When Sergio Castillo first touched down in Edmonton last month, he posted a photo of himself, decked out in a blue suit with a crimson shirt, and wearing a white cowboy hat. The 31-year-old kicker was frozen in frame, jauntily striding the field at Commonwealth Stadium, a look of determination apparent on his face. It’s a photo that screams ‘I’m happy to be here, let’s get to work.’ The accompanying caption had something else to say though: “Where the tacos at, Edmonton?”
He’s not kidding with that either. Sergio Castillo wants to know where to get good eats in his new town and he loves good food probably even more than he loves football. That is almost certainly the case, actually. The story of how he became a kicker in the first place, even though he didn’t even like football, has sneaking snacks during games involved in a very funny way. We’ll get to that.
— Sergio Castillo (@elcastidelsur) March 17, 2022
It’s a little before lunch time and Castillo is on the phone from his home in Amarillo, Texas, preparing a meal and looking after his 15-month old son, Jared, who can be heard from time to time in the background, offering some sort of comment on something or other, the way 15-month olds do as they explore their quickly increasing powers of speech.
So he’s busy, but Castillo is happy to talk while he puts the finishing touches on a noontime meal. He’ll talk football, he’ll talk soccer. “We never get tired of soccer,” he says. He’ll talk gratitude and opportunity and he’ll make you laugh while he’s doing it. And he’ll talk about food. Loves to talk about food.
“Ground beef, beans and rice.” That’s what Castillo is preparing for lunch. He has them all, he says, every day, and the hot sauce makes it all sing. “You can’t forget about the hot sauces,” he advises sternly.
“My girl, she’s from Chihuahua, Mexico,” he says of his wife, Adriana Cavazos-Loya, a high school Spanish teacher and soccer coach. “They grow jalapenos in her hometown. Her mom brings jalapenos from their hometown and she makes me about four or five different hot sauces.”
He didn’t say it in so many words, but I think Castillo would be alright with it if I implied that a broad philosophical definition of his life might go something like this: Bring your hot sauce with you. If he does it literally, he does it figuratively, too. Castillo has his own special brand of psychological hot sauce going for him, spiced with energy, optimism, gratitude and humour, as well as a pretty healthy dose of being open to what the universe is offering at any given moment.
It’s gotten him this far.
* * *
Castillo’s professional football journey has been one of many, many cities, with injury, rehab, heartbreak and comeback plunked smack dab in the middle of it. That he’s wound up in Edmonton might be a little surprising to some. It could have been assumed that after signing for a second stint with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers – the team with which he broke into the Canadian Football League midway through the 2015 season – last fall, and then going on to win his first Grey Cup last December, that he might have angled to stay on with the Bombers for 2022.
He went 5-for-5 in Winnipeg’s 33-25 victory over Hamilton in last December’s championship game, and then seemed to have a lot of fun at the ensuing celebrations. A new deal with the Bombers might have seemed like an easy choice given that scenario, but Castillo is the kind of guy who seems intrigued by what might be behind a door he has not yet gone through, and there was an attraction to the Elks due to that, perhaps. Due, also, to connections that were already in place.
The Elks are Castillo’s ninth professional team in a little over eight years. Some of those teams – like Ottawa, Winnipeg and BC – he’s had two contracts with at two separate times. There’ve been four different leagues when you include the Alliance of American Football and the XFL along with the CFL and NFL. There are highs; the Grey Cup win last December and a CFL All-Star selection in 2019, as well as nailing a 50-yarder against the New England Patriots while a member of the New York Jets during a Monday Night game in 2020. There are lows; a terrible knee injury in 2017 that had him pretty well out of football for over a year when two different teams released him.
Castillo has signed with the Elks, keeping a couple of old friends and some gratitude in mind in making the decision; Head Coach and General Manager Chris Jones, and Assistant General Manager Geroy Simon.
Prior to signing with the Blue Bombers in 2015, Castillo had his first CFL tryout in the town of Carrollton, Texas, just north of Dallas. On a muddy field, he kicked well, he says, and Jones – in his first stint as head coach with Edmonton – was impressed. There was to be no signing that day, though, Castillo remembers, with Jones telling him he needed a Canadian to fill that particular roster spot.
