Sports at Lunch, Luis Castillo and Felix Sanchez

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Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo and Olympic gold medalist Felix Sanchez, two San Diego athletes from the Dominican Republic, spoke March 22 at Sports at Lunch at the Hall of Champions.

Luis Castillo and Felix Sanchez, San Diego athletes regarded as national heroes in the Dominican Republic, recalled for the audience at Sports at Lunch March 22 at the Hall of Champions when they first learned about the other.

Castillo, the Chargers’ defensive end who was a first-round draft pick in 2005 out of Northwestern, was still in college when he watched Sanchez win the gold medal in the 400 meters at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

“I was watching with friends, and I told everyone, ‘He’s Dominican! He’s Dominican!” Castillo said. “He’s the first Dominican to win a gold medal in track in the Olympics.”

Sanchez, a University City High alumnus who trains in Los Angeles after graduating from USC, got a call from his younger brother, who still lives in San Diego, after the Chargers drafted Castillo.

“He told me the Chargers drafted a Dominican from Northwestern,” said Sanchez.

Then Sanchez added with a laugh, “He also said, ‘Maybe you can get him to get some tickets for us.’ ”

Sanchez said now that he has met Castillo he may have to make some more trips down from Los Angeles for Chargers games in the 2007 season.

The Sports at Lunch gathering was the first time Castillo and Sanchez had a chance to meet. Sanchez competes in the spring and summer on the track circuit that takes him to Europe and Asia. Castillo playing football from training camp in August through the playoffs in January.

Although the Dominican Republic is better known for producing great baseball stars, Castillo and Sanchez have established themselves in sports that aren’t traditionally associated with the Caribbean nation.

For Castillo, there was a simple reason he didn’t become the next slugger from the Dominican..

“I couldn’t hit a curveball,” he said.

But Sanchez planned to play baseball in high school until he broke his wrist during wrestling season. University City coach John Hutsel convinced Sanchez to come out for the school’s track team, one of the top programs in the San Diego County.

“It wasn’t easy at first,” Sanchez said, “but I believe things happen for a reason.”

Castillo was a first-round draft pick by the Chargers in 2005 out of Northwestern, where he earned a degree in economics. He has been a starter since his rookie year as a key member of the defense.

The 6-foot-3, 290-pounder is the first Dominican to be drafted and start in the National Football League. Following the 2005 season, he returned to the Dominican to host a youth football clinic. He was honored with the Youth of the the Year Award.

Castillo was born in Brooklyn, but he and his mother returned to the Dominican in his infant years. He later grew up in New Jersey and discovered football, not baseball, was his future. He says he enjoys representing the San Diego and Tijuana Hispanic community for the Chargers.

Sanchez, a University City High alumnus, won the 2004 Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles to become the first Dominican athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field. He also was a two-time world champion in his event, winning gold medals at the 2001 and 2003 World Championships.

Sanchez was born in New York, but his parents were born in Dominican, and he has chosen to compete for the Dominican Republic since 1999. After winning his gold medal, a picture of his was painted on the wall of a building similar to one of baseball star Sammy Sosa.

Sanchez, who lives in Los Angeles, was plagued by injuries for the past year, but he has been training to open the 2007 season in April at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut and a meet in the Domican Republic.

After his high school career as a CIF San Diego Section champion, he was a two-time state junior college champion at Mesa College and a Pac-10 and NCAA champion at USC, where he earned a degree in psychology.

Castillo and Sanchez both say they weren’t good at baseball when they began trying other sports. Sanchez was a wrestler at University City until he broke his wrist and Centurions track coach John Hutsel encouraged him to come out for the track team.

As for the 2007 season for both athletes, Sanchez spoke about his training after an injury-plagued 2006 season and Castillo said the Chargers have maintained continuity by hiring Norv Turner as the head coach and Ted Cottrell as the defensive coordinator.

What else did they say about their upcoming seasons and representing San Diego? You should have been at Sports at Lunch.

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