Road to NFL for Jets' Castillo began with one repeated dream

NEW YORK (AP) — Sergio Castillo had the same dream a few times every year since sixth grade.

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The New York Jets kicker is on the field at a stadium when he looks into the stands and sees his mother and future girlfriend in the stands cheering him on.

Castillo never told anyone about his repeated visions until he wrote two letters while flying to Kansas City for his second NFL game to play the Chiefs on Nov. 1.

One was to his mother, Maria Guadalupe Cáceres, and the other to his fiancée, Adriana Cavazos-Loya, who’s expecting the couple’s first child in January.

“The thing is, my lady was also pregnant in that dream,” Castillo said in a telephone interview. “I was like, what are the chances of that? When I wrote to them, my second dream was coming true. The first one is the NFL and the second one is that dream and they were going to watch me play in Kansas City. They were like, how come you never told us that? I told them I wanted to save it for a special moment when it actually happened.”

And, there he was — on his 30th birthday, to boot — kicking three field goals as his dream played out in front of his mother and fiancée.

“It’s just crazy,” Castillo said, “how God works in His mysterious ways.”

Castillo made his NFL debut the week before against Buffalo, filling in for the injured Sam Ficken. As he walked off the field after his first kick, a 29-yard field goal, he could barely control his emotions.

“I teared up a bit because I started reminiscing about the six years it took me to get here, you know?” Castillo said.

Castillo's long, winding NFL journey began in tiny La Joya, Texas, where he was raised by “my four strong women” — his mother, grandmother and two aunts. The first-generation Mexican American went from the soccer and football fields in the Rio Grande Valley to Division II West Texas A&M, the only school to offer him a scholarship.

But, he nearly walked away.

“I had never been around white people,” he said. “I had never been around Black people. It was just a culture shock. I guess it was the first time I faced a little bit of discrimination, racism. And I told my mom, I’m dropping out, I’m quitting.”

Castillo got a stern talking-to from one of his childhood coaches — and then from his mother.

“She was like, ’If you come home, you will not have a home,’” he recalled. “She said, ‘You said you were going to play ball. Now be a man and finish what you said what you were going to do.’”

Castillo, one of few Mexican Americans to play in the NFL, has been working on that ever since.

“When I signed that letter of intent to play football in college, I was not just signing for me,” he said. “Yes, I’m living my dream, but I wanted to pave the way for the future generations, the future Mexican Americans that want to pursue this dream. I couldn’t just quit then and there, you know?

“It reminded me of why I was doing it.”

He went undrafted in 2014 out of West Texas A&M, but got a look from the Atlanta Falcons — who already had Matt Bryant. Unable to beat out the veteran, Castillo was cut during training camp. So, he headed to San Antonio at the urging of a former coach and worked at Southside High School as a teacher’s aide and assistant coach.

He took the same bus to work every day: the No. 522 route that picked him up at 4:22 a.m. at the corner of Babcock and Wurzbach for the 1-hour, 24-minute commute. It was during those rides that his driver — Mr. Fulton — encouraged him to set up a “vision board” to focus his goals.

Castillo’s vision board includes a picture of a cross in the middle. In the four corners are: a picture of two wedding rings and a cartoon with several people at a table that he titled “Castillo Family Reunion” to represent the family he hopes to have; a picture of himself and Bryant; the words “Principal Castillo” for his post-football aspirations; and inspirational quotes from the likes of Eric Thomas, Gary Vaynerchuk, Les Brown and Tony Robbins.

“Every day when I woke up and the last thing I saw before I went to bed was that vision board," Castillo said. "It reminded me of where I was going to go so I kept feeding my mind.”

He used it for motivation throughout his various stops in the CFL, XFL and Alliance of American Football. He needed it all eight times he was cut. Castillo used it again while recovering from a torn ACL in 2017 that nearly derailed his career.

When the CFL canceled its season in August because of the coronavirus pandemic, Castillo was faced with a tough decision: stick with his contract with the BC Lions with some salary and health benefits, or opt out and try to pursue the NFL again.

Castillo was certain his fiancée would tell him to stay put, especially with a baby on the way. Instead, Cavazos-Loya surprised him.

“She said: ‘You’re going to chase this dream,’” Castillo recalled. ”‘When I met you 4 1/2 years ago, you said you were going to make it to the NFL. This is your chance.’

“That gave me the whole confidence in the world to pursue this.”

Castillo worked out for the Jets earlier this season and his ability to kick field goals and punt impressed special teams coordinator Brant Boyer. Signed to the practice squad in October, Castillo was promoted to the active roster 10 days later when Ficken injured his groin. He went 6 for 7 on field goals — with the only miss a block — and 4 for 4 on extra points in three games.

Ficken returned last Sunday, but missed two extra points and was placed on injured reserve. So, Castillo's NFL dream continues Sunday against Miami.

“It’s still a little surreal that I’m here,” Castillo said. “People have asked me how I’m feeling. I’m just very grateful for the opportunity. The path that it took me to get here, six years, I wouldn’t want to change anything about it.”

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