Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Art Sandoval and Danny Ortega have been best friends since they were 4 years old. Their families lived near each other with the Ortegas moving to Wyoming Avenue and the Sandovals to Yale Drive. Ortega was a year ahead of Sandoval in school, both rode bikes together, but what they really loved to do together was play sports and baseball.
Both men were on their way to living their dream of living and playing baseball together, but things changed in a second for these two best friends at a young age, changing the course of their lives and showing that life isn’t fair.
On July 25, 1992, the night before the Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournament, Art Sandoval and Danny Ortega were registering and afterward going to the Gus Macker dance. Ortega was home from Eastern New Mexico University on break. Sandoval had just graduated from Roswell and was going to be playing baseball at ENMU as well.
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After the dance, Sandoval and Ortega went to visit another buddy. After that, they ran into Raymundo Vargas and hopped into his car to ride and catch up. Ortega was in the rear passenger seat of Vargas’ car. Sandoval was originally in the backseat, but they pulled over and switched seats.
Sandoval was seated in the front passenger seat with Vargas driving his Nissan Sentra. All of them were about to go home and get ready for the game the next day because it was 3 a.m., as they were traveling southbound on Union at the intersection of Union and Second Street, where Kwan Den Restaurant was on the corner at that time.
Denise Alfaro was going westbound at a high rate of speed driving her Monte Carlo and ran a red light, T-boning them, with the force of the hit and the rain falling that morning, the car Ortega, Vargas and Sandoval were in began to spin.
“Instantly that accident broke my back and paralyzed me,” Ortega said. “On July 25, it will be 26 years. I knew immediately that my back was broke. I felt numbness and couldn’t feel my legs, and I remember telling Art, ‘I think I’m paralyzed because I can’t move my legs.”
When the cars hit, Sandoval remembers they were in the right lane going through the light. He felt like the car did a 360-degree turn and after the hit, the car was going northeast bound.With the impact of the hit, Vargas was lying on top of Sandoval in the passenger seat with nothing but dead silence. Sandoval passed out and was in shock. Sandoval tried to open the window, but the car was like a smashed can. Sandoval had bumps and bruises but was never injured. They also took Vargas and Sandoval to St. Mary’s.
“The next thing I remember was my buddy, Danny saying ‘Art, Art,’ Sandoval said. “I can’t feel my legs. Danny (Ortega) kept saying I need help. I can’t feel my legs. I think I broke my back.”
Pumpkin Lucero and other first responders came on the scene putting towels over all three men before using the jaws of life to get them and Ortega out of the car. When the paramedics got to Ortega, he was sitting straight up in his seat.
When Sandoval went to the hospital to visit Ortega, the thing he noticed was a machine that was massaging Ortega’s legs. Ortega was moaning from being in pain. They transported all of them to St. Mary’s on South Main Street.
Later, he was flown to Albuquerque, where he stayed at the University of New Mexico Hospital for surgery to stabilize his back, putting rods in during the 10-hour procedure. For a while, Ortega had complications and infections for three weeks. After we were stable, he went from there to St. Joseph’s for rehab. Ortega was in Albuquerque from July 25, 1992 until the end of Oct. ‘92.
“I never got any sensation in my legs, ever,” Ortega said. “I’ve kind of always known that I was going to be paralyzed. I never hoped to or wished that I could get my feelings back. I just knew that the accident completely severed my spinal cord and there was no communication with that part of my body. I just accepted that.
“It wasn’t about giving up or anything, I just knew what I had to do. My doctor told me, ‘Your spinal cord is completely severed. You can always have faith that you can get some sensation, but we don’t see it happening from the medical aspect of it.”
When Ortega was in the hospital, he had thoughts of “Why me? If I had only gone home that night.”
He had thoughts that he was a person who never did anything wrong to anybody. While laying in the hospital bed, he felt like he always listened to his parents, teachers and he didn’t understand why this happened to him. He often asked himself, “Why me? What did I do?”
“I’m a firm believer in God,” Ortega said. “I believe he set a path for me, and this was my path. I’ve embraced it a little and taken it on to be a role model for kids, to get out there to teach them movement and staying healthy and fit.”
Ortega feels like bad things happen to good people, and he uses the accident to keep him motivated to keep going in life.
Life goes on
Often Ortega will refer to one of his own coaching legends to keep him inspired. When things are tough for him, he thinks back to the year he spent playing under Roswell’s football coach Jim Bradley. He often hears these words in his head: “What the mind believes the body achieves.” So, when he is in the classroom teaching his students, he wants them to believe in themselves, to set goals and have a passion for whatever they want to do in life, that they can achieve it regardless of the obstacles they have to overcome.
“Always believe, stay positive,” Ortega said. “Tough times will come but they don’t last, but tough people do.”
Ortega did get to play baseball for a year at ENMU, but he never got to fulfill his dream of trying to see how good he could have become and try out for the major leagues. Ortega had another dream stolen in that he cannot have children to carry on his name, something that bothers him at times. He has had to transfer his fatherly feeling to the boys and girls whom he coaches and teaches in his classrooms in Arizona.
