RICHMOND, Va. – Dennis Castillo recalls his freshman year of college as something of a hellacious, Sisyphean labor. His daily slog from dawn until dusk included multiple bus trips, hours of training, unsympathetic professors and traffic. Oh, so much traffic.
Although he’s four years removed from that unforgiving grind, Castillo hasn’t forgotten those long days and nights. It’s through that lens he’s learned to appreciate how far he’s come and what’s still on the horizon.
Today, Castillo is a star, perhaps the brightest on the VCU Soccer team. A gifted defender, Castillo is a three-time All-Atlantic 10 and two-time All-Mid Atlantic Region pick. Castillo spent the summer with the Portland Timbers’ U-23 squad and was named PDL Defender of the Year. In May he was called up the Costa Rican U-23 Men’s National Team. A pro soccer career almost certainly waits in the wings.
He’s also a VCU graduate. Castillo received his undergraduate degree in urban planning in December and is currently enrolled as a graduate student. He spent part of his summer working part-time for a Richmond urban planning firm.
On the field and in the classroom, Castillo leads. A team captain, he hopes to spearhead A-10 and NCAA Tournament runs.
Castillo’s future is equally bright, regardless of whether he ends up on the pitch or pitching designs. But it’s all built on a foundation in the past, forged through a seemingly endless series of bus trips, conscientious parenting and a love of soccer.
Castillo was in his first year as an architecture student at Universidad Hispanoamericana in his hometown of San Jose, Costa Rica when he caught VCU Coach Dave Giffard’s eye. At the time, Castillo’s multiple talents were pulling him apart.
The United States’ marriage of college and athletics is an outlier in the world. Elsewhere, athletes often choose between sport and education, or they spend years balancing the two. It’s one of the reasons college athletics in the United States appeal to international student-athletes.
The son of a civil engineer, Castillo spent much of his childhood in and around construction sites. He says his parents, Dennis and Ingrid, weren’t overbearing, but they made known their value of education. That was fine by the younger Dennis, who developed a healthy interest in architecture.
Castillo also fostered a passion for soccer, and by his teens he’d become one of Costa Rica’s best players, earning time with the country’s U-18 and U-20 squads.
But pursuing dual talents separately proved daunting. A typical day as a college freshman meant Castillo would have to wake before 5:30 a.m. in order to catch two buses downtown for training. Afterwards, it was two more buses home for lunch, then back downtown for class until 10 p.m., then back home, hopefully before 11:30.
“I struggled a lot,” Castillo says. “You get super worn down.”
Giffard first saw Castillo in November of that year. Castillo was looking for an avenue to pursue both academics and athletics. Giffard was looking for a tough left center back. Although Castillo didn’t play on the left side, Giffard liked what he saw and returned weeks later to scout Castillo one more time. When he did, Giffard found Castillo, a right-footed player, patrolling the left side.
“He told me, ‘you said you needed a left center back, so I’m working on my left foot, getting ready to play left center back,’” Giffard recalled. “He’s a right-footed player, but he was making most of the distribution and a lot of the entry passes with his left foot…that would be like a person who shoots right-handed shooting left-handed and doing it because the coach said to you, ‘well, the way our offense works, it would be great if there was a guy who could shoot left-handed.’ I’d say it’s that difficult.”
Giffard was sold, and Castillo was in Richmond by springtime.
Castillo’s life experiences manifest in many forms, but the most obvious is in the way Castillo leads. His teammates have noticed. They’ve voted Castillo a team captain four straight years.
“I’m not sure in college sports how many four-time captains you have,” says Giffard. “I’ve never had a freshman captain before Dennis.”
While Castillo takes his captaincy to heart, it wouldn’t matter if he wore a ‘C’ on his chest or not, he says. He quickly put to rest any of the coaching staff’s concerns as to whether a freshman could lead a team.
“Coach and I and all the staff met with me before [my freshman] season. They thought it would be a lot of weight on me. But the only thing I told them was, regardless of if you give me the captain’s title or not, I’m going to be the same guy. That will not put more or less weight on me or more motivation.”
Castillo leads with a sense of ease. If he’s ever struggled with the responsibility, it would be hard to tell.
Self-aware and circumspect, Castillo says he continues to evolve as a leader. Each year, he says, he’s a little different, depending on what the team needs and his own level of understanding. Castillo says serving as a leader means taking positions that are occasionally unpopular. He can be direct, but Castillo often prefers a more diplomatic approach.
“You can’t get too close or so in people’s faces,” he says. “The first thing you’re going to get is rejection. You’ve got to be smart on how you approach players. That’s a hard thing to figure out, but with more years you get experience and learn how to approach people.”
This season, he says he’s been more paternal as he tries to shepherd a roster that includes 19 freshmen and sophomores.
“Right now we have a lot of young guys that haven’t been through the fights in games, that don’t know sometimes what it takes to get a win or to get ready for games or the habits you have to have in order to have success,” he says. “We have a lot of great pieces. [People know] I’m not lying because anybody can see it.”
The Rams (3-6-1) have shown their youth at times while playing arguably the nation’s toughest non-conference schedule, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism. VCU has opened conference play unbeaten (1-0-1).
Even as he leads the Rams into A-10 play, Castillo is balancing. His future in soccer appears on firm footing, and there’s a very real chance he could play in the Olympics and/or the World Cup one day. But even as he became a pro prospect, he never stopped preparing for life after soccer. Castillo’s strongest leadership performance has been leading his own life.
When he’s not on the field or in class, Castillo has spent his fall working long distance for an Indiana architecture firm.
“I had to,” he says of his academics. “You learn that in soccer…you can never be so sure. Even big names that have had a lot of success. It could be performance. It could be injuries. It could be a lot of things. You can struggle at any point throughout your career.”
Giffard isn’t surprised by Castillo’s level-headed approach. He’s come to expect it.
“All the personal qualities he possessed when we recruited him were ones we felt like would be really good additions to the team and the program and our family at the time,” he said. “Four years later, it turns out all those qualities were good additions to the team and the program and our family.”