As an athletic trainer, Jimi Cantu is living out the promise he made to himself after his best friend was injured while playing football and subsequently died in 1972.
Cantu, currently the Lopez Lobos’ athletic trainer, has spent 36 years in his chosen profession. He traces his career path back to a single tragic and impactful event as a student at Harlingen’s Vernon Middle School.
It was 1972 when Cantu’s best friend suffered a serious head injury while playing in a freshman football game. When no one else immediately reacted to help, a parent came out of the stands to perform CPR and keep the player alive.
The player was hospitalized, but never regained consciousness and died three days later.
“We were like brothers,” Cantu said of his friend.
“(With no trainer there) no one knew what to do for him, not even the coaches,” added Cantu, a 1976 Harlingen High graduate who received his college degree in 1981 from Pan American University. “I made a promise that I would never (again) be a spectator (in a situation like that) and watch someone die.
“The reasons are personal and different (as to why someone becomes a trainer). For me, that was it. I know I may not be able to save everyone, but I want to do what I can.”
Cantu has worked as an athletic trainer at every one of Brownsville’s six public high schools plus he had a 10-year stint at Los Fresnos. In 1979-80, he spent two summers in Florida as the trainer for a baseball team in the Houston Astros’ minor league organization.
He is considered one of the Rio Grande Valley’s leading athletic trainers.
Cantu, 58, will be among the inaugural class of inductees at Saturday’s Valley Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame banquet at Edinburg Event Center. Dinner will be served at 6 p.m. with a ceremony to follow at 7 p.m. Tickets to the event were pre-sold and no longer are available.
VATA has existed 16 years and this will be the organization’s first hall of fame class.
Also to be inducted is the late Larry Lohr, who is regarded as the Valley’s first athletic trainer. Lohr worked at high schools in Donna, Weslaco, McAllen and La Feria.
Saturday’s other inductees include Raul Zamarripa (Harlingen High, retired), Jim Lancaster (UTRGV), Cathy Gilberto (San Benito), Dennis Walker (La Joya, retired) and James Meguire (Rio Grande City).
Bob Aparicio Jr. (Mission, retired) is scheduled to receive the VATA Dedicated Service Award.
Jason Starkey, Lopez’s football coach/athletic coordinator, said Cantu is well-deserving of Saturday’s recognition.
“We’re super blessed to have Jimi in the Brownsville school district,” Starkey said. “There’s a reason he’s being honored.
“While Jimi is an outstanding athletic trainer, he does so much more for our campus than just tape ankles and treat injuries,” the Lopez coach added. “He’s helped transform a lot of our students (with his strong faith). He brings the spiritual aspect to our campus. His faith, his marriage and his leadership provide an example for all of us.”
Starkey said Cantu is the Fellowship of Christian Athletes sponsor at Lopez who has organized before school gatherings for students, including the football team, plus a Bible study for the coaches.
“I wouldn’t be the coach that I am without Jimi Cantu on our campus,” Starkey said.
Cantu said his role as a trainer has changed over the years to include teaching and mentoring students who want to someday enter his field as a profession.
“I have no plans to stop now,” he said. “I love what I’m doing. It’s been a great (school) year here at Lopez and I’ve had a great career. I don’t feel that God’s done with me yet.”