‘Well, you died. We just brought you back to life.’
Alejandro “Alex” Castanon died at Scott O’Leary Stadium on Oct. 26, 2017.
But he didn’t go straight to heaven.
He’ll tell you it took another two years for that to happen, when he finally got to return to O’Leary and rejoin the Dos Pueblos High football team.
“I feel like my old self again,” Castanon said while taking a breather during a workout not far from where his life nearly ended. “I especially feel that way now that I get to play with my brothers all around me, and with a good coaching staff to push me.”
One of those coaches had to push hard on his chest to keep him alive after his heart stopped during a junior varsity game against Santa Barbara. He had open-heart surgery five days later at UCLA Medical Center, getting his zipper-scar on Halloween, of all days.
But two years later, Castanon is back — an undersized linebacker, playing with enormous heart.
“He’s a really great kid who made the long road to recovery after suffering one of the toughest breaks a kid can have,” DP varsity coach Doug Caines said. “I’m just glad to see him gladiator-ing again with his brothers out here, which is where he truly wants to be.”
Castanon, a 5-foot-8 and 155-pound senior, was actually lucky to be playing football that night. He was born with a congenital condition that could’ve killed him while on a mere jog at the beach. Dos Pueblos, however, has had paramedics at the ready long before it became a requirement at football games.
“My coronary artery was out of place,” he explained. “It was up against my lung instead of being next to my heart.
“They said it was getting clogged with blood and that my heart was beating too fast because I was exercising so hard. I believe that. I was all over the field that game.”
He was trying to rally the Chargers from a 25-20 deficit in the closing minutes of their game against the Santa Barbara JVs. He took a handoff from his slot position during a crucial fourth-down play, fighting hard to get the first down.
“I hit really hard with one of their kids named Mando that I’d used to play with in the YFL,” Castanon said. “I stayed on the ground a little bit. I was seeing stars because it was a big hit.”
He caught his breath and returned to the game, thinking all was back to normal. A few plays later, he realized that it wasn’t.
“I started feeling a little bit more out of breath,” he said. “I was like, ‘This doesn’t feel too normal.’”
Castanon began gulping for air. He walked off the field and laid down, using his helmet as a pillow. A water boy came up and asked, “Can’t breathe or something?”
“No, I can’t!” Castanon gasped.
The last thing he remembered was trainer Wendy Whitehead rushing up.
“I can’t breathe,” Castanon told her.
And then his world went dark.
For the next five minutes, his heart — as well as much of O’Leary Stadium — came to a standstill. Whitehead began chest compressions. Then Daniel Lee, who had been Castanon’s freshman team coach, took over.
Castanon’s mother, Patricia Espinosa, noticed the commotion around her son and rushed out of the stands.
“I heard that she kept her cool,” he said. “She’s a nurse and has seen a lot of crazy things herself.
“My whole family was there, actually. My cousin, my older brother, my little brother. Everyone was there, watching the whole thing go down while I was getting worked on.”
The paramedics were packing up, the game nearly over, when several students ran up to their rig.
“We need help! We need help!” they screamed. “Someone’s down!”
They jumped the fence that separates the stands from the field and took over the chest compressions. There was still no heartbeat. Castanon was in full cardiac arrest.
The paramedics hooked him up to a defibrillator and gave him an electrical jolt. His body lurched. Still no heartbeat.
The paramedics shocked his heart a second time.
“I heard my mom saying, ‘C’mon baby, wake up! Wake up!’” Castanon said. “She said my eyes opened up really big with that second jolt. It literally felt like I was waking up from a nap.
“I woke up to find coach Lee in my face, smiling at me … happy to see me alive.”
Lee was holding one of his hands. Nate Mendoza, head coach of DP’s varsity at the time, was holding the other.
“They were the ones who were always keeping me on track,” Castanon said, “making sure I was doing good and that everything was cool academic-wise and on the field.”
He looked up at them and asked, “What’s going on?”
The paramedics got him to wiggle his fingers and toes, and then to say his name and where he was at. When they were satisfied that he hadn’t suffered a traumatic brain or spinal injury, they finally answered his question.
“Well, you died,” they told him. “We just brought you back to life.”
“I was like, ‘That’s crazy … Thank you!’” Castanon recalled.
Tests conducted that night at Cottage Hospital were inconclusive, so he took a helicopter flight to UCLA Medical Center where his condition was finally diagnosed.
Next came surgery and the long, arduous journey back to O’Leary Stadium.
