in tackles and scouts will rate him no better than a second-day pick. He feels completely lost.
In December, he decides to have Tommy John surgery. But just days before the operation, he reconsiders when he learns the procedure may keep him from working out until July. His agent, Mike McCartney, sends Castillo to Gordon Nuber, an orthopedic consultant for the Bears. Nuber says that, since football season's over, Castillo can focus on rehabbing his elbow full-time, which should eliminate the need for surgery. He tells Castillo he should be able to lift weights by mid-January. Castillo does some math in his head. Mid-January leaves him a month to train for the combine and almost two months to prep for Northwestern's pro day. "Okay," Castillo says. "I'll give it a try."
CASTILLO'S MOTHER, Maria, was 40 years old and eight months pregnant when she flew from her native Dominican Republic to visit cousins in Brooklyn in July 1983. A few weeks later, her first and only child arrived. Mother and son-Castillo never knew his father-returned to the Dominican soon after and lived there until they moved to Manhattan in 1988. Maria worked 18 hours a day building a hair-products business. Four years later, afraid of raising a child in New York's Lower East Side projects, she moved to Garfield, N.J.
As a kid, Castillo didn't have many friends--he didn't speak English fluently until the end of grade school--but once he hit Garfield High, he quickly became everybody's all-American. All-state in football and wrestling. Captain of the football team. Member of the math society and the National Honor Society. His 3.9 GPA ranked sixth in a class of 270. After graduation, Castillo went back to Garfield-as a Northwestern econ major-and told students how to study, how to compete, how to live. He told them what Maria always told him: "When you look in the mirror, you must see someone who's a good example."
But by late December 2004, that's not what he sees. Castillo is in Mandeville, La., training for the draft. Priority Sports, where McCartney works, sends its clients there to train with former LSU strength coach Kurt Hester. Castillo weighs 280 pounds-25 less than at the start of his senior season. He runs twice a day, does yoga four times a week, loads up with creatine. But he still can't lift. Bench presses are impossible because he can't flex his elbow. Nuber had told Castillo he wouldn't be able to lift for another month, but the patient-afraid his future is slipping away-ignores that advice.
Every day, McCartney calls to tell Castillo, "Listen, you're going to be a top-20 pick." But Castillo isn't buying. "Mike, don't say that," he tells McCartney. "Don't say I'm a first-rounder. Just say I'm going to go in the first day."
At night, Castillo frets. What am I going to do? The combine is the biggest job interview of my life. I won't be able to lift the bar in front of 300 scouts. They'll torque my elbow and I'll pull back in pain. They'll put a red flag by my name.
And then, one day in January, Castillo voices those fears out loud. "I'm scared as hell," he tells someone.
That someone, whom Castillo still won't name, gives him some pills and says, "You should think about taking these." Castillo does, and takes them. And after that, everything feels better. At least for a little while.
By late February, after the combine, Castillo is surrounded by buzz. He blows away scouts, benching 225 pounds 32 times, eighth best among potential draft picks. He nails his interviews. Scouts tell McCartney that Castillo is a first-rounder again. On April 7, New England flies him to Foxborough for two days of grilling. The staff thinks he's smart and hardworking-a perfect Patriot.
Castillo's flight from Boston lands in Chicago the afternoon of April 8 and before he's off the plane, his phone is vibrating. It's his mom. In Spanish, Maria tells him she got a letter from the NFL. She doesn't know exactly what the letter means, but she sees the word "steroid" and she understands that. Castillo slumps in his seat. The draft is in 15 days. He's done.
Crying, Castillo runs to his Nissan Xterra in the parking lot, sits in the driver's seat and dials his agent. McCartney is at his son's Little League game in suburban Chicago. "Hey, Luis. What's up?"
"I got a letter from the league," Castillo says. "I tested positive." McCartney hears his client crying. He tries humor. "I guess you're not going to be a first-rounder." Castillo chuckles, but that night he doesn't sleep. All these faces flashing in his head, all these calls from McCartney making sure he's not suicidal. The next day, he and McCartney meet for pizza. McCartney has asked some colleagues how to handle this. If you're convinced he's a onetime user, they said, keep him. "Luis," McCartney says, "have you ever done this before?"
"No way," Castillo says. "It was one time. I panicked. I got scared. I was just trying to get back to the person I was. I wasn't trying to gain an edge, I swear."
Castillo says he used androstenedione, made famous by Mark McGwire, a once-legal supplement that becomes a steroid after it's ingested and is banned by the NFL. He got it in Louisiana, but not from Hester. Castillo won't say who gave it to him or how often he took it or how it made him feel. Only that it worked.
McCartney tells Castillo he can "do what every other athlete does and play dumb. We can blame it on the testing, you can say you didn't know what was going into your body. Whatever."
But Castillo has other ideas. "I will not do that," he says. "I'm not going to lie. I made a horrible mistake and I'm going to be a man about it."
