Sergio Castillo rips CFL’s new chipped footballs, fellow kickers come to his defence

Photo: Neil Noonan/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Sergio Castillo believes new electronic microchips in the CFL’s footballs not only contributed to his disappointing performance in Winnipeg’s season-opening loss to the Alouettes but are negatively affecting kickers league-wide.

“I don’t know where to aim,” a frustrated Castillo told reporters following his Week 1 game. “Every time I’m out there, I’m literally praying the rosary. I don’t know where to aim.”

The 33-year-old went one-for-three on his field goal attempts against Montreal, missing wide from 38 and 40 yards as the Blue Bombers lost 27-12. It was an uncharacteristic performance for the native of La Joya, Texas, who connected on a team-record 90.2 percent of his field goals last year.

The CFL has added microchips to all its footballs as they help generate real-time advanced statistics through Genius Sports, the CFL’s data and technology partner. Castillo indicated the chipped balls wreaked havoc for him throughout training camp, a problem that carried over into the regular season.

“If I went 60 percent (with the chipped footballs during practice in training camp), that was a great day. When we went with normal balls, (I was) 90-plus percent,” said Castillo. “I’m trying to not get fined here. It’s very frustrating when you put in the work — and I have a little one, I have a wife back home that I have to provide for — and we’re not given the proper equipment to do well.”

Castillo said chipped balls weren’t used during Winnipeg’s first preseason game in Regina, though last week’s preseason game against Calgary did use chipped balls. It’s unclear whether or not chipped balls were used during the CFL’s other preseason games.

The league began inserting chips into their footballs for select games in 2023, though they weren’t used in the kicking game. Castillo credited Winnipeg’s player union representatives Adam Bighill, Mike Benson, and Jake Thomas for rebuffing an attempt from the league to use the chipped balls in last year’s West Final due to concerns over accuracy, though the prevention was short-lived.

Brett Lauther, who kicks for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and is the vice-president of the CFL Players’ Association, released a statement on behalf of all specialists condemning the use of chipped balls. He cited concerns over accuracy, accounts of players bruising their feet, and noted that the USFL shelved their chipped balls after two weeks in 2021 due to similar problems.

Lauther said the players exhausted all avenues to stop the introduction of chipped balls on special teams after kickers voted 10-1 against them. He also indicated the CFL didn’t confirm the chipped balls would be used until the night before the season opener.

“Every single (CFL placekicker) is opposed to this. We’re all against it,” said Castillo. “Yeah, there was testing done, etcetera, blah, blah, blah, but it wasn’t done by professionals. It wasn’t done by guys who play for you, your employees of the Canadian Football League.”

The 11-year veteran claimed he hit all of his kicks cleanly but wasn’t surprised to see them travel outside the uprights. David Côté, Montreal’s kicker, made two short field goals but missed a convert attempt wide left.

“I’m praying a Hail Mary every time I’m out there. It doesn’t affect when quarterbacks throw it or when punters (kick it) because (the ball) spins, but when (Winnipeg punter) Jamieson (Sheahan) kicks his (end-over-end punts, the ball) gets a whole ‘nother life,” said Castillo. “It’s a trajectory issue. If you look at my balls, I get a nice little draw like I wish I had in my golf game, but instead, I have this rowdy hook.”

Sean Whyte, who was named a CFL all-star with the B.C. Lions last season, took to social media to provide his explanation for the problem with how the chipped balls fly.

“It’s like having a wheel imbalance,” Whyte wrote. “As the wheel rotates, it tumbles if not balanced. They added a chip to just beside the laces. As the ball rotates, it loses its centre of gravity due to the weight of the chip. Pretty obvious the ball won’t travel correctly.”

“No other pro league uses chipped footballs in the kicking game and every CFL kicker voted against these footballs,” wrote Ottawa Redblacks’ kicker Lewis Ward on social media. “This has a negative impact on the integrity of the game and its very sad for the league to disregard this issue.”

3DownNation has requested comment from the CFL regarding the concerns kickers have raised regarding the chipped balls. This article will be updated if the league responds.

Though he’s become a fan favourite during his time in the CFL, Castillo has never been considered outspoken. He refused to stay silent regarding the chipped balls out of fear that he’ll be the first of many CFL kickers to face challenges this season.

“You can talk to any of these guys here, I’m not a confrontational person. If my burger’s wrong, I send my wife to go get it. So for me to speak up, I’m speaking truth behind this,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s very frustrating because number one, it affects the team. It’s a momentum killer. We lost by double digits, but it’s a momentum killer and to an effect (sic), we could lose our jobs over this.”

It doesn’t appear as though Castillo has any reason to worry about his job security for the time being as his head coach has his back.

“He’s a 90 percent kicker, he kicks extremely well. You listen to golfers, they’ll hit a clean shot and the ball won’t do what they thought it was going to do because it hit something or something happens and they’ll go, ‘No, I hit it clean,'” said Mike O’Shea.

“When they say that, you believe them because they’ve done 20,000 shots. Well, Sergio’s kicked 20,000 footballs. He says he hits it clean, he hits it clean. If it doesn’t do what he thinks it should do, there’s something there.”

Chipped balls or not, Castillo and the Blue Bombers (0-1) will be back in action on Thursday, June 13 when they visit the Ottawa Redblacks (0-0) at 7:30 p.m. ET.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.