Editor’s note: Every day, from now until Penn State football’s Class of 2017 reports to campus June 24, we’ll highlight a different one of the Nittany Lions’ 17 incoming signees. Today is Day 7 of the 17-day series.
On Nov. 27, 2007, Tariq Castro-Fields lost his childhood hero.
“I remember,” the future Penn State cornerback said softly. “I remember very vividly the day he died.”
In second grade, Castro-Fields was in after-school daycare when he walked by a TV and saw the news. Washington Redskins safety — and Castro-Fields’ idol — Sean Taylor died tragically of gunshot wounds at the age of 24.
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The youngster, who grew up 15 minutes away from FedEx Field in Upper Marlboro, Md., couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Sean Taylor was my favorite player,” Castro-Fields said of the two-time Pro-Bowler. “Just his tenacity and love for the game was very evident. I understood that at a young age. I wanted to be like him.”
And from that point on, the defensive back used Taylor’s impact on the Redskins as inspiration — as motivation to be great.
On fall Sunday afternoons, Castro-Fields and his godfather, Larry Payne, watched the Redskins together, rarely missing a game.
When Castro-Fields was younger, he’d wear his Taylor jersey or switch it up and rock the Clinton Portis or Santana Moss threads. “I had the whole locker room,” he said with a laugh.
Castro-Fields and Payne sat there and took in the game as fans, rooting and cheering on the entire Redskins team. But Payne — Castro-Fields’ youth flag football coach — tended to look over at his godson and see the wheels turning.
“He was watching what Sean was doing,” Payne said.
Ooo, look how his stance is. He’s scanning the offense and basing his reaction off that.
Payne would hear that, and more, on a weekly basis while watching the Redskins — and he saw Castro-Fields’ observations translate live.
When Castro-Fields played on the 9-year-old flag football team at 7 years old, he modeled the way he played off Taylor, one of the hardest hitters the NFL has ever seen.
“You saw it in him,” Payne said. “He was able to read an offense and know what they were going to do. He’d attack from that.”
Castro-Fields was younger than everyone on the field, but no one could really tell. He’d hurdle players on offense because that’s what was natural — but also illegal in flag football — and was a flag-hawk on defense.
Castro-Fields said playing under Payne is when his interest in actually playing, not just watching, football piqued. It’s where he learned how to feel out the game, even if was just flag.
It’s also where Castro-Fields’ work ethic took shape.
When he was 8, the future Nittany Lion asked Payne if he was the best player on the team. His godfather surprised him.
“No,” Payne told him.
Castro-Fields immediately welled up and started to cry.
But when he calmed down, he begged his godfather to head to the backyard. He wanted to learn the fundamentals in and out.
He wanted to be the best player on the team — he wanted to be Taylor — and he wanted to work for it.
Off the field, Castro-Fields — a four-star cornerback who chose Penn State over Alabama, Maryland, Pittsburgh, Nebraska, and Michigan State, among others — is considered by family and friends to be a humble guy. His demeanor on the gridiron differs quite a bit.
“His humbleness in his personal life did not translate to the football field,” Riverdale Baptist head coach Caesar Nettles said. “He was a complete dog.”
But his game in no way mimicked Taylor early on. Castro-Fields wasn’t too strong and “didn’t have a quick twitch,” per Nettles, when the defensive back first starting playing high school football.
Castro-Fields turned that around rather quickly. The corner trained “with a chip on his shoulder” to become a regular starter and difference-maker for Riverdale Baptist.
At first, Castro-Fields made an impact at his favorite player’s position — safety — and in a similar fashion to Taylor.
“He was our best communicator,” Nettles said. “He was our quarterback of the defense at free safety. He had really good range, high-pointed the ball well, came down in the box and made a lot of tackles, a willing tackler, and he’s a highly cerebral football player.”
Nettles added that Castro-Fields actually played safety up until his senior season. Colleges were looking at the 6-foot, 185-pounder to play cornerback, so Castro-Fields made the switch his final year at Riverdale Baptist.
He did just fine adapting to the position change. The Crusaders’ defensive leader was selected as first-team USA Today All-State and named to the Washington Post’s All-Met first team as a senior.
As Nettles said, Castro-Fields was a dog: aggressive, explosive and dominant.
And before each high school game, he had some help to put him “in that mood.” Sitting at his locker before Riverdale Baptist ran out onto the field, Castro-Fields would watch Sean Taylor highlights.
He’d stare intently at his phone as Taylor nailed Terrell Owens in a game against the Cowboys and sent Bills punter Brian Moorman flying in the 2007 Pro Bowl.
Castro-Fields plans to keep that pregame tradition the same at Penn State — and he intends to continue years of hard work, inspired by Taylor.
“I remember reading that Sean Taylor would run to the Redskins complex every day,” Castro-Fields said. “To be great, you can’t really say you did enough.
“That’s something I’ll always take with me.”
Overview of Tariq Castro-Fields
Hometown/high school: Upper Marlboro, Md./Riverdale Baptist
Height/weight: 6-foot/185 pounds
Position: Defensive back
Recruit rankings: 4 stars (247, Rivals, Scout); 3 stars (ESPN)
Other scholarship offers: Alabama, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan State, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pitt, Rutgers, Temple, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Wisconsin