By Neil H. Devlin
Mullen Sports Information Specialist

It is said, stated and practically preached in sports. Regularly, as in every day. Multiple times.

“He has a lot of heart!”

“Her play was full of heart!”

“Have you ever seen so much heart?”

But who has a bigger heart than Eli Hernandez? The Mullen senior, who as an infant wasn’t expected to make it past his first few days, may have missed out on high-school sports as an athlete, but not as a participant. Unable to maintain the necessary stamina to compete, Hernandez’s impact on Mustangs sports continues as team manager, student fan and someone who simply is thrilled to be involved with his school’s teams.

“It’s really fun,” Hernandez said.

The 18-year-old’s birth in Los Angeles was accompanied with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, a defect in pregnancy that affects normal blood flow. Ventricles and valves can be underdeveloped and small, and in Hernandez’s case, it’s his right ventrical.

He said his “is tiny” and “not enough blood gets to my heart.”

And as a result, “I just get too tired,” Hernandez said.

It was in elementary school and as he got older that the condition from a rebuilt heart really began to show. He played baseball and basketball, but not for long. “I just couldn’t keep up with the other kids,” Hernandez said. He also loved football, but wasn’t permitted to play because of the contact.

And when it didn’t get better for him in his freshman year at Mullen, Hernandez remained on the sideline until athletic director Vince Massey, still the head coach of wrestling, suggested he try his hand at team manager as a sophomore. He jumped at the opportunity, embraced it and it continues through his senior year.

“I love all sports,” Hernandez said, “It’s good to stay involved with the teams.”

In addition, first-year head coach Vincent White enjoyed having Hernandez dabble as football team manager – at the behest of assistant coach Britt Gusmus -- the past fall ... and in more ways than one.

“A great kid, a great kid,” White said. “He’s a good manager who works his tail off, even with all of the stuff he has been through with his heart. I really like this kid.”

It’s difficult not to like Hernandez, White said, “because he told me in four years that he’s going to give me ($1,000,000). I believe him. I do. Every day I see him, he says, ‘Four years, coach. I’m going to give you a million.’”

Hernandez actually still attempts to play on the recreational level, said his father Kevin Hernandez, “but he’s not going to be a marathon runner or Olympic sprinter. He’s on a rec-league team for basketball right now, but he still gets winded quicker and probably needs to take a few more blows than the average kid. And that’s OK. He just comes out.”

It also takes him a lot of energy to stay after school and into the night to serve as manager for the teams, but it will end in five weeks with the wrestling state tournament.

“The spring is my down time,” he said.

Hernandez will be as missed as he’s currently respected.

“Yeah, it’s awesome,” Mullen junior and 145-pound wrestler John Sumner said. “He really is a part of the team. He works as hard as any of us off the mat. He’s a great kid and I wish I could see him out there (on the mat), but circumstances happen.”

Mustangs heavyweight Angelo Damian said Hernandez’s presence only adds to the wrestling team as ”he’s super supportive. He’s always helping guys up, he does our scoring and he’s super under-appreciated for what he does.”

It does, though, come with a price, a personal one for Hernandez.

“I take a lot of medication, blood thinners,” he said.

And he’ll continue to do so, probably for the rest of his life. He’s also part of a drug study for kids with heart conditions with hope of them being able to build more stamina “and do more stuff,” Hernandez said. “They’re hoping by the end of the study that it will be (Food and Drug Administration) approved and give kids like me the chance to be able to play sports in the future.”

Those close to Hernandez also noticed his voice changed in his senior year after another heart surgery to open a valve during the summer. The respirator made him sound hoarse and it should eventually go away, “but I do feel better,” Hernandez said.

Certainly, while being at Mullen and interacting with hard-working, committed and talented athletes in football and wrestling, Hernandez wonders how he would have been if not for his heart condition. Would he have fit in with them. Would he have been able to compete with them? It’s challenging.

“I feel like I get down sometimes,” he said. “There are some things I won’t be able to do and I want to do them. And I ask myself, ‘Why can’t I do that?’”

He chooses to push forward. For a baby boy who nearly scared the life out of his worried parents and wasn’t supposed to make it, he’s late into his second decade and planning for the future. He has been accepted by Colorado State and is waiting to hear from Miami. He’ll major in business.

Reconstructed heart or not, he’ll push forward and no one who knows him doubts it.

“You know, he takes  a lot of pressure off me,” Mustangs wrestling head coach John Howes said. “He does a great job and keeps us going. He’s a lot of fun, except that he needs to quit listening to that Rap music.”

Damian said Hernandez “had his heart surgery and, technically, he has, like, half of a heart, but I think he has one of the biggest hearts on the team.”

Every breath and every step he takes, and every endeavor Hernandez enters only lifts his family. The youngest of three children is special and in more ways than one.

“Proud? I’m very proud of him,” Kevin Hernandez said. “He’s a good kid and I’m very proud. He’s a good person who treats people well and that’s probably what I’m most proud of.

“He likes being a part of Mullen. We’re a family of faith and believe in the good Lord, and that’s what got us as a family through it.”

Eli has been through a lot, but he’s certain there is more to come. And he’s ready for it.

“They gave me less than a day to live,” he said. “I just tyr to stay positive. I guess I just remind myself that I’m basically a miracle and because of God I’m here and I do for Him. I really shouldn’t be alive today.”

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