FRESNO – Located a tad longer than a David Carr “Hail Mary” pass from California State University, Fresno, is The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens, a sort of wonderland for the geriatric set.
The leafy, well-tended oasis for senior citizens features buildings bathed in designer gold and orange with stucco roofs and wrought iron and late-model cars everywhere. There are rose bushes and fountains and squirrels running about – indeed this is a place to be for a senior flush with cash who wants to live out his or her twilight years in style.
The Terraces is also where Kingsburg resident AJ Castillo, 27, is the third-year fitness director. He spends eight hours a day helping these well-heeled seniors stay in optimum shape, then zips off to his alma mater, Kingsburg High, to serve as the receivers’ coach for the varsity football team.
Somehow, Castillo – given name Arnulfo – manages to segue seamlessly from teenagers to octogenarians in the same day.
“There are a lot of similarities,” Castillo said last week from behind his desk in the fitness center. “The football guys come at things from an athletic point of view and want to better themselves and improve their performance. The people in the retirement community want to maintain what they have and live a good lifestyle."
Friday night at the Kingsburg High football stadium, those lively Fresno seniors showered the love on Castillo, turning out in force for the Vikings' game against first-place Dinuba, won 27-24 in overtime by the visiting Emperors.
Toting home-made signs such as "AJ Rocks" and "We love AJ," about 20 of the seniors wearing Kingsburg gear occupied a small section of the sprawling stadium bleachers. They cheered lustily for the Vikings during the game, then at halftime descended on the field to present Castillo with a gift.
"I didn't see that coming," Castillo said Saturday morning of the tribute. "I was talking to Dave (Kingsburg head coach Wilson) when the half ended and he said 'I think you better go over because they're calling for you.' They came down on the field and gave me a T-shirt signed by everyone."
Most of the residents at the senior living community have lived rich lives, such as Jim Echols who was an Air Force co-pilot in World War II and Helen Green who was a psychologist. Both attended Friday night's game.
Then there is resident Ed Gregory who was formerly the head basketball coach at Fresno State and also at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and later a scouting director deluxe with the Golden State Warriors.
They all work out under Castillo's supervision and they all seem to love him.
“This fellow is tops,” said Terraces resident Green, 95, before Castillo put her through an obstacle course of orange cones last week. “He runs a good ship. He’s so knowledgeable and well-informed and very professional.”
Green works out as much as 1 ½-hours per day. She is one of the dozens of Terraces residents who take part in the array of fitness classes offered.
Castillo has spurred an increase in activity among the seniors, with enough of them – such as Echols – excelling so much that the Terraces nabbed the team trophy at last year’s Senior Games.
One of Castillo’s stars is Echols, who last week was rocking a "World War II veteran" ball cap. Echols was stationed in Italy during the so-called “war to end all wars” and flew 22 bombing missions over Nazi Germany.
Now Echols is a Senior Games rock star, collecting gold medals like a senior version of Mark Spitz. That includes scaling a 30-foot wall to win the rock-climbing competition.
“They asked me to do it, so I did it,” he said with a shrug, adding that fitness director Castillo “understands our age and what we can do and what our limits are.”
Castillo is a former three-sport athlete at Kingsburg High who especially excelled as a football wide receiver, catching passes for Tyler Bray, now a back-up quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. As a senior Castillo made the All-Valley team after catching 52 passes for 1,036 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns.
Now Castillo helps the current generation of Kingsburg players, passing along the tricks of the trade he learned as a player at Fresno City College and at Humboldt State.
“AJ has a great personality, is easy going, has a sense of humor and the kids love him,” Wilson said.
By Saturday morning Castillo had let the previous night's tough loss sink in and paused by phone to sum up his unusual dual role in guiding both senior citizens and teens.
“You can learn from both," he said. “The older people have lived life and you can learn lessons from them, and the youngsters still make mistakes and are learning, but it’s fun to guide them on the right path.”