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Internship with Super Bowl-era Bills launched coaching career of Juan Castillo

It's 25 years later, yet a strong connection remains between the Super Bowl Buffalo Bills and the version trying to remove the stigma of owning the longest playoff drought in sports.

You probably won't notice it unless you're able to keenly analyze video of the team's offensive-line play in the early 1990s, when Kent Hull, Will Wolford, Howard Ballard, Jim Ritcher and Glenn Parker were protecting Jim Kelly and opening holes for Thurman Thomas.

If you zero in on what that group did on third down, then study what the current line does in that situation this season, you will recognize stark similarities. You will see linemen moving the same way toward the direction from which they anticipate blitzers coming after the quarterback.

"The way we run slide protection to this day is the way I learned it from Tom Bresnahan," Juan Castillo, the Bills' new offensive line coach, says.

In 1992, Castillo was a 32-year-old minority intern coach for the Bills when Bresnahan was their offensive coordinator/offensive line coach. Castillo spent about six weeks, the duration of training camp and the preseason, as part of the staff of Hall-of-Fame head coach Marv Levy.

The way Castillo, who begins his second camp with the Bills Thursday, landed the opportunity was pretty much by accident.

After two years (1984-85) of playing linebacker for the San Antonio Gunslingers of the United States Football League, he entered coaching full time as a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for Kingsville, Texas, High School. In 1990, he became an offensive line coach at his alma mater, Division II Texas A&M University-Kingsville, and during the offseason he followed the advice of a Bills scout to travel to Western New York to spend some time with Bresnahan and gain elevated knowledge.

During his four- or five-day stay, Castillo became friendly with Levy, who was impressed with Castillo's intelligence and engaging personality. One day, Levy asked if him if he had ever heard of the NFL's minority internship program.

"No, Coach," Castillo said. "I don't know if I qualify."

"Let me find out," Levy said.

Soon thereafter, Levy informed Castillo that, as a Mexican-American, he, indeed, qualified. Castillo suddenly found himself fulfilling a young college coach's dream as a temporary member of an organization that had just made two consecutive Super Bowl appearances and was about to make two more.

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The job involved a lot of grunt work, especially with Bresnahan limited physically as he recovered from a broken collarbone. Castillo would have to carry playbooks to and from meeting rooms at Fredonia State, and write notes and practice scripts.

But that was a tiny price for the chance to be a part of every practice and meeting, soaking in all he could from the best of the best. Levy, who occasionally would sit in on O-line meetings, always made a point of chatting with Castillo to find out more about him and what he was learning. Levy constantly kept an eye out for potential future coaching hires.

Little did anyone know that, for Castillo, his future with the Bills was a quarter-century away.

"It was really a great thing," Castillo says. "Back then, nobody was running that no-huddle attack like they were, and I got to learn that. And what Coach (Bresnahan) taught me, that I watched, was about muscle memory – doing something over and over and over. They didn't have a lot of run plays, but they were really good at what they ran.

"He helped me with a lot of the fundamentals that I still use. And just watching those players, how hard they worked, how smart they were. Kent (Hull) was a USFL guy (with the New Jersey Generals), so he talked me because I had played in the USFL, too, so it was a little easier to talk to him."

When the internship ended, Bresnahan gave Castillo as useful a parting gift as any he could have ever imagined: copies of coaches' videotape of the Bills' offensive line to use at Texas A&M-Kingsville.

"My players at my college were able to watch the tape of exactly how (the Bills) did it," Castillo says. "Imagine a young kid, instead of watching other colleges, they're watching the Buffalo Bills when they're at their prime.

"What (the whole experience) did is it taught me about what to look for in offensive linemen."

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It also opened the door for Castillo to land minority coaching internships the next two years with a pair of highly regarded NFL offensive-line tutors: Howard Mudd, then with the Seattle Seahawks, and Bob Wylie, then with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Tom Bresnahan said, 'OK, this is the style that I use and some of the other coaches use, but Howard Mudd uses another style that you need to learn,' " Castillo says. "And when I went to Tampa Bay with Bob Wylie, because I had been with Bresnahan and Howard Mudd, he let me actually just coach some of the guys without telling me what to do. So, all of a sudden, you start believing that, 'You know what? You can coach in the NFL.'

"I also had good players in Division II that were developed and played in the NFL, so then you start saying, 'Wait a minute, I can do this.' "

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In 1995, Castillo became a full-time offensive line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and would remain with them for 18 seasons. Along the way, he would spend one year as a tight ends coach and his final two, 2011 and 2012, as defensive coordinator.

His last assignment with the Eagles happened to result from the firing of Sean McDermott, the Bills' new head coach.

Castillo spent the past four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, the last three as O-line coach, before reuniting with McDermott and returning to the place where he received his first taste of NFL coaching.

At 57, he looks back on it with a warm smile and says, "That's really what got me going into being able to believe that I could coach in the NFL."

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