Aztecs Final Four run came at perfect time for a family of super fans

The Hernandez family (left), John Paul Hernandez as a member of The Show (center) and Michelle Asido-Hernandez after her transplant (right). (Photo: John Paul Haernandez)

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John Paul Hernandez center with his daughter Lily (center). Lily making confetti angels at Viejas Arena (left). Michelle Asido-Hernandez with Lily (Right). (Photo credit: John Paul Hernandez)

Every Aztec fan knows the story.

When Steve Fisher first arrived at SDSU in 1999, he roamed the campus, trying to give away tickets to any student who would take them. Some, when they saw the Aztecs’ head coach passing in the halls, walked the other way. Others sought him out, looking for a free ticket to the upcoming game.

John Paul Hernandez was decidedly in the latter group.

“When Fisher was hired, that was huge,” Hernandez recalled on Saturday before SDSU’s win over Creighton. “We knew him as the Fab Five coach at Michigan. He was legendary. That is when I got hooked (on SDSU basketball). When Fisher was hired, I had so much faith in him that he would bring us to a level of being respectable in our conference. Never in a million years did I think we would be in the Elite Eight.”

Hernandez grew up in Compton in a loving but troubled family. Coming to SDSU in 1998 was an escape of sorts and an opportunity for a different life. A year later, he met his wife.

At an on-campus party on August 29, 1999, he saw Michelle Asido sitting across the room. In his eyes, she had a halo or spotlight hovering over her. They hit it off instantly. As younger lovers are wont to do, they poured out their hearts to each other.

John and Michelle early in their relationship. (Photo: John Paul Hernandez)

“It’s going to sound cheesy, but it was like I knew him already,” Asido told EVT about that night. “It was a connection right away that I’ve never felt with anybody else. I never opened up like that right away with anyone.”

Among a wealth of other details of her life, Asido told Hernandez that her dad had died at the age of 42 from a rare condition called Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD). PKD is hereditary, Asido confided. She had a 50% chance of having it, but as a late-onset disease, she may not know for decades.

“I’m a 19-year-old kid, seeing this beautiful girl telling me this, and I was like, ‘yeah, ok, cool, you want to go watch a movie or something,’” Hernandez said. “When you’re 19 and a kid, you don’t think about real-world stuff. You’re just enjoying being a college kid.”

500,000 Americans have PKD, according to the National Library of Medicine. PKD has no cure. Organ transplants are its only remedy.

Their relationship developed with SDSU athletics at the center. Asido’s high school did not have sports. She loved the newness and pageantry of Aztecs’ football and basketball. Hernandez, among the first members of The Show, faithfully went to every game passionately cheering in a skull mask. He was courtside for the genesis of the Fisher/Dutcher Era.

Hernandez left in the mask alongside “Showker” and “Show Gabba Gabba.” (Photo: John Paul Hernandez)

Even after he graduated in 2003, he continued to lead the Madhouse on the Mesa. Working in Irvine as a young teacher, he would make the trek down to SDSU for a game after work and return the next day exhausted but fulfilled. He remembers fondly storming the court in 2006 after the Aztecs clinched their first regular season Mountain West title.

“I was there when Brandon Heath was there, and they beat Wyoming to win the conference championship,” Hernandez recalled. “That was the first time we stormed the court. I remember storming the court and people just pouring in, and I was one of the first ones to go because I was in the student section. I felt like my knees and legs were going to just buckle. There was just that much pressure behind me, pushing me forward. It’s funny. Now, we don’t storm courts. Now, people storm courts on us.”

PKD Diagnosis

In 2010, Asido was now Asido-Hernandez. The two were in year 11 of their romance. Both were elementary school teachers in the Irvine School District. Life was continuing on a predictable path until, one day, everything changed.

Seven months pregnant, Asido-Hernandez went in for a routine ultrasound. The technician “saw something.” A doctor revealed what she had always feared. She had PKD.

“It was a shock because she was my first baby,” Asido-Hernandez explained. “I didn’t know how to react because it just brought back memories of my dad passing away.”

Their first daughter was born a few months later, early but healthy. They named her Elli-Jonelle. Every part of her name holds special significance, and together it tells a rich story.