But the two bonded.
“Ever since then, we would stay in touch here and there,” says Castillo. “When I kicked on Monday night against New England, he would shoot me a text. When I won the Grey Cup, he would shoot me a text. So we’ve always had that relationship even though I never played for him.”
Simon gets the credit for helping to revive Castillo’s career. “He called my agent (Gil Scott) back in 2019. And he helped revive my career because he gave me a shot. No one was giving me a chance after I tore my ACL.”
Castillo had badly damaged his anterior cruciate ligament when he was a member of the Hamilton Ticats, in 2017. He’d signed with Ottawa for the 2018 season, but was released before playing a game, a possible return scuttled as, basically, he’d attempted a comeback too soon after surgery. He was out of football for the entire year but was signed for a second stint with the Lions at the urging of Simon, who was then BC’s Director for Global Scouting. It worked out extremely well for the Lions and for Castillo, who went 41-for-45 on field goal attempts, earning a CFL All-Star nod in 2019.
“You know, knowing who I would possibly be working with was key,” says Castillo of his Edmonton signing. “Because if you go somewhere where you’re familiar with at least, maybe not the city, but with people that you’re gonna work with, it makes the transition a little bit easier.”
So now he’s with Edmonton, ready to kick and crowd-sourcing restaurant recommendations.
* * *
That Castillo is an accomplished professional placekicker is something to behold, considering he had no interest in football at all when the opportunity to play first came to him as a high school sophomore. And not much interest even while he was doing it, admitting that he didn’t really feel the lure of football until he was well into his career at West Texas A&M.
“It’s crazy,” Castillo says, laughing at the absurdity of what he’s about to say. “I didn’t like football until my second year in college.”
The story of how he came to be a high school placekicker is a comical one, the way Castillo tells it. Especially when you consider how he remained part of the halftime entertainment as a band member, and how he’d sneak a taco or two during games.
A soccer geek and a dedicated member of the marching band at La Joya High School, just a few miles north of the Rio Grande River in south Texas, Castillo was already plenty busy with extracurriculars when his soccer coach, a man by the name of Julian Tamez, asked him to kick a few footballs, just for the heck of it. Castillo did it, primarily because of how much he loved and looked up to Tamez. “He’s been like a father figure to me,” says Castillo. “He’s been through everything with me and made a huge impact in my life.”
“And he only asked me,” remembers Castillo, noting no other soccer players were asked to give kicking footballs a whirl. “That’s the crazy thing, he only asked me.”
That was a Wednesday, Castillo remembers. What he might not have known at the time was that the La Joya Coyotes were going to be needing a kicker the following season, not that he would have cared. He only decided to kick those footballs because Coach Tamez asked him to.
Afterward, the coach suggested Castillo make an appearance at the Coyotes’ summer tryouts and Castillo, who does seem to like to broaden his horizons, had intentions do do just that, even if the desire for adding another kind of football to his life wasn’t what you’d call a strong one.
The weeks passed. The time came. But no Castillo. “I totally forgot to try out,” he chuckles. “Band was my thing, right?”
Summer band camp was a focal point for Castillo during the summer of 2006, and so he was marching with his mates, lugging and banging his bass drum. Football was nowhere near the top of his mind, unless maybe he was thinking of being ready for the band’s halftime shows that fall.
But even if he didn’t have plans for the sport that would become his professional focus, the sport had plans for him.
The way Castillo remembers it, he was participating in band camp drills when the musical director came over to tell him that the football coach wanted to see him. “Why does he want to chat with me?” says Castillo, sounding puzzled as he relives the memory.
Inside the football facility, the coach showed Castillo into the locker room and pointed out the various stalls with nameplates and numbers over them. “I see ‘Sergio Castillo, 26.’ I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“I find out I’m the starting kicker for the football team,” he says, laughing.
So, as a sophomore, Castillo – without so much as a single kick attempt in a real football practice, never mind an actual game – is named the kicker for La Joya’s varsity team. “I didn’t really know much about the rules,” he says. “And so I was just learning on the go.”
