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A good example

The Chargers' Luis Castillo inherited his mother's work ethic to take the rare path from the Dominican Republic to NFL

January 03, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

SABANETA, Dominican Republic -- The trek to Luis Castillo's boyhood home begins where the paved road ends. So it's not one you can take on a whim. "You'll never make it in that," Polinar Torrez, a cousin of the San Diego Chargers' defensive lineman, says with a laugh as he points to a visitor's car. "You'll need a 4-by-4. Or maybe a motorbike."

Or maybe a burro, because what road there was washed away in the recent rains. Plus, you will have to ford rivers, climb some pretty steep hills and . . . well, now even Torrez is having second thoughts.

"Are you sure you really want to do this?" he asks.

Castillo's journey, after all, is one just one man has made. While hundreds of baseball players have found their way from the lush hillsides of the Dominican Republic to the major leagues, Castillo is the first football player to go from an extended childhood in the DR to the NFL.

And his trip was as eventful as it was historic, beginning with national honors on the field and in the classroom in high school and at Northwestern -- where he was just the fourth player in school history to win All-America and Academic All-America recognition in the same season -- before his selection in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft.

Yet the path from tiny Cidra de Tomas to success wasn't one Castillo blazed. It was one he followed.

Years earlier, his mother, Maria, with little formal education and no business experience, turned a job as a door-to-door saleswoman into a million-dollar company. In comparison, Castillo's journey to the NFL was a piece of cake.

"He didn't have to go through hard times," says Torrez, a man who has clearly seen his share of sacrifice. "She had him ready. She never wavered. She never left him alone."

It's not yet 8 on a chilly November morning when dozens of players, struggling to stifle yawns or rub the sleep from their eyes, file slowly into a classroom at the Chargers' sprawling training complex for their first meeting of the day.

Castillo has already been here for hours. Just two days after surgery to repair a tendon in his right ankle, he is about to begin exhaustive therapy, a program that will cut weeks from his rehabilitation and get him back on the field before the end of the regular season.

It's the second time in as many seasons that an ankle injury derailed what was shaping up to be a Pro Bowl season. But while that might cause doubt and frustration in some, Castillo again followed his mother's lead.

"You look at what she achieved and it wasn't because of education. It wasn't because of luck or because she met the right person or because she had the right connections," Castillo says. "It was just because she worked her butt off. And when you're growing up and when you're 7, 8, 9, 10 . . . and the example you have your whole life is someone who just dedicated themselves completely to their work, it's hard not to follow in that, to live up to that."

Hard work is all Maria Castillo has ever known. One of eight siblings growing up in a house without electricity or running water, she had to quit her studies in grade school to take care of her brothers and sisters. As an adult, she worked a number of jobs, managing to save enough money to make a couple of short trips to the United States.

On one of them she had a fling with a Greek immigrant and returned home pregnant. Determined to give her unborn child a better life than an uneducated single mother could provide in the Dominican, she secured another visitor's visa and returned to New York eight months pregnant, hiding her belly by wearing a heavy jacket despite the sweltering July heat and standing as close to the INS official's desk as possible.

On the day after her 40th birthday, Maria gave birth to a son, Luis, in Brooklyn.

Luis was in Cidra de Tomas by the time he was old enough to walk, though, left in the care of various aunts and cousins while his mother worked up to 16 hours a day hawking water filters door to door, hoping to earn enough to give her son a proper home.

"What I did, any mother who was alone with a child would do," Maria says. "When a child begins to grow up worrying about the economic situation of his parents, he loses concentration in what he's doing.

"What I did was work hard so Luis never worried about not having a father."

But few of Castillo's neighbors in New York's Washington Heights barrio wanted her water filters. What many women would ask for instead was a favor: If she was heading to the Dominican any time soon, would she mind bringing back some shampoo?

Soon, Castillo was flying home with empty suitcases and flying back with bags stuffed with Dominican hair-care products. Today, her New Jersey-based company, Mimor Distributors, imports beauty products by the truckload, booking $1.6 million in annual sales.

"She's definitely done well," Luis says. "I'm still trying to catch up to her in some regards. It's funny."

Maria Castillo was always driven. But her son? Well, not so much.

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