Covid-19 Dims the Friday Night Lights of Texas Football

“Every player tested neg.”

The textual content message appeared filled with reduction as a lot as hope.

It was despatched Oct. 13 by Ernesto Lerma, a 78-year-old assistant coach for the Palmview High School soccer staff within the Rio Grande Valley, where the southern tip of Texas types the toe of a cowboy boot alongside the border with Mexico.

A day later, Lerma despatched an ominous replace.

“Big left tackle tested positive.”

This was what everybody had feared as the autumn sports activities season approached.

The coronavirus pandemic had ravaged the valley in summer time. In July, ambulances lined up in a grim parade, ready to drop sufferers at emergency rooms. Some funeral houses ordered refrigerated vans to retailer our bodies.

During such a disaster, Palmview High School’s fragile effort to carry a soccer season may appear inconsequential. But the sport is maybe extra pressing and galvanizing in Texas than wherever else. As cities alongside or close to the Rio Grande — like La Joya, Palmview, Mission, Progreso, Weslaco, Rio Hondo — have shut off their Friday evening lights, or left them flickering in uncertainty, there was a way of cultural casualty.

In late August, the college district that contains Palmview High, La Joya High and Juarez-Lincoln High determined to cancel fall sports activities. But some parents and athletes protested, and in late September officers reconsidered. In the tip, although, solely Palmview determined to proceed with soccer — and solely with extreme limitations and precautions.

Margarito Requénez, 44, the top coach, insisted that each participant and coach be screened weekly for the virus. If anybody was contaminated, the season can be shut right down to preserve the unfold from getting out of hand.

“I don’t want that on my conscience,” he mentioned.

Accommodations had been made for Lerma, who as a septuagenarian can be particularly susceptible to results of the virus. He coached the offensive line from the bleachers as Palmview opened observe, sporting a masks and gloves and spraying his whistle with disinfectant. For video games, he deliberate to educate from the operating monitor surrounding the sphere.

“We have to be very cautious,” Lerma mentioned. “This is a deadly disease.”

Palmview hoped to play an abbreviated season, starting Oct. 30. But 16 days earlier than kickoff, a beginning deal with had examined positive and was awaiting the outcomes of a retest. So was one other participant. Palmview’s 4 scheduled video games appeared in jeopardy.

“Meeting today,” Lerma texted on Oct. 14. “Decision?”

The valley’s fields are wealthy with cotton and grapefruit and oranges, however its predominantly Latino inhabitants is among the many poorest in Texas and among the many most prone to the worst results of the virus.

As of Wednesday, greater than 63,200 coronavirus infections had been reported and greater than 3,200 people had died within the 4 counties that represent the valley — extra fatalities than in any of the city facilities of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

If this had been a season of expectation as an alternative of illness, each staff within the valley can be chasing the elusive accomplishment of Donna High School, which in 1961 grew to become the primary and final staff within the area to win a state soccer championship.

The story of that staff is legend. Eighteen gamers. A six-hour bus trip to Austin, the capital, to play the title sport on a wet night. A cease to eat and carry out a parking-lot rehearsal of a trick formation that proved decisive. A visit residence in the course of the evening as a result of the college couldn’t afford lodge rooms. An early-morning stroll of eight miles alongside Highway 83, accompanied by dozens of townspeople, to attend a celebratory Mass on the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle.

“It’s community pride,” mentioned Luz Pedraza, now 76, the quarterback of that championship staff. “It shows anything is possible.”

Surely, mentioned Progreso High School’s coach, José Meza, each member of his Mighty Red Ants staff has pushed previous the water tower in close by Donna that commemorates the long-ago title. But Progreso’s season has been canceled. There is not any championship to intention for.

Underclassmen are coaching for subsequent season, flipping tractor tires and fashioning weights from gallons of water. The sounds of fall have gone silent — the pompom verve of the cheerleaders, the brassy pep of the band.

“It feels empty,” mentioned Meza, 45. “Even the traffic level feels low. It’s an eerie feeling walking the halls and there’s nobody there.”

At Rio Hondo High School, extracurricular actions will not be permitted till college students return to lecture rooms, mentioned Rocky James, 52, the soccer coach and athletic director. In-person education saved being pushed again, to subsequent Monday or presumably into November. That would have left room for under two soccer video games. So the season was shelved.

James mentioned he would possibly have anticipated dozens of calls of criticism. He acquired none.

“If they’re too scared to come to school, how is it fair to play football?” he mentioned.

Only six offensive linemen had been among the many fascinated with enjoying at La Joya High.

“Some parents didn’t think it was safe,” mentioned Reuben Farías, 54, La Joya’s head coach. “No vaccine.”

Farías understood. Over the summer time, when he would usually have been getting ready for the season, he as an alternative discovered himself among the many grieving. On July 18, his father, Ruben, died of a coronary heart assault associated to Covid-19. He was 83.

Ruben Farías was a longtime coach, instructor, administrator and college board member. After retirement, he nonetheless attended all of his son’s video games.

But he additionally possessed fragile health — diabetes, kidney failure that required dialysis, a coronary heart situation that compelled him to put on a pacemaker — situations all too acquainted to the valley’s close-knit however susceptible households. More than a 3rd dwell in poverty. Up to half of the residents lack health insurance coverage, and greater than 60 % are diabetic or prediabetic. Rates of weight problems and coronary heart illness, two of the situations that are likely to worsen results of the virus, are among the many nation’s highest.

While driving his father to a dialysis therapy within the spring, when the pandemic was imminent, Reuben Farías requested if he was ready to die. The son remembered the reply as philosophical. His father mentioned he had lived life. He had wished to succeed in 75 and outlive his personal mom. He had.

“If I die today,” Ruben Farías instructed his son, “I’m ready to go.”

Elva Farías, 77, Ruben