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At Gabrielino, a Team Plays in Pain as a Campus Grieves

October 11, 2002|MIKE BRESNAHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was supposed to be a time of joy, of banners and balloons, flowers, a queen and her court, and, with some luck, a few touchdowns by the football team to keep the crowd in good cheer.

But any celebrating was put on hold Thursday night as San Gabriel Gabrielino High football players, coaches and fans contemplated something far more serious than what was to have been their homecoming game.

Andrew Castillo, a junior two-way starter for the football team whose outgoing way and musical talents have made him popular in circles far removed from the locker room, remains in a coma at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills.

Castillo, 16, complained of a headache and blurry vision as he huddled with teammates and coaches during a timeout in a game against Burbank last Friday night. A few minutes later, after being sent to the sideline by a coach, he slumped over and collapsed.

Early the following morning, he had surgery to remove a blood clot from the left side of his brain. The next day, Sunday, similar surgery was performed in the same area.

A day later, school resumed, but the Gabrielino campus community has not been the same. At the beginning of the second period of classes, teachers read a statement from Principal Gene Murphy, explaining to the few who hadn't already heard that their popular schoolmate had been hospitalized.

Later that morning, student leaders decided to postpone homecoming festivities this week, and a large yellow banner with Castillo's name on it was placed on a wall near a campus courtyard. On it, dozens of students wrote to him.

"You are a big part of us and we can't wait for you to return. I promise I won't poke you in the eye anymore. Just remember we are all here for you," read one.

And another: "You have to get better because you need to be kicking ... with your bass guitar."

Many students underwent crisis counseling offered by school officials throughout the week.

"Kids who have seen Andrew in the hospital have been traumatized," said Gary Goodson, superintendent of the San Gabriel Unified School District. "It's not a Hollywood scene."

Expressions of their grief were evident Thursday night as the team played Pasadena High at East Los Angeles College. Players wore Castillo's number, 32, on a patch stitched into their uniform near the front of the left shoulder. Several players took it a step further, writing the number in black marker on their wristbands or directly on their biceps. Banners shouted encouragement: "Do it for Drew!" one read.

Before the game, Eagle players decided to dedicate the season to Castillo, and afterward some lamented the night's 0-0 tie.

"We tried to win [for Castillo]," senior lineman Sterling Whitaker said. "We tried as hard as we can. We didn't let them score."

Authorities still aren't sure what happened to Castillo, even after poring over game film.

Castillo, 5 feet 10 and 200 pounds, started the game as the fullback on offense and linebacker on defense. He scored a touchdown on a four-yard run, but at halftime he told coaches he was tired, so they played him only on defense during the second half.

Coach Vince Lopez said Castillo did not make the primary hit on any of the tackles that directly preceded him leaving the game.

"We just can't put our finger on it," Goodson said. "What play was it? What tackle was it? ... There's no defining moment."

Some of the circumstances were similar to an incident during another Southern California high school football game a little more than a year before.

Matt Colby, a linebacker for Costa Mesa High, collapsed shortly after walking off the field during a game against Huntington Beach Ocean View. He died the next morning when he was taken off life support, having never regained consciousness.

Colby's death was attributed to injuries caused by repeated blows to the head. He, too, had complained of headaches.

Hospital officials are providing no specifics about Castillo's condition at the request of his family. All they will say is that he remains in critical condition.

Lopez, who started Gabrielino's football program when the school opened in 1994, is trying to remain upbeat.

"In this situation, we don't want to hope or dwell on the negative," he said. "We expect Andrew to beat this and to get better."

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