When Castañeda was seven years old his family moved three miles south to the city of Chihuahua. His father was a traveling salesman for a dry-goods company. "He opened trade routes in isolated villages in the mountains," Jesse says. "Sometimes I would go with him with the mules and we would camp out, sleeping in abandoned graveyards. Once a month I had the privilege to go to the movies. I used to watch Tarzan. He was my hero."
It was late one fall afternoon when he was in the fourth grade that Castañeda was hit by an automobile. "I was coming out of the Colegio Palmore and David Rico came running out of the school," Castañeda says. "I chased him to tag him and a car hit me right here in my back. Ai! I flew. My teeth hit the pavement when I landed and I was dragged underneath the car for 200 yards, skinning all my back and my legs. They took me to the hospital and put me in bed on my side. I couldn't straighten my back. Three doctors told me I would never walk again. Finally a fourth doctor came and told me, 'Follow my advice and believe. If you believe you can, you can.' That wheelchair experience—I hated it."
After a year he was walking well enough to run away from school. "One time I went to a construction site," Castañeda says. "The night watchman, he was cooking these beans over a little fire. He fed me. I slept on the foundation and my brother found me in the morning." Later, when he'd been sent to a special boarding school for troublesome kids, Jesse's parents learned he'd run away when they spotted him cruising by in the middle of a parade they were watching, riding a soapbox derby car pushed by a chubby pal.
Jesse was the first in his family to leave Mexico. "Nobody in the family spoke English," he says. "It was one of my father's dreams that one of us could go to America to learn English. In 1956 I took a Greyhound bus to Nogales, Arizona, to get a student visa." He was on his way to an agricultural school in Amarillo, Texas, but the woman who issued him his visa was a former homecoming queen from the Menaul High School in Albuquerque. She showed him an old yearbook picture of herself as a queen, and he was persuaded to try her alma mater. He arrived at the doorstep of Menaul, an excellent Presbyterian school, knowing three words of English: yes, no and maybe. They welcomed him. "My name was Jesus and the principal, Ruth Barber, didn't like that because she was very Christian," Castañeda says. "She announced at my first assembly that my name was Jesse." The name stuck.
One of Castañeda's dreams was to become a professional boxer, and he was disappointed to learn that Menaul had no boxing team. Then he discovered football. He took to it like a schooner takes to a brisk wind, making a hero out of himself on his very first play, as a left guard. "I thought it was a crazy game," he says. "I didn't think there were any rules. I can still see clearly this big guy coming towards me, making his moves. It was Gene Brito, touted as being great, tough. I was told to stop whoever carries the ball, so I cried 'Ai!' and flew at him. I didn't know you were supposed to tackle low." Both players were taken off the field on stretchers after one of Castañeda's teammates had recovered the fumble and run for a touchdown to set the stage for a historic upset. "Then the guys respect me a lot. You know, here's this little guy who was wearing his shoulder pads backwards." Castañeda had broken his nose against Brito's helmet, but that didn't prevent Castañeda from coming back into the game. Brito, who died in 1965, didn't return that day, though he would go on to be a five-time All-Pro defensive end for the Washington Redskins.
Castañeda was captain of the Menaul football team his last two years, and in 1958 he made All-City and All-State, though he weighed only 137 pounds. He played his freshman year at the University of New Mexico but, as the smallest player ever at the school, he found his size to be an insurmountable hindrance. "Those guys were big. Tremendous," he says. "I would bounce off them." His most memorable moment came in a drill between the varsity and the freshman teams when he rode Don Perkins' ankles for 20 yards. "He churned his legs and dragged me and dragged me. It was like holding on to a locomotive. Finally, I put him down." Perkins, who later became a mainstay of the Dallas Cowboys, looked at Castañeda and said, "Son, you're really persistent."
After graduating from New Mexico with a degree in physical education and health, Castañeda worked as an instructor at the Peace Corps Training Site at the university from 1964 till the summer of '67. It was then that he acquired his habit of going off on regular retreats by himself in the country "three or four times a year to celebrate the new season. You get away from it all and renew yourself. You see all kinds of little animals, snakes, lizards, birds." Castañeda has killed more than 50 rattlesnakes, and it's intriguing to watch him explain how to prepare one for cooking—letting an imaginary rattlesnake dangle limp in one hand and, with the other, slicing its long belly, carefully peeling back the skin and removing the rattle.
From 1968 to '78 Castañeda taught at Albuquerque Academy. During that time he founded New Mexico's first youth soccer program, the Little League Soccer Association, which started with six participants in the summer of 1972 and has since expanded to include more than 10,000 boys and girls throughout the state. In 1978 he was appointed executive director of the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Health, and he toured the state giving fitness and health clinics. He has done volunteer work for innumerable community centers, boys clubs and YMCAs, where he always exhorts children and adults to "Keep walking!"
Now he's working towards a master's degree in sports administration and health at New Mexico. One of his pet projects is Latido, a recently formed organization dedicated to educating the public in the prevention of heart disease. Last December Latido's four founders had a benefit walk that raised more than $6,000 for Carol Hutzel, a 28-year-old woman who had had a heart transplant. Castañeda has organized many walks to raise money for people and schools in need. The longest walk he has made to date (he still dreams of walking from Tierra del Fuego to Anchorage) was dedicated to world peace and handicapped children. It was his stroll across the country, which began on Aug. 9, 1982.
"I follow horizon after horizon," says Castañeda. "I play a little game with myself. I say, 'I'm going to catch it.' Then later I again say, 'I'm going to catch it.' " The first horizon he aimed for on his transcontinental walk was exactly a block away—it was delineated by a New York skyscraper. His last he never reached. It was out where the Pacific joins the sky, where the sun set in a congratulatory blaze the moment he came to the ocean's edge in Venice, Calif.