TWIN FALLS — Chad Fistolera was angry at himself. His softball team, the 14U Twin Falls Terror, underperformed at a tournament in Spokane earlier this month, and he laid the blame on his shoulders. He is the head coach, after all.
Fistolera said all this to his players after the tournament ended. His assistant, Tony Chapa, pulled him aside afterward and gave him a pep talk. The whole team was to blame, Chapa said, not just Fistolera.
Fistolera immediately felt reassured, and a bit embarrassed. Here he was, fretting about a loss in front of Chapa, who, until last month, couldn’t even attend Terror softball games.
Chapa, 41, returned to the softball field in early June, more than a year after suffering life-threatening injuries in a freak car accident. This weekend, the man who defeated long odds watched the Terror compete at the 16U Magic Valley Madness tournament at the Oregon Trail Youth Baseball Complex.
“He’s the first one to let me know it’s just a game,” Fistolera said.
Around April of 2016, Chapa replaced the tires on his truck. He drove all around the state — to work at Pacific Steel & Recycling, to his daughters’ sporting events, etc. — the next two months without any issues.
On May 6, 2016, Chapa drove his daughter, Hailey, and her friend, Jolene Boyer, to an AAU basketball tournament in Pocatello. Around 4 p.m. near the Aberdeen exit on I-86, his truck’s back right tire blew. The truck swerved into the median and started rolling, all the way over the westbound highway.
Hailey and Boyer both suffered concussions, but they were not seriously injured otherwise. Boyer immediately called her father, Jon.
“We’ve been in a wreck,” Boyer screamed to her father. “We can’t find Tony.”
Chapa always wore his seatbelt, and he said this night was no different. He was ejected from the truck anyway, leaving him comatose.
Chapa, Hailey and Boyer were rushed to the emergency room in Aberdeen. The doctors quickly realized Chapa needed additional medical attention, so they airlifted him to Pocatello. His family joined him there.
Before Chapa’s wife, Misty, reached the hospital, all the medical staff told her was that Chapa was breathing and that she should get to there as quickly as possible.
Misty and Marcus were in Chapa’s room when the doctor declared a time of death. For about 10 minutes, Misty said, Chapa flat-lined.
Medial personnel continued CPR and other procedures as Misty and Marcus waited outside. At one point, a nurse called Misty and said, “Just pray.”
“I actually felt pretty at peace,” Misty said. “I don’t know why.”
Chapa felt the same way. At one point during the 10 minutes, Chapa said God reached out to him, saying everything was going to be okay.
Chapa and Misty still aren’t sure why the flat-lining only lasted 10 minutes. After he was revived, Misty felt only a tinge of relief. Chapa was still in critical condition, and bad weather prevented the hospital from airlifting him to a bigger hospital in Salt Lake City.
When Chapa finally reached Salt Lake City, his odds remained slim.
“The doctor was pretty blunt,” Misty said. “He came out and said, ‘He’ll be lucky if he makes it 12 hours.’”
Twelves hours turned into 24 hours, then 36 hours, then three months. Chapa staved off death in a demolished body. Misty said he suffered a traumatic brain injury and received 11 surgeries. He remained in a coma for eight weeks. It took about 10 weeks for him to recognize his loved ones, to count, to remember life events before May 6.
“The only thing he really knew was how to read. He didn’t know what the names of letters were, numbers, but he could read,” Misty said. “And he always knew the girls on his basketball and softball team. He recognized them right away.”
Members of the Twin Falls Terror and the people who knew Chapa — from his hometown Burley to Kimberly, where he currently resides — came together to show support. They wrote the letters TT (Team Tony) on their bodies and athletic gear. They hosted a slow pitch softball tournament aimed to raise funds for the Chapas, who are still paying medical bills.
Chapa’s oldest daughter, Whitney, now plays softball at Walla Walla Community College. Last summer, the then-senior at Kimberly High School signed her letter of intent next to her father in the hospital. Whitney, Marcus and Hailey, visited him when they weren’t in school or playing sports.
Chapa went through an intensive rehab process that lasted from August 2016 to March of this year. Over time, his memory returned. His injuries healed to the point that he can walk and move his arms with relative ease.
An odd thing happened with his voice, too. Before the crash, Chapa’s voice had a significant stutter. Since May 6, the stutter has disappeared.
He still has trouble speaking because of the brain injury and a tracheotomy he received after the wreck. But he speaks in complete sentences and has no problem recalling past events.
This weekend, the Terror won the 14U segment of the Magic Valley Madness and finished fifth in the 16U bracket. Chapa caught pitches for the first time since the accident, and he coached alongside Fistolera, who on May 6 wasn’t sure he’d see his assistant again.
“I just prayed that he passed away peacefully,” Fistolera said. “I’m glad I was wrong.”
Chapa hopes to drive again, but it will take a while to get back to that point. He doesn’t love sitting in cars, mostly because he doesn’t like to be dependent on others. He’s ridden past the site of the crash, but the memory is too murky to trigger anything vivid in his head.
“I pray to God for everything,” he said. “Be careful what you do, because anything can happen.”
Since the accident, Chapa has been extra attentive in day-to-day life. He recognizes that danger can strike unexpectedly, so he doesn’t take anything for granted. He wants to watch his daughters play softball as long as he can. Win or lose. It's just a game, after all.