THE AVERAGE man in the Dominican Republic is far from 6'3" and 290 pounds, so when defensive end Luis Castillo joined the San Diego Chargers in 2005, there were questions about how he got so big. "Plátano y sancocho," he told a Hispanic reporter—plantains and a Dominican stew that his mother, Maria, made from chicken, beef and vegetables. The answer revealed more about Castillo than about his diet. Although he was born in Brooklyn and reared mostly in New York City and Garfield, N.J., he has spent a few weeks every year in Maria's homeland, honoring his heritage and strengthening his Dominican connection.
Castillo's size also came under the NFL's scrutiny; during the combine he tested positive for androstenedione, which he admitted he'd taken to help heal an injured elbow and vowed never to use again. The Chargers drafted him with the No. 28 pick, and last July they rewarded him for his solid play—and clean drug tests—with a five-year, $43 million contract. Castillo wants to be recognized as a different kind of lineman: a hybrid defensive end--defensive tackle. The Chargers thought he was quick enough to rush the passer on the outside and strong enough to break through guards and into the backfield on the inside, and his performance has only confirmed their judgment.
Castillo also aims to continue his education. He earned a degree in economics at Northwestern, where he was only the fourth student in school history to be named both All-America and Academic All-America in the same season. "I want to learn everything I can learn," he says. "I feel an enormous responsibility, but it goes way beyond football. What will I become? I'm very serious about that."
Living in San Diego, Castillo has explored Mexican culture, and for two years he has helped run football camps in Mexico well as in the Dominican Republic. Whether with young athletes in Latin America or soldiers in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, which he visited last March as an NFL ambassador, he moves easily between English and Spanish. In Afghanistan, Hispanic soldiers lit up when he replied to them in his mother's language. Most days ended with Castillo, on his cellphone, reassuring Maria back in New Jersey that he was safe and having the time of his life. Late one night he talked for three hours with Army Rangers at their base in Kandahar. "You see the way they talk about being in a gunfight and just doing their jobs without panicking?" he said afterward. "Priceless."
Reflecting on the trip recently, Castillo said, "I've got an amazing opportunity—business, politics, law, communications. You never know." An NFL present and a promising future: Luis Castillo's American dream.