Castillo remained the team’s kicker for the rest of his high school career, kicking through his sophomore, junior and senior years. All the while, he remained with the band, meaning that, at home games, he would suit up to kick in the first half, then partially disrobe, and fulfill his duties as a musician while the rest of the team was in the locker room.
“At halftime, I would take off my pads, put my bass drum on and march with the band,” he explains. “And then I’d be kicking field goals (again) in the third and fourth quarters.”
And sneaking in a meal during those third and fourth quarters.
HS schedule all 4 years…
630am kicking session
4pm-530ish band practice
630pm-8ish ⚽️ club practice
Doing activities at a high level can be done, but you must set your priorities straight!
CHINGÓN MINDSET! pic.twitter.com/Kgxql5XjRQ
— Sergio Castillo (@elcastidelsur) March 24, 2022
At the time, Castillo remembers, the La Joya marching band had a sponsorship deal with a local eatery who would provide meals, including tacos, for band members to enjoy once their halftime show was finished. Castillo loved that. But now, as a football player on duty while his bandmates were chowing down, he was denied that delicious perk.
“I remember feeling like ‘gee, I’m not gonna be able to enjoy those tacos,’” Castillo says forlornly. He knew he couldn’t stand on the sideline, cramming food into his mouth. It’s not like the head coach of a football team was going to let one of his players eat a meal while the battle was on.
Castillo goes on to explain the crafty workaround he then hatched in order to get at those tacos. “After the second or third game, I started to leave my bass drum next to my kicking net,” he says slyly.
Castillo had recruited a couple of bandmates to assist him. Under the guise of having to retrieve their mate’s drum, a couple of tacos would be surreptitiously delivered to the kicker while that operation was underway. Castillo would then hide those tacos among the paraphernalia he had gathered on the sideline. Luckily, his usual position was far from the prying eyes of those who would disapprove. He’d amble over to ‘practice some kicks’ and in between “I’d be on a knee and I would get one bite at a time.”
The lover of hot sauce had triumphed, ensuring the sport that he still wasn’t even that interested in did not disrupt his love for food.
While portions of the story are highly comical, the great, overarching view that Castillo has of it is one of fate.
“It’s just, if you think about it,” he begins to ask, “what are the chances that on that Wednesday I decided to go practice with my buddies, ended up kicking a football just for the heck of it, and seven, eight months down the road they needed a kicker and I was the guy?”
“For me there’s no coincidence.”
* * *
The road has been long and winding for Castillo. All those cities, all those contracts, all those farewells. Always, it seems, looking for a new home for the season. Some might look at that journey as fatiguing, even lamentable. Others, however, would see the adventure in it.
“Oh, it’s perfect, man,” Castillo says of his odyssey, and further conversation reveals that he doesn’t mean he’d necessarily choose to go the route he has, just that he accepts and embraces the the way the road has been mapped out before him. Getting paid to kick footballs is a blessing, he figures and besides, no matter where he is, Adriana and Jared are his focal points.
“My biggest dream is to have a family,” he says. “And I’m living that.”
Castillo grew up in a single parent family, his mother Maria as his guiding light and protector. But there was more. “My two aunts my grandma, my two uncles, they all raised me,” he says, thankful for the collective that anchored his formative years. He is anxious to provide that support for his son, and proud that he can call himself a father.
“I didn’t really have a dad growing up,” he says, adding that a lot of kids in his south Texas community were faced with that reality. “My mom didn’t have a dad growing up. So I’m breaking the chain.”
As Jared continues to vocally putter around in the background, Castillo talks about how his son has just learned to walk in the last few weeks and is already kicking everything in sight. “Any kind of ball, he is kicking it.” Mom and dad are jazzed by that, he jokes, because Jared seems to be left-footed, in a world where most are right-footed. “Now we have a left winger or a left back for soccer,” he says, excitedly.
Adriana and Sergio are part-owners of a gym in Amarillo, each bringing their particular expertise to the enterprise in training up and coming athletes. Adriana, Castillo says, is a hell of a head soccer coach. While the girls’ team she was coaching at Palo Duro High School was eliminated in the playoffs this season, she was asked to take over the boys’ team part way through the year, and has advanced them through to the Texas Sweet 16. “I’m pretty stoked for her,” Castillo boasts. “I’m proud of her and what she’s been able to do with the boys in such a short period of time.”
