Posted: Monday April 25, 2005 9:40AM; Updated: Monday April 25, 2005 4:59PM
Luis Castillo was a very productive player at Northwestern.
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So Castillo, boosted by the andro, felt better quickly and began working out at near his normal level. At the Combine, he had a very good performance at the bench press: 32 reps of 225 pounds. But Castillo also had to give a urine specimen for drug testing. It came back positive. When that happened, Castillo and his agent decided to write letters to all 32 teams, telling them his story, admitting he took the andro, saying it was a one-time thing and taking full responsibility for it. Northwestern backed him up, telling the teams who inquired that he'd never before tested positive for a banned substance in his four years at college.
"The kid panicked,'' GM A.J. Smith told me. "He'll be tested regularly now. I'm convinced this is a great kid. We had our people do a thorough investigation, and I'm not concerned about it happening again.''
On draft eve, family members drove from New Jersey to Chicago to be with Castillo for the big day. Who knew when he'd be picked, but his support system would be there to comfort him if he fell out of the top two rounds or to revel with him if he got selected early. The Chargers, picking 28th in the first round, chose Castillo. It's likely he would not have been available when the Chargers chose in the second round, with the 61st overall selection. Smith got on the phone to tell Castillo, and before he did, he told the kid he really admired him for writing the letter. "Thank you, sir,'' Castillo said.
"Not having played my best last year,'' he told me, "I'm ecstatic that the Chargers would take a chance on me.''
Castillo had a mea-culpa conference call with the San Diego media (one local writer cracked, "Do you know Mark McGwire?''), and Smith and coach Marty Schottenheimer launched a staunch defense of Castillo. Both clearly believe Castillo's mistake was a one-time thing.
On ESPN, a current player, New England linebacker Mike Vrabel, ripped into the pick and into Castillo. "It sends a terrible message,'' Vrabel said. "He cheats. He cheated the system and got away with it.'' As Vrabel said, Castillo was actually rewarded for cheating. Had he not taken the andro, had he tested poorly at the Combine and had he still been in questionable health today, there's no way he would have been drafted as high as he was.
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So I called Castillo back. The party at his place in Chicago, with family and friends and former Northwestern teammates, was in full swing. I asked if he'd heard what Vrabel said. He said he hadn't. I repeated Vrabel's comments.
Over the din, I thought I heard Castillo sigh deeply. "Well,'' he said, "I made a huge mistake, and I owned up to it. I'm sorry it happened. It's not who I am. If someone feels that way ... all I can do is be the best person I can be, and now, I don't know ..."
Long pause. Noise. "I guess I'm going to have to deal with things like this my whole career.''
Smith is a straight-laced career football man. "We will do what we think is in the best interest of the San Diego Chargers and making this team better,'' he said. "I knew we would be facing these kinds of questions, and people would be questioning the character of the young man. I think it's unjust. Let me tell you -- this is a great kid. Did he cheat to try to get ready for the Combine? All of that is true. He has admitted it. He cheated to cut a corner because he was fearful. But I don't believe he gained an advantage [over what he would have been had he not been hurt]. If we wouldn't have picked him, someone else would have -- because he's proven what a good kid he is and this was a one-time mistake.''
I asked two veteran football men who run draft rooms what they thought of Smith's move, of Vrabel's criticism and of Castillo the player and person. Both thought it was fine for the Chargers to draft him high, even if they didn't agree on the merits of Castillo the player.
An NFC man said, "On the public-relations part of it, it may not be a great thing because of the enormous ongoing publicity. But in reality, we don't think it was a serious matter in his case. Castillo's very smart, comes from an honest program, and has a great person for a head coach [Randy Walker], and they sent us letters and material on the innocence of the situation. We just don't think he's a great player -- sort of a blue-collar plugger type who will give you an honest day's work. So is this really worth it?''
An AFC man said: "I like this kid a lot. I think he made an honest mistake. I think Mike Vrabel was a little over the top on this one. What I like about Castillo is he's so passionate about football. If the Chargers feel he's a good pick at 28, I've got no problem with him going there.''
I suppose I don't either, but it bothers me that Castillo confessed after he tested positive, and he did, of course, gain an advantage by being able to work out hard at the Combine and get his lifting regimen back to near-normal by using andro. I feel good about the fact that he's a good kid with a strong academic and personal record. I would feel a whole lot better if he'd gone in the second round.