“Growing up as a kid and loving baseball,” Ortega said, “I always had a dream of playing professional baseball. Whether I was that good or not, we will never know. I dreamed of having kids, but because of my disability, that was something that changed that. Maybe that’s why I’m so passionate about being in the classroom with the kids now because I see them as my own because I don’t have my own. That would be the only dream that I would look back and say it would be nice to have kids to raise them.”
Ortega found his calling to teach after he got into the accident because he was taught by great teachers and coaches in Roswell. He has been a teacher for 17 years and most recently in Arizona. He feels fulfilled in his career and to be able to provide for himself and have a sense of independence.
He had just finished up his freshman year at Eastern New Mexico. Danny Ortega played pitcher and shortstop with dreams of making it to the major leagues.
“I wouldn’t say we had a successful season at ENMU,” Ortega said. “Not from a win and loss standpoint, but I learned a lot, and I got to play a lot. It was a tremendous experience just to be able to play college baseball, which was a dream of mine.”
Even before the accident, Ortega tried to be a positive person.
“I’ve never become bitter towards that young lady,” Ortega said, “or wished any harm to her. I’ve always been a positive person. I’m not a vindictive person that hates anybody or dislikes anybody. I love to be around people and talk to people.”
I knew I could look back,” Ortega said, “And I also knew I had to look forward. When the doctors told me I was paralyzed, it was like losing a family member, you go through those stages, and I went through those stages and there were definitely difficult times.”
After the accident, Ortega went about making a life for himself — he enrolled in classes at ENMU-Roswell. After he was comfortable with the workload and his life, he went back to ENMU in Portales where he received his bachelor’s degree in physical education. After that, he went to Arizona University to earn a master’s in physical education.
Ortega found his passion for teaching kids and being in the classroom with them.
Roswell shows up big
When Ortega got out of the hospital, the city of Roswell had big “Welcome back, Danny” signs all over town. The city showed their support for Ortega and his family by having car washes, dinners and fundraisers for him to help with his medical bills.
“I thank God,” Ortega said, “that I had strong family support, community support, and that I had that mental toughness to overcome whatever came my way. I credit being an athlete for giving me that attitude and all the great coaches and teachers I had in not giving up. They taught me to overcome, and that’s how I approached it from the beginning.”
For years, neither Sandoval nor Ortega talked about the accident, it was something unspoken between them. It was almost like it didn’t happen with the wheelchair as the constant reminder that it did. Sandoval wonders what would have happened had he stayed in the backseat with Ortega that night.
He knows that it could have been him in the wheelchair, and that is something he has not spoken about for 21 years. He felt guilty about what had happened to his best friend. Sandoval could live his dreams, have a family, hold political office, teach and coach. His friend can do some of those things, but not all.
“I felt extremely guilty,” Sandoval said. “It was the hardest thing for me to deal with. I didn’t understand why it happened to Ortega, and it didn’t happen to me. I keep on saying it should have been me.”
Sandoval felt like a prisoner inside his own head having to be strong for his family, himself and the life he was living. He also asked himself, “Why and what if?”
There is no silence like the unspoken silence of the obvious. The things that aren’t spoken hurt just as bad as the spoken word. They never talked about the accident until five years ago, instead choosing to lean on their friendship and faith in God to get through.
“Danny told me it wasn’t my fault,” Sandoval said. “I thank God for my mom, Anita, and dad, Arthur; my best friend, my grandmother, Hortencia Fajardo (who died two years ago). Great friends, community members, teachers and past coaches. They instilled in me how to overcome adversity.”
Sandoval and Ortega’s friendship has endured longer than some marriages. Both knew they could not go on not talking openly and honestly about what had happened between them. When both did the Every 15 Minutes program five years ago, it was the first time they talked about what happened in public.
“It helped me tremendously,” Sandoval said. “I think about the accident to this day, every time I go to Second and Union. I was in denial. I didn’t want to deal with it or think about it, and I didn’t want to deal with my best friend being in the wheelchair.”
That Every 15 Minutes program ended up being counseling for both men.
No one can choose their family, but everyone can choose their friends. Friendship like love has to endure the good, bad and ugly. For over 20 years, two men were prisoners of life’s circumstances.
“This guy is the strongest individual any person can deal with,” Sandoval said. “He has overcome adversity. He’s my right-hand man and I will take him to my side, and I promise you, he will be right there for me as I would be for him. That’s how close we are. He’s an inspiration.”
Ortega was left without the use of his legs, and Sandoval with the haunting memory of the accident that led to depression and for the most part, trying to live with the accident and figure out how to live with guilt over a situation he had no control over. No one has given Sandoval a life plan for when life happens. The accident could have broken them apart. However, to Sandoval, they are bonded closer than brothers.
“I’ve learned, me and Danny are family,” Sandoval said. “I’ve learned to never give up and to keep the faith and always believe in God. When I struggle in life, I think of Danny, because he struggles every day.”
Because of the sensitivity and legal nature of the article, RDR sports talked to both Danny Ortega and Art Sandoval with the conversation being recorded.
Legally, the state of New Mexico pressed charges, listed below, against Denise Alfaro.
Under the Influence Alcohol/ Drugs.
Driving while license suspended or revoked.
Vehicle insured/owner must have evidence of financial responsibility.
Traffic Control Signal Legend.
Failure to use Safety Belts.
On all the charges, Ms. Alfaro pleaded no contest.
Sports Editor J.T. Keith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org