A few years earlier, when he was in eighth grade, he had to talk his mother into letting him switch from soccer to football.
“She never wanted me to play — she hates really aggressive sports,” Castanon said. “But I kept telling her, ‘I’m going to play football, Mom.’
“She was like, ‘OK then … Like I’ve always said, I’m going to support you in whatever you really want to do.’”
He sought and then filled out the proper paperwork, got his parents to sign it, and then had his father, Luis Antonio Castanon, drive him to meet his new YFL coaches.
“Within two weeks, I was playing football,” he said. “I loved the game. I always admired football players, watching the big plays they’d make on TV.”
The doctors weren’t ready to release him to play last year, however. He had also missed a lot of school and needed to make up some academic units.
“When they told me, ‘We might have to hold you out a little longer,’ it got me really down,” Castanon said. “I really wanted to play. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t play football.
“When I finally did get cleared, I was definitely motivated to get back out here on the field with my boys.”
Doug Caines, a varsity assistant at the time of Castanon’s heart attack and now DP’s head coach, was stunned when he heard that he wanted to return.
“Even after things went well after the surgery, I didn’t think football would be in his future,” Mr. Caines said. “He spoke to me sometime near the end of his junior year and told me, ‘I’m going to be playing football my senior year.’
“I went, ‘What?’”
“Just watch,” Castanon replied.
“Sure enough, he really committed to the offseason, and he definitely surprised me,” Mr. Caines continued. “It was something he really wanted to do. He loves football and it had been taken away from him, but now he’s blessed to be playing his senior year.”
Castanon worked out during the summer with several other players, including lineman Angel Flores, who now plays for Northern Arizona.
“I’d put in a couple of sprints with him and pass the ball around,” he said. “Coach Udy (Loza) would have a group of guys from the team come out, too, and we’d all throw the ball around to have fun and get in a little conditioning.
“It wasn’t too tough. With coach Caines as the head coach and a lot of other coaches motivating you to be the best you can be, it’s easy to keep your training going. It’s actually hard to stop.”
His mother couldn’t stop him.
“She was obviously nervous about my playing again, having seen her son die right in front of her eyes,” Castanon said. “But she’d told me that she’d always be there to back me up in whatever I wanted to do, and that hadn’t changed.”
He started off as a backup cornerback, seeing action only late in the opener against Rio Mesa. He opened some eyes in his short stint by making three tackles, including one for a loss, and deflecting a pass.
Coach Loza approached him afterward and said they could use him at outside linebacker.
“I know you’ve got the wheels and I know you can hit and that you’ve got the energy,” Loza told him. “I feel like you could bring potential to outside linebacker … I’m going to put in a good word for you.”
Troy Osborn, DP’s cornerback coach, wound up broaching the subject with Mr. Caines.
“He was basically just playing corner on the scout team,” Mr. Caines said, “but he wasn’t just moping and watching, he was really working hard.
“It was pretty clear that we needed to find a way to get him onto the field.”
Castanon saw time at linebacker the following Friday against Pacifica — one of the top teams in California. He shrunk away from nothing.
“I don’t know what they put in the food for those kids, but they definitely have some beasts on that team,” he said. “That was really good playing them, though, showing us what a really good football team looks like.
“It makes you want to become just like them.”
He got his first start the next week against Ventura, and then had a breakout performance against Buena, making a team-high 10 tackles.
“They told me, ‘I don’t know why we had you at corner, wasting your potential there, sitting you out a couple of quarters a game,’” Castanon recalled.
“He learned the position so fast,” Mr. Caines said. “He got an opportunity to start and just seized it, and now he’s contributing in meaningful ways.”
San Marcos will come to O’Leary Stadium on Friday for one of the most meaningful games of the year: both teams are 1-1 in the Channel League, and a CIF-Southern Section playoff berth will likely be at stake.
It will be Castanon’s first cross-town game since Oct. 26, 2017.
He has been asked a few times if he saw heaven during those five minutes without a heartbeat.
“Honestly, no I didn’t — I’m not going to lie about it,” he said. “Everything just went black.
“And then I woke up.”
The world, however, does seem brighter these days. He appreciates every heartbeat, and every additional moment he is given at O’Leary Stadium.
“This really is special,” Castanon said, smiling as coach Lee walks past to give him a fist-bump. “My life really was on the line that night, and I’m so grateful to the paramedics and coaches and to everyone else who were there to save me.
“Most people don’t get a second chance like that.”