While he was improving as a teenaged placekicker and punter, Castillo remained an excellent goalkeeper in soccer as well, and was offered university scholarships in each sport, opting to take a football ride. That’s curious when you think of his admission that he didn’t really come to like football until he was in his second year at West Texas.
He considers that his scholarship was essential in his development as a young man and because of that Castillo aims to do what he can to help provide new generations of high school athletes with the mentorship that could unlock doors for them. His Twitter timeline is littered with offers to help youngsters, whatever they’re training for. “If I can help a kid get their school paid for by kicking a football or by helping them play soccer for another four years and get their school paid, it’s a win,” he says. “I had coaches like that who were behind me from the get go.”
“I try to give back and help these kids out either with goalkeeper lessons, kicking lessons or weight training lessons.”
He enjoys that, he says, but also does it because he believes pro athletes have a duty to the up and coming generations. “It’s a gift that’s been given to us,” he says. “We should use that platform to motivate others and to help them along the way.”
Motivation is key for Castillo. Because fate is one thing, but following through when it calls your name is another thing entirely and he certainly seems to be a believer in that. If high school football was thrust upon him when he wasn’t even looking, saying ‘yes’ to the opportunity would nonetheless come with responsibility, and that’s why he decided he’d get up at 6 a.m. so he could kick footballs before classes.
That kind of determination and responsibility, he says, comes directly from Maria, whom he says greeted the news that her son was adding football to his activities with a kind of cautious encouragement, reminding him that he already had a pretty full plate, so, how did he propose to make it work?
He had school, then band and soccer in the afternoon. “I wasn’t going to miss band,” says Castillo. “Band was my thing, right?” There was one way to incorporate football into his life and that was to get up early.
“My mom instilled that,” he says of the work ethic and the crack of dawn wake up call. Turns out that rising early was a gift in perpetuity. Not only did it help Castillo improve for the sport he’d just newly adopted, it provided him with a lifelong treasure; time that gives him the opportunity to frame the day ahead.
“To this day, I wake up early,” he says, recommending the practice for others. “I believe people should wake up early and dedicate time to themselves.”
“When I go to sleep, I can’t wait to wake up the next day because I’m gonna spend time with myself mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally. And try to improve on those aspects of life.”
* * *
In between his Grey Cup heroics and his signing a contract with the Elks, Castillo was once again offered something a little different to consider, something he hadn’t even thought of doing. An old friend – in fact, it was Dr, James Parker, the surgeon who repaired Castillo’s knee back in 2017 – had bought a semi-pro indoor soccer team, the Amarillo Bombers. Parker asked Castillo to be the public address announcer.
My job during the off-season! pic.twitter.com/bIJ4DIkZt1
— Sergio Castillo (@elcastidelsur) February 7, 2022
Castillo didn’t hesitate much, other than to caution that he should try it out for one game so that both he and the team could see if he was any good at it.
“It was a fun, neat experience,” says Castillo, who offered up a taste of his over-the-top energy in a video posted on Twitter.
Told that he could really let it fly – and trash talk visiting teams to his heart’s content – Castillo embraced the opportunity.
“Lame jokes left and right, mostly in Spanish,” he says brightly of his time on the microphone. “So that was pretty fun.”
“In one of the games we’re playing against the first place team, the Wichita Wings. Mainly Hispanics just like us. So I was able to throw a lot of smack at them in Spanish and I think I got into their heads because they started ‘mean mugging’ me. We ended up winning. So I took a little bit of credit for that,” he says with a chuckle.
Once again, having a curious, ‘what the heck?’ attitude served Castillo well, as it will, undoubtedly, when he touches down in Edmonton, poking another pin into the map of his professional travels.
So long as he finds the good eats.
“I mean, I got a lot of recommendations,” he says with wonder, at the response to his “where the tacos at?” tweet. “More than I expected. So I’m pretty stoked about it.”
“I’m for sure taking my hot sauces,” he says of his trip north for the season. “If you’ve got decent food, you’ll survive with hot sauce.”