Hernandez with his student Elli. (Photo: John Paul Hernandez)

Hernandez had a fourth-grade student named Elli, who tragically died after a year-long battle with cancer. Hernandez named his daughter after her. Jonelle is the portmanteau of John and Michelle. The hyphen is so John and Michelle will be connected with Elli forever through their daughter Elli-Jonelle, who was born on Elli’s mother’s birthday.

About three years later, the first visible signs of Asido-Hernandez’ PKD began to show. Her kidneys had grown to the size of footballs. Outwardly, she looked pregnant. Almost daily, she was faced with the realities of her condition as well-meaning students, parents, and strangers congratulated her or asked how many months along she was.

“One time, I was at the gym,” Asido-Hernandez recalled with tears. “I did a Saturday class, a hardcore boot camp class. I felt really good about myself, pushing myself to get up that day and go to the gym, and felt good afterward. Everyone (in the class) was clapping their hands, ‘you kicked some butt, mom, being pregnant and all.’ That really hurt me that day because … I felt like a winner after the workout, but then, you can’t deny that you have this big belly in front of you, and people think you’re pregnant.”

Originally, thinking PKD would preclude them from having another child, they poured into Elli-Jonelle, giving her an upbringing neither of them had. After getting the go-ahead from her doctors, they decided to have a second child. Asido-Hernandez figured so many people mistook her for being pregnant, she might as well be pregnant. In 2016, Lily was born. If ever there was a Show Baby, it is her.

Lily and John watch an Aztecs game at home. (John Paul Hernandez)

“When we’re at home watching these games, we’re running through all of (The Show) chants at home on TV like we’re sitting in the student section,” Hernandez said. “When I tell you that you don’t know another six-year-old that basically jumps up and down and does The Show chants for two straight hours at home. I’m telling you the truth, that’s her.”
Elli-Jonelle prefers Aztec football. Lily’s love is Men’s Basketball. When anyone in her living room sits down during the game, she employs them to stand up. When the Aztecs step to the foul line, she screams, “fingers up.”

As her young family flourished, PKD continued to take its toll. It has been a trying journey. Hernandez’s blood type eliminated him as a potential kidney donor. A week after her sister was approved as a donor, cysts were found on Asido-Hernandez’ liver, and she was diagnosed with Polycystic Liver Disease. One transplant would not save her. She needed a new kidney and a liver.

Both organs continued to lose function until they reached a level where she was eligible to be on the national transplant list. Through the work of advocates at UCSD sharing Asido-Hernandez’ story as a young mother and teacher who did everything her doctors asked her to do, she moved to the top of the list. All that was left to do was wait and be ready.

Organ Transplant

On August 21, 2022, in the early morning, they got the call from UCSD. There was a compatible kidney and liver available. Someone in losing their own life saved Asido-Hernandez’ by being an organ donor. They arrived at the Jacobs Center at UCSD at four in the morning. They waited all that day, went through a battery of tests, and at 12:01 on August 22, Hernandez’ father’s birthday, the first surgery began.

Over the next week, the surgeons skillfully performed three more surgeries. Throughout, Asido-Hernandez was in an induced coma. Hernandez could barely look at his wife with all the tubes running in and out of her. He would stare out into the La Jolla sky and, in the middle of the night, walk the halls of the hospital.

On August 29, 2022, 23 years to the day that he met his bride, the transplants were complete. Grateful but with a heavy heart, he left the hospital room around midnight, going nowhere in particular. In an elevator, he ran into Steve Fisher.

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Though he was there for private reasons, Fisher talked with Hernandez for more than half an hour about The Show and the basketball program. Fisher prayed for Hernandez and his wife. It was a welcome respite from the stress he was under. As he had done when they first met on campus in 1999, Fisher offered Hernandez free Aztec tickets for any game they wanted to go to.

Steve Fisher and John met randomly in the middle of the night at UCSD’s Jacob Center. (Photo: John Paul Hernandez)

“He’s a beautiful man,” Hernandez said. “Steve Fisher is a great individual. Honestly, when I met him that night at the Jacobs Center and everything that was going on with Michelle, I thought, ‘this is another sign.’”

