NFL Play 60 a wonderous escape for heart-stricken student

Los Angeles Rams tight end Tyler Higbee hangs out with Heriberto Centeno and his sister during the NFL Play 60 Challenge, which was sponsored by the American Heart Association. The NFL Play 60 Challenge took place at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Friday, May 5, 2017, where more than 900 students from 17 Los Angeles County schools participated. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

LOS ANGELES-Heriberto Centeno appears to be like any ordinary teenager. He enjoys playing sports. As the older brother of two younger siblings, Centeno looks out for his little sisters. He and his friends hang out and play video games. And he likes football.

That was evident as Centeno transported himself all around the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum taking part in mock football drills such as the ladder drill and in other activities that encompassed the purpose of the NFL Play 60 Challenge, an event held jointly with the American Heart Association and the Los Angeles Rams on Friday, May 5.

More than 900 elementary and middle school students from 17 Los Angeles County schools joined Centeno in jumping rope, racing through the 40-yard dash, take part in tackling drills and play catch football, in an effort by the American Heart Association, NFL and the Rams to help promote exercise and healthy eating habits.

“This is where they start to develop those habits,” said Kathy Young, vice president of Youth Market for the American Heart Association. “You’ve got a third of American children who are overweight or are obese, so when we need to turn that around, turn that tide around, we’re looking to really educate them about eating right, being active and being tobacco-free. That’s the message that we’re trying to get in at a young age for them to continue that and really cut down on those obesity rates and keep their hearts strong.”           

Heriberto Centeno is all smiles as Los Angeles Rams guard Jamon Brown (68) puts his autograph on the student’s t-shirt on Friday, May 5, 2017. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

Just keeping his heart pumping normally has been a huge undertaking for Centeno and his family. A student at St. Lawrence of Brindisi Catholic School in Watts, Centeno’s journey of normalcy has been anything but ordinary recently.

As he searched out Rams players like offensive lineman Jamon Brown and tight end Tyler Higbee for autographs, Centeno canvassed the Coliseum grounds with wide-eyed excitement and bubbling exuberance. He is like all the other students appreciating this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“We’re out here to get the kids active and getting them moving around, and making sure that they get at least sixty minutes a day of activity,” Brown said.

As fate would have it, a near-tragic experience in 2016 has landed an unwittingly Centeno in the forefront of the American Heart Association’s push for young people and their parents to become more aware about heart disease.

Underneath his precocious and welcoming smile, is a young man trapped with a heart condition that forbids him from playing any kind competitive sports for the rest of his life.

“He could never participate in competitive sports, but he can play casually,” said Norma Centeno, Heriberto’s mother.

A family affair: Heriberto Centeno (left) with mom, Norma Centeno, his little sister and St. Lawrence of Brindisi Catholic School Athletic Director Marc Maye at the NFL Play 60 Challenge event on Friday, May 5, 2017. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline.com

After blacking out and falling to the ground in his first try at competitive sports (basketball) in December, Centeno was diagnosed with having Hypertropic Cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that can attach itself to anyone regardless of age.

“I work so far away, I work in Orange County,” Norma Centeno said. “It was pretty much my worst nightmare come true. Luckily, my husband was there, so he got there within five minutes. I was told it was a seizure. We had no idea it was his heart. This is the first year he went out for sports in school. If he hadn’t, we would have never known about the condition.”   

Heriberto Centeno now wears a pacemaker. His future may include having a valve replacement procedure. A possible heart transplant down the line is on the table as well. Centeno described the whole episode of blacking out as being a frightening experience.

“I was warming up in basketball practice, and my vision started to blur,” he said. “Then from there, I didn’t know what happened to me. I just woke up and there were people around me. I didn’t know what happened. They told me just to stay down. I was planning to get up, but they just told me to stay down. I got kind of scared there.”

St. Lawrence of Brindisi Catholic School athletic director Marc Maye was front and center when Centeno collapsed.

“We were running our laps just like a normal first day, and we saw Heriberto go down,” Maye said. “Normally, when kids go down we think maybe they twisted an ankle or maybe they fell. But when we looked and saw he wasn’t coming back up right and the kids were rushing to him, we knew that it was a bigger problem. It happened right after school, so there was people there who got to him right away.”

Talking about this episode appears to be a little difficult to re-hash for Centeno. His eyes dart back and forth to all of the activities taking place on the famed football field. He’d rather take part in the football toss or have his Rams t-shirt signed by the current and former players attending the mid-afternoon event.

 It’s clear his mindset is on football and fun and not on fielding reporter’s questions. His reprieve come in the form of Brown and Higbee, who are both nearby signing autographs for the stacked number of students patiently waiting for the players to obliged them with their signatures.

Mimicking a defensive lineman using the swim move technique to get past opposing offensive linemen, Centeno is courteous and warm as the interview wraps up. He then quickly sidesteps his way to where Brown and Higbee are holding court with students.

His hopes of getting Brown and Higbee to sign his t-shirt come to fruition. A bit of giddiness flash across Centeno’s face. Things are all good now. At least for today it is, Centeno said.

“I don’t like being in the hospital, so it feels good to be out here,” Centeno said.  

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1122 Articles
Dennis covers the NFL (San Diego Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). As a professional journalist, Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a graduate of Howard University.