SAN DIEGO -- We've all weighed in with our biggest surprises of the NFL draft. Aaron Rodgers, now Brett Favre's heir, falling to No. 24. Matt Jones, with five career pass receptions, going 21st overall -- as a wideout. The Lions, looking like quacks, picking a wideout in the top 10 of the draft for the third straight year. Maurice Clarett going on the first day of the draft to the Denver running back factory; now that was a shock to all of us. (Except, from what I hear now, to two teams near the top of the fourth round who might have taken Clarett early on the second day of the draft if he was still available.)
The one story that surprised me as much as any of those, particularly in these Congressional-inquiry-fearing times, hasn't gotten much play at all. But it should. The San Diego Chargers stunned the league -- and, to be quite frank, the player -- by taking an admitted steroid user with the 28th pick in the first round. The player, Northwestern defensive lineman Luis Castillo, will be used to spell Pro Bowl noseman Jamal Williams and to play some defensive end in the Chargers' 3-4 scheme. Assuming what Castillo says about his steroid use being a one-time thing is true.
I don't fault the Chargers for making the pick. I'm just shocked they made it, in the first round. It's a tremendous leap of faith to take a man who (and I'll explain the details in a moment) used Mark McGwire's bulker-upper, androstenedione, to help him prepare for the workouts at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. With NFL majordomos slated to go before a House panel investigating steroid use in American sports this week to defend the league's steroid policy, I bet some Congressman is going to take some prime national TV time (and not just on C-SPAN, but on ESPN and other networks as well) to use Paul Tagliabue: "Commissioner, you say steroids are under control in your sport, and your teams are playing hardball against all steroid users. So why did the San Diego use a first-round draft choice last weekend to take a player who openly admits he took steroids to get himself ready for your NFL Scouting Combine? Aren't your teams simply rewarding a man for cheating?''
If I were Tagliabue, I'd make sure I had a pretty smart answer ready for that question.
If there is a smart answer for it.
I was in San Diego for the draft. I had a chance to talk with Castillo on the phone from his home in Chicago after the pick. His is a great story. Castillo was born in the Dominican Republic, and he moved with his mom to the Land of Opportunity -- in this case the New York City suburb of Garfield, N.J. -- when he was a young boy. He took full advantage of his new life, earning a football scholarship to Northwestern and playing and studying well enough there to become an Academic All-American and football All-American.
Entering his senior season, Castillo was expected to earn his way into the lower tier of the draft's first round, at least. But on the second play of the season, at TCU, as he was reaching for the quarterback on a pass-rush and had his palm on the guy's helmet, his elbow hyperextended by another player. He suffered a severe injury to his ulnar-collateral elbow ligament. Basically, he couldn't flex his elbow. And so he couldn't lift weights. He probably shouldn't have been playing. But he was a team captain, and he felt responsible for teammates relying on him.
"So I got shot up before games and just endured the pain,'' Castillo told me. "There were a lot of tough moments. The pain was unbelievable. I had the option of taking a medical redshirt after our third game. I could have come back for a fifth year if I stopped playing then. I could have had surgery, and either come back next year and play again, or maybe make it back in time to work out and get ready for the NFL Draft. But I decided to keep playing. I basically played with one arm. My get-off ability was down. I was falling a lot. I wasn't anywhere near the player I could have been, but I played. At the end of the year, I expected I would have surgery and then come back in six or eight months, but then I saw the Bears' team doctor, and he told me that a lot of football players come back from this injury without having the surgery. So I just started rehabbing and thought I'd be ready for the Combine.''
One problem: The elbow wasn't getting better fast enough. He hadn't been able to lift weights all season, and now he still wasn't up to speed in the strength department. One of the big tests at the NFL Scouting Combine for interior linemen is how many times they can bench-press 225 pounds consecutively. For a 6-foot-3, 303-pound man who hoped to play in the land of the NFL giants, attacking fellow 300-pounders every Sunday, it would have been a disaster for Castillo to either skip the Combine bench-press or to perform poorly. So shortly before the annual even in Indy, in an attempt to jump-start his quicksand-like rehab, for a short period Castillo took androstenedione. Andro, as it's known, is a steroid that the body converts to excessive testosterone, which promotes muscle growth and healing. "I got scared,'' Castillo said. "I made a huge mistake.''