Having grown up in Texas, a place where football transcends class, spirituality and ethnicity, a love for the game came naturally for Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo. His path toward a successful career in the National Football League, however, did not come as easily.
His is not a “rags to riches” story, but a classic example of achieving the “American Dream” through hard work and determination. Castillo’s parents, born in Mexico, took a leap of faith as teenagers to move to the small border town of Port Isabel in search of a better life.
The first-generation Mexican-American, from modest beginnings, has never let race or social status stand in his way. The passion, perseverance and work ethic that his hard-working immigrant parents instilled in him, he says, are the values that drive him.
Though he always dreamed of playing professionally, he openly admits that wanting to be a professional football player and becoming one are two very different things. His playing career came to a halt after playing at Texas A&I-Kingsville (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) and then professionally with the USFL’s San Antonio Gunslingers.
Where one door closed, another opened when Castillo was encouraged to coach football. He has since honed in on his coaching skills and risen up through the coaching ranks.
Recently promoted to defensive coordinator after 16 years on the offense, the veteran coach was in critics' crosshairs after the Eagles – dubbed the "Dream Team" in preseason – lost four games in a row.
Castillo, no stranger to adversity, never panicked. The birds have seemingly found their stride and won two consecutive games against NFC East division rivals – including a 34-7 blowout against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night on national television.
The Eagles still have a chance at the Super Bowl if they play hard, play fast and stick to fundamentals, Castillo believes.
He recently spent 20 minutes with Fox News Latino discussing the strategy for his first season on the defensive side of the ball, the growth of football among Hispanic audiences and the legacy that he hopes to leave behind.
This is your 17th season in Philadelphia. Do you still consider yourself a Texan at heart?
(Laughing) Well, no. I consider myself a Philadelphia Eagle.
First, rule of order - Cheese steak! Whiz? With, or without?
(More laughter) WITH!
How is the football culture in Philly different from the football culture in Texas?
Well, you know what? There is really no difference. Football here is really just like it is in Texas.
Really? Are fans just as passionate about football?
Oh, yeah, it’s crazy.
Traditionally, football hasn’t been associated with Latinos. Why did you decide to get into this game in particular?
Where I grew up, football was big. Everybody loved it.
Speaking of…the NFL is really starting to dominate the Hispanic audience segment, why do you think that is?
You know, what I think it is, for Hispanic people, that football is a physical game – an intense game. For Latinos, I think that’s what turns football on for them. It’s the energy; the physical part. That’s the exciting part of football.
Well, football has always been a pretty physical and intense game. Why are Latinos paying attention now?
I think it’s the market. The media. It’s just reaching more players.
This season the league kicked Hispanic Heritage Month off with a special celebratory games and special events. In your opinion, are these valuable efforts on behalf of the league?
Yeah. Any kind of outreach to the people. I think there’s just a love for it.
What about the players? What is their feedback on the league’s Hispanic Heritage Month efforts? Do they even notice?
I think there are some Hispanic players. For them, I think, it’s been something special. I think that they understand that the Latino culture is really embracing all the players.
Did your background and ethnicity pose any challenges when you were trying out to play football?
When you get recruited it just depends on how good a player you are. It’s about your ability.
What did your family think about you wanting to go pro as a football player?
Well, I don’t really think that they knew too much about it. So, it was like, “Ay, mi’jito, whatever mi’jito wants.”
At the beginning, how did you prepare and learn to train to play football?
In high school, we had a coach that really loved the game. He was the one that played a big part in learning how to train and do the right things.
You originally wanted to play football professionally, right? When did you decide that you weren’t going to play any more and that you were going to be a coach?
After college, I tried out and wasn’t good enough, so I started to coach. Then once I started coaching, I said, “You know what, maybe I [cannot] play, but maybe I can coach.” I started coaching on defense. What I did there is that I was playing in the USFL (United States Football League), at the time, in the spring. So, I would play in the spring and I would coach college in the fall. That’s kind of how I started.
How did you make the jump to coaching in the NFL?
I just kept working hard and studying. They had a minority program (NFL Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship Program), and I was able to go to three different teams in the summer. I helped with practices and film study. Then, all of the sudden, I had players that were developing beyond college and they started knowing who I was. That’s how I got an opportunity.
Do you feel that programs like these are beneficial to minorities today?
Oh, yeah. Big time.
Do you think that an NFL hiring regulation like the “Rooney Rule,” which mandates that teams interview at least one minority candidate for coaching and managerial openings, will continue to help future generations to achieve managerial roles in the NFL?
I think that it if you have equal opportunity for both sides, it gives the management and the people that are trying to get in an opportunity to meet each other.
How do you think that your upbringing may have prepared you for your career path?
I think of my mom. The way that she taught me about work ethic was very important; because it’s a grind.
What part of your heritage and your upbringing resonates through your coaching style?
Well, again, that work ethic and treating everyone the way I would like to be treated.
How has the game changed since you entered the NFL?
Things go back and forth in the NFL. I think it’s a very exciting game. If anything, it’s a more popular game now than it’s ever been.
Have the players' personalities changed in terms of the way that you need to coach them these days?
Not really. They are great young kids. It’s a different generation. It just makes you want to be good and help them be better. I think that’s what is important.
What has been the most mentally challenging part of changing roles as a coach this season?
It’s a tough job being a defensive coordinator for anybody. I think that the first time for anybody is going to be an experience, because you’ve never done it before. But everyone has to have a first time. I try to coach with energy.
That energy and that passion is something that has often been used to describe you throughout your coaching career…
Oh, yeah. Well, that’s important. You want that. I think that energy is very important. It shows the players that you care and that you enjoy what you’re doing.
What’s your strategy to get the Eagles to start delivering on the defensive front, so that they can win it all this season?
Well, we’re going to play hard, be physical and fundamentally sound. Play fast.
How long do you think that you will continue to coach football?
I enjoy doing it. It’s hard to say. Until they run me off, I guess.
For Hispanic youth who want to go into coaching or playing football what advice do you have for them?
You know it’s important to work hard, to outwork people. If you want to be better than some people, you have to be able to outwork them. It’s the only way that you’re going to be better. You have to be willing to make the sacrifice.
How do they learn to identify the best folks to learn from?
They have to do the research.
What is the legacy that you want to leave behind?
That I am a teacher. That I develop good players.
Jessica Coscia is a freelancer based in North Carolina