So they come up with a plan: Luis will write a letter explaining why he juiced and they'll send it in a packet along with his drug-test records from Northwestern-all clean-to every GM. That night, Castillo sits at his laptop. He writes that he's sorry. That he panicked. That this was the first shortcut he's ever taken. That he was an academic All-America. That he's never had any problems with the law. That his elbow was damaged and his dream of being a pro was slipping away. That he's never before failed a drug test. That he knows the NFL will now test him up to 24 times a year and that if he fails even once he'll return his signing bonus. He sends McCartney an e-mail with "luiscastillo.doc" attached. He's convinced the eight-paragraph letter is terrible. McCartney, though, thinks it's perfect. The kid came clean.
On Sunday, April 10, while Walker and McCartney type their own letters of support for the packet, Castillo flies to San Francisco, which has the first pick in the second round. He meets with coach Mike Nolan and vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan. As soon as Castillo sits down, he says, "I made a mistake."
The Niners had no idea. Teams don't get the combine's drug-test results until two days before the draft. Castillo explains why he used andro, as if he's reading his confession. After the meeting, McCloughan calls McCartney. "He's a great kid," McCloughan says. "He made a mistake and he won't make it again. This won't hurt him with us."
On April 12, McCartney overnights 32 packets. CHARGERS GM A.J. Smith has never seen this before, not in 20 years as a personnel man in the league. A positive drug test? Of course. But a packet, a letter, a confession? He reads Castillo's letter. Sincere, he thinks. Smith wants pass-rushers with his two first-round picks. Castillo was a tackle in college but is light and quick enough to be an end. Smith asks his staff to investigate.
In New Jersey, during the weeks before the draft, one of the faces from Castillo's sleepless night notices his mailbox full of envelopes from NFL teams. They want him to vouch for Castillo's character. So Mucha, the old high school coach, writes that he's never coached a finer person and hopes his son winds up like Castillo. In Evanston, 20 teams call Walker. He tells them that he's never had a harder worker, that once he had to force Castillo to stop running suicides and go home.
Days before the draft, Smith talks to coach Marty Schottenheimer and team president Dean Spanos four times about Castillo. Smith knows the risks. What if Castillo is a serial doper? Smith will have wasted a pick, embarrassed the Chargers in the Bonds-Giambi-McGwire-Palmeiro era and put his job on the line. What if Castillo panics again, pops a pill and gets caught? He'll automatically be suspended at least a month. Smith knows what some will say: that the Chargers are rewarding a guy for cheating. In a week, Paul Tagliabue will appear before a congressional committee and defend the NFL's steroids policy. What message will Smith be sending?
But Smith believes Castillo. So does Schottenheimer. There are his great academic and athletic records and his clean drug tests. At Northwestern, he incline-benched 225 as a freshman, 290 as a sophomore, 335 as a junior and 365 as a senior-normal increases for a guy who trains hard. Plus, they're hearing that only four teams have dropped him. Smith wants Castillo. So does Schottenheimer. Spanos gives them the okay.
On draft day, Castillo goes to watch spring drills at Northwestern, the first time he's been around his old teammates, coaches and boosters. He hears everyone whispering about him, or thinks he hears everyone whispering. When asked what happened, he says, "I told the truth, and now it's in God's hands." He returns to his apartment, where 20 friends and family members are watching the draft, now 13 picks in. Castillo had hopes for the Seahawks, but they pass at 26. He figures he's a second-rounder for sure. Then, at pick 28, an 858 area code shows up on his cell. "Luis?"
"Please hold for coach Marty Schottenheimer."
HE'S WET. He's riding a stationary bike during the second week of training camp, the only Charger who hasn't hit the showers. He's staring at the ground, pushing the pedals, his arms hunched over the handlebars. The sweat has soaked his Chargers T-shirt from his shoulders to his belly button, a perfect V. Castillo is punishing himself because, two days ago, he made five mistakes in a row during practice. After one of them, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips approached him and said, "I thought you went to Northwestern. You're supposed to be a smart guy."
He's grateful. He can sit in the locker room and be ribbed about his on-field errors, but his teammates never mention the big one he made off the field. "It doesn't matter to me," LaDainian Tomlinson says. "He admitted he made a mistake. Once a guy does that, he's not going to make it again." Castillo knows that some players around the league agree with Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, who has said that Castillo "cheated the system and got away with it." Castillo says it's tough to hear those words, but he hopes his critics will follow the lead of the NFL. "The league gave me a second chance," he says, "because they saw what kind of person I had been my whole life."
He's stressed. He's missed practice time with a foot sprain and a broken toenail, and spends the day after his first preseason game getting X-rays of his ribs. It got worse during the Chargers' season-opening, 28-24 loss to the Cowboys. Midway through the third quarter, with San Diego leading 21-14, Castillo was called for roughing Drew Bledsoe on a third-and-10 deep in Cowboys
territory, keeping alive a drive that ended with a TD. Not what San Diego expected when it gave him a five-year, $7.04 million contract, $4.66 million guaranteed, giving him more money this year than all but nine Chargers. Still, when he talks to Maria and says, "I'm not doing too good," he promises he won't do anything stupid. Not again.
And the Chargers love his motor, love that he can rush the passer, love that he won't turn down an autograph request or a public appearance. "He's been excellent," Schottenheimer says. Castillo thinks ending up in San Diego was fate. He's a Spanish speaker in Southern California. There are lots of kids who could use a hero who speaks their language. Castillo can't wait to set a good example again, can't wait to sleep well again.
Can't wait to look in the mirror again.