Finding an organ donor is a spur-of-the-moment occurrence. For months prior, everyone was looking forward to the opening of SDSU’s new football stadium. Despite her surgeries finishing up only five days before the Aztecs’ matchup against Arizona, Asido-Hernandez insisted Hernandez take their daughters to the game.

“They’re Aztec fans,” Asido-Hernadez explained on why she wanted them to take in the first game. “They are so committed. John’s only love is really the Aztecs … he’s a true Aztec fan, so I could not say ‘no’ to that. I wanted them to be happy, so I had to put on a brave face and say, just go.’”

While most of the spectators will remember their first impression of Snapdragon Stadium, the 18-point loss, the unbearable heat, or Tyrell Shavers scoring SDSU’s first touchdown in its new home, Hernandez will remember September 3rd as the first day his entire family was together after the transplants. He took his girls to see their mom at UCSD on the same day.

Michelle rings the Transplant Recover Bell around the time she was first reunited with her entire family after surgery. (Photo: John Paul Hernandez)

Asido-Hernandez’ recovery from her surgery has gone well. Her body is not rejecting the organs, but it is still an ongoing process. Early this year, she underwent an angioplasty to enlarge the artery that brings blood to her liver.

She was well enough to accompany her husband and her daughters to Viejas Arena for the Aztecs’ conference title-clinching game on March 4th. It was Lily’s first game in person. Dressed in a replica Aztec Cheerleader uniform, she got to meet the current members of the Show, make snow angels in the confetti on the court, and listened as her dad told stories of Aztec lore.

“It was amazing,” Asido-Hernandez said about attending the Wyoming game. “Lily’s look on her face with her cheerleader outfit on trying to mimic the cheerleaders … we were all very happy. It was nice as a family to be together and enjoy it together with the girls. I felt so much joy, to be honest with you to be able to be there, experience it with them, having that memorable moment with them.”

Lily saw her second game in person Friday night in Louisville. Before the Aztecs played one NCAA tournament game, Hernandez had bought tickets and airfare to the Sweet 16. Lily begged him to come along, and the two of them took a red eye to see the Aztecs take down Alabama.

John and Lily making memories cheering on their Aztecs in Louisville. (Photo: John Paul Hernandez)

After celebrating the win, he got a call from his wife. The doctors had found another blockage in her artery. They scheduled surgery for Monday to put in a stint to permanently keep the blood flowing properly.

As Hernandez began to pack his things and think of finding a flight home, Asido-Hernandez stopped him and said she would be mad at him if he came home early. She drove herself to UCSD on Sunday to check into the hospital for the procedure while her husband and daughter cheered on the Aztecs in the Elite Eight thousands of miles away.

“John is a great husband, and he’s a great father to the girls,” Asido-Hernandez said about why she wanted them to stay in Louisville. “The girls are his number one. I want him to create those memories with Lily. Life is too short. With everything that has happened to me, I’ve learned to live my life to the fullest. So, I wanted them to experience that together.”

Michelle watched SDSU’s game against Creighton. She saw her blood pressure spike during the game. (Photo: John Paul Hernandez)

On March 26, 1999, Fisher said at his introductory press conference, “I feel the Aztecs basketball program has unlimited potential.” 24 years to the day, Hernandez and Lily cheered on SDSU as they fulfilled Fisher’s vision. They were on the court when SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher performed his patented “trust fall” after cutting down the nets as the South Regional Champions.

Asido-Hernandez watched the game against Creighton from her hospital room. Her blood pressure spiked during the Aztecs’ victory. Hernandez will be from Louisville late on Sunday night.

Hernandez is not planning on making the trip to Houston. He will be at celebrating Elli-Jonelle’s birthday and attending to his family following Michelle’s surgery. You can bet Lily and her family will be chanting the Aztecs to victory on Saturday.

Wherever SDSU’s run ultimately ends, their Final Four appearance has come at the perfect time for this family of super fans.

2 thoughts on “Aztecs Final Four run came at perfect time for a family of super fans

  1. Wonderful message Paul. You are a great writer. Right to the heart. You and Don De Mars are a great pair. Thanks for this wonderful story.

  2. I enjoyed the story about the super fan family! Amazing how God uses tragic circumstances to bring a family together. Good job.

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