A.J. Castaneda, who had served more than five years with the Grand Prairie Police Department, was killed on June 7 when he was hit by an out-of-control car as he ran radar on the President George Bush Turnpike.
The Grand Prairie native was known as a servant leader and a big part of the community.
But before he was receiving multiple police commendations after saving a choking child in September 2018, he was a student at Carter Junior High in Arlington.
That’s where he first met Bob Wager, the head football coach at Arlington Martin High School.
“He was one of those guys that made you feel better about yourself just by being around him and he was always that way since the day I met him,” Wager said. “A tremendous leader and it was never about himself. It was always about the team and encouraging others, helping others and leading by example.
“When your very best player is also your hardest worker, best leader and teammate, those guys don’t come around very often.”
After attending Carter Junior High and Sam Houston High School, where Wager was too, Castaneda and his family moved to Tolar, which is 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth and in between Granbury and Stephenville.
He was an offensive lineman and during his junior year, Wager became the head football coach and athletic director at Tolar. They were together for two years before Castaneda went on to play at Tarleton State.
“He wasn’t your prototypical D1 college football player, but he was a hustle guy that was going to outwork everybody else,” Wager said. “He was the heartbeat of the team both in performance and impact, around players and coaches. He gave his best every rep and every day. He was strong enough to make you want to do the same and when that happens, it transforms a team and he was a major catalyst in changing the success of that program.”
A Servant Leader
Castaneda, 38, went on to serve eight years in the U.S. Coast Guard and six as a Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office deputy.
But his dream was always to come back home to Grand Prairie. He graduated from the academy and joined the patrol division in January 2014.
“A.J. was a terrific football player, but more than that he was always encouraging his teammates. It was always about the team and to see that at a young age and then to watch him lead the life he did as a servant leader in his community, it was his calling,” Wager said. “It’s what he loved to do, he loved helping others to make the world a better place. We need more AJs.”
Many of his colleagues said Castaneda would go above and beyond for the community he loved.
He was also known for bringing pizzas to the kids at the Dalworth Community Center in Grand Prairie, the same spot he spent as a child. He would conduct traffic at local schools and volunteer to work extra shifts.
“A.J. was taken from us on Friday, June 7 doing what he loved the most — protecting and serving our community,” Grand Prairie Chief Steve Dye said during Castaneda’s funeral service on June 13. “When I first met A.J., he told me about living his dream and coming back to the city where he grew up. A.J. was a model police officer with a tireless work ethic who loved coming into work every day.”
“He was like the president of Grand Prairie, just on how many people knew who he was,” Castaneda’s brother Daniel added. “You could go to the Farmer’s Market or just some gas station and people knew who he was.”
Castaneda is survived by his parents, Albert and Patricia; stepdaughter, Zoe Pineda; grandmother, Alicia; brother, Daniel and wife, Dianna; niece, Caydence; girlfriend, Noemi Aroste Hurtad and 11-year-old son Elisha, who has autism.
The Grand Prairie Police Department set up a benevolent account for donations that will go directly to his family.
Three separate Whataburgers in Grand Prairie are also donating 20 percent of their sales to the Castaneda family from 5-9 p.m. on Thursday, June 20 (2630 S. State Highway 161; 3845 S. Carrier Pkwy; and 930 E. Interstate 30).
Outpouring of love and support
It started at Wade Funeral Home in Arlington, drove by the Grand Prairie Police Department and traveled six miles east to The Potter’s House Church in Dallas.
Dozens of people lined the streets during the procession.
Thousands more gathered inside The Potter’s House. Its capacity of 8,000 reached half that and then some, all for the fallen hero.
“The amount of people showing support was overwhelming,” Daniel said. “A lot of people came forward. Letters describing things he did that we didn’t know. He always made sure to go out of his way to help others. We had restaurants saying he was their best customer. We had different people telling us he helped them out.”
One example was when Daniel was out mowing lawns.
“This guy kept looking at me. He walked over and asked if I was Mr. Castaneda, was I AJ’s brother,” Daniel said. “I guess he had seen me on one of the TV stations, but he said A.J. helped his wife get a job as a 9-1-1 operator and he thanked me. So it’s nice to hear those kinds of things.”
Castaneda’s final resting place is just north of the church at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery.
“He was a captain’s captain and people followed. What started as a player-coach relationship turned into a life-long friendship,” Wager said. “I had sincere admiration for who he was as a human being. It makes me very sad. We just didn’t lose a police officer, but a genuine hero.”