At a balmy Thursday night soccer match at the Otis M. Andrews Sports Complex, Omar Castro receives a ball from the back line. • The lanky 16-year-old with wire-hanger shoulders takes a few touches, slinks through the midfield and delivers a pinpoint pass to his striker's foot. • Omar's club, the U-17 Plant City Lancers, is playing in the semifinals of a men's league featuring some of the top rec teams in Central Florida. Some of the players he's facing are twice his age, but he stands out like a man among boys, even though he's a boy among men. • Each touch is deft. Every pass is precise. • And when Castro finally unleashes a top-spinning laser from about 25 yards out that hits the crossbar, a chorus of "oohs" rises from the 200 or so Plant City folks. Many wear Omar Castro jerseys and have come specifically to watch the prodigy do something spectacular.
"He's a special player and person who is focused on nothing but soccer," Plant City coach Stephen Rossiter said. "His story is really all about a boy and his ball."
If the name Omar Castro doesn't ring a bell, there's good reason. The teen doesn't play high school soccer. His name hasn't appeared in area newspapers or on local TV stations. Except for the small, plugged-in soccer community, he's mostly unknown.
He's quiet, unassuming.
And supremely talented.
"I've been in this game for a long time," said Rossiter, who has coached for 13 years, including two at Plant City High School. "I have never seen a player around his age who has the talent Omar does. He's off the charts in terms of ability and understanding of the game."
If Rossiter glows about Omar like a proud father, it's because he's not far from it. The boy's parents came from Mexico 20 years ago and supported seven children by working in the strawberry fields around Plant City. The tight-knit Castro clan had little money, but Omar's father, Jesus, passed his love of soccer to his second-youngest child.
"All of my brothers played, and I have a cousin who plays (professionally) for the Indios," in the Mexican League, Omar said. "My father started training me at 4. I loved it and have been playing since."
Omar eventually began playing for the Lancers and struck up a relationship with Rossiter, who would occasionally give the then-11-year-old rides to and from practice. Sometimes the pair would share meals. Eventually Rossiter grew close to the entire family.
"My family got to know him and respected him," Omar said.
Then Jesus Castro made a tough decision.
"Omar's dad came to me and explained the family's (financial) situation," Rossiter said. "He asked me if I would be interested in bringing Omar into my home. He wanted the best for his son and knew this was going to benefit his future."
Rossiter agreed and became Omar's legal guardian six years ago. The Rossiters live 3 miles from the Castros, and Omar still sees his family frequently. The families often share meals and gather to watch soccer on TV.
"We go to church together every Sunday and I see them a lot," Omar said of his parents. "It was difficult at first, but I knew it was for the best."
There's another connection between the families. Rossiter's son Samuel married Omar's sister Idelisa.
"It's a unique situation, that's for sure," Rossiter said, chuckling. "But we're all real close and make it work. It's really kind of one big family."
Omar doesn't just play soccer; he breathes it.
"Soccer isn't just something he does. It's his life," Rossiter said. "He doesn't have a Facebook or Twitter account. He just lives for the game."
And in a couple of years, his name is likely to appear on the back of a professional jersey. Omar has worked out with FC Barcelona, one of the world's top clubs that features two-time FIFA player of the year Lionel Messi.
Last spring, he enjoyed another training session with Dutch club Vitesse.
"Playing professionally is my No. 1 goal," he said.
Omar has also been on the U.S. National Team radar for years and will join the U-17 USA team next week in California for training. Omar, who is homeschooled because of his hectic travel schedule, is also eligible to play for the Mexican national team because his parents were born there.
"I want to play for the United States' national team," he said. "I was born here and it's my home."
Omar, who turned 16 in February, can't sign with a pro team until he's 18, but Rossiter said "it's a lock he's turning pro" shortly after that birthday. The teen is already represented by ExtraTime, a marketing agency based in Barcelona.
"I would love to play for Barcelona one day," Omar said, "but right now I just want to keep training, keep my focus and keep getting better. It's what I love."
Just a boy and his ball.
Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]