Some 1,700 miles away from Amarillo, way up in Edmonton, Alberta, two professional football players prove once again just how small this big ol’ world can be.
Bushland High star quarterback, basketball and baseball player Taylor Cornelius and West Texas A&M stud kicker Sergio Castillo had never met until their paths crossed ways as teammates for the Edmonton Elks of the Canadian Football League (CFL).
“Sergio is so hilarious to be around,” Cornelius said. “He’s a good dude. I didn’t know much about him before I got up here. He’s a great kicker.”
“Taylor, he can be quiet, but once you to get to know him he’s such a good guy and what he has done here is amazing going from hardly any getting any reps at practice to the starting quarterback,” Castillo said.
While the world of high school, college and NFL football has the hearts of football fans across the U.S. these days, up in Canada the CFL is playing out with two new friends who have lived the West Texas life and chat it up about the wide-open spaces from time to time.
“We bring up Amarillo a lot,” Cornelius said. “His wife coach’s soccer at Palo Duro and we bring up Bushland from where I’m at.”
“All the time Amarillo comes up,” Castillo said. “There is a group of six or seven us that always hang out, especially on away trips. When we LAND, we go and eat. Taylor and I are a part of that.”
The long and winding road to Edmonton taken by Castillo and Cornelius are book worthy.
Castillo grew up just a few miles north of the Rio Grande River in South Texas. Although soccer is his true love, he earned a scholarship kicking for West Texas A&M. Since his 2014 graduation from WT he has been on a whirlwind of kicking adventures with Edmonton being his ninth pro team in four different leagues over a little more than eight years, and that included overcoming a torn ACL in 2017 almost ending his career.
Those kicking adventures feature a stint with the New York Jets in 2020 where he botted a 50-yard field goal against the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football, a 2019 CFL all-star selection, and during last December’s Grey Cup (the CFL version of the Super Bowl) he booted five field goals helping Winnipeg to a 33-25 win over Hamilton.
Castillo signed a two-year contract with the Elks last spring and a few weeks ago booted a 47-yard field goal with 24 seconds remaining lifting Edmonton to a 26-24 win over Saskatchewan 26-24 at Mosiac Stadium in Regina. He leads the 2-4 Elks in scoring with 121 points having made 19 of 22 extra points and 33 of 40 field goal attempts.
Castillo said pressure kicks like the one against Saskatchewan are no different than spending the off-season at say, Crockett Middle School, practicing his craft.
“Kicking is liking using a driver in golf,” said Castillo, who lives in Amarillo during the off season with his wife, Adriana Cavazos-Loya (Palo Duro women’s soccer coach) and 21-month-old son, Jared. “If you can do the same routine mentally and physically it will allow you to do the same routine under pressure because you have done this constantly. Kicking a 47-yarder at Mosiac Stadium is no different than kicking at Crockett Middle School, or Palo Duro High School, or WT. There really isn’t a difference. As long as I do my routine mentally, and by mentally I have a list of five or six affirmations before I go out and kick. I read that list. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first quarter, second quarter or game on the line. I read that list. It helps to remind it’s a big kick. But you know what, I’ve done this millions of times.”
Castillo is a man of strong faith who said his journey has been planned and guided by the hand of God. He cherishes the highs and lows that have made him a better man. Castillo also may be Cornelius biggest fan having watched it all up close and personal.
“I love Taylor’s story,” Castillo said. “Check this out. During his time on the practice squad at training camp he wasn’t getting many reps. For him to go from that, basically a fourth or fifth string guy, to getting his shot in span of five to six weeks, he changed his life. He goes from earning minimum to earning six figures. It just goes to show if you really have patience and continue working behind closed doors, put your helmet on, snap your chin strap up and go to work, those are the type of people you root for. I’m getting chills just thinking about it.”
The 6-foot-5 Cornelius was a tremendous four-sport athlete at Bushland starring in football (threw for 9,174 career yards), basketball, track, and baseball earning the Amarillo Globe-News Athlete of the Year for the entire Texas Panhandle. He paid his dues at Oklahoma State getting a chance to start as a fifth-year senior season throwing for 3,978 yards and 32 touchdowns. He spent time in the 2019 Green Bay Packers pre-season camp, then in 2020 started for the Tampa Bay Vipers in the XFL,
After the XFL folded, the 26-year-old Cornelius’ phone stopped ringing on places to possibly play so he decided to get a real estate license. But a phone call from his Jamie Elizondo, his offensive coordinator with the Vipers, changed Cornelius path in life.
“Last year, it was kind of crazy my old offensive coordinator with the Vipors in the XFL ended up getting the Edmonton job,” Cornelius explained. “He called me on a Wednesday and asked me if I wanted to come up. I obviously wanted to still play football, but I had started down a different path. I thought football might have been over for me because nobody was calling. He tells me he needed to know by Friday.”
With encouragement from his finance, Abby, Cornelius made the call back to Elizondo and told him “I’m all in.”
Now, the CFL is a whole different brand of football with a wider and longer field – for instance 20-yard end zones compared to 10-yard end zones of the NFL – along with 12 players on the field instead of 11 like in the U.S.
“He was like we have a veteran quarterback here and you can learn from him and teach you the game,” Cornelius said of Elizondo. “So, my expectations last year was come in, learn the CFL game, and just kind of get mentored. Things happened and injuries happened. I ended up playing nine games last year. And then this season it was an open competition. The first five games of the season I was a healthy scratch and I wasn’t even dressing and in street clothes. I was a little frustrated because you want to be out there and out there competing playing this game I love. I stuck it out and waited my turn. Now we are here, and I signed a contract extension. It’s awesome and I’m happy with that.”
Cornelius signed on for two-years with Elks in September receiving a reported $106,500 signing bonus.
The Elks currently sit at 4-11 with Cornelius ranked 8th in the CFL in passing yards at 2,446 yards (9 TDs) and leads Edmonton in rushing with 467 yards rushing, which ranks fifth in the CFL rushing race.
“The CFL game is a little different,” Cornelius said. “There are 12 guys on the field, not 11. With 12 guys there are so many coverages and extra things you can do with an extra man on the field than in American football. It was hard to pick up and figure out where everybody was going to end up even on the offensive side of the ball. I’ve been able to get really good with the offensive playbook and that’s helped.
“I’m absolutely having a great time. Playing the game you love and getting paid to do it. This is unbelievable and I’m extremely blessed.”
No doubt, Sergio Castillo and Taylor Cornelius are a long way from their beloved families back in the Amarillo area. But no doubt these two friends share the story of perseverance paying off as teammates on the Edmonton Elks.
“More than anything I just want to be a good father to my son and good husband to my wife,” said Castillo, who is known to spend hours upon hours helping young kickers in the Amarillo-area during his off-season. “If I can help somebody learn a skill and on top of that help them get their school paid for kicking a football, man, I’m doing it. That’s what happened to me. It changed my life.”
Same life-changing experience for Taylor Cornelius who is thankful to be a quarterback today and not selling houses.
“My finance and I have talked about it a lot,” Cornelius said. “She was a big influence on me coming up here. She was like ‘you need to go do it.’ It’s been a wild journey even while I was at Oklahoma State. “I think my perseverance is something I’ve always done. It probably comes from my family. I wouldn’t want to have taken a different path. It will be a good book someday, like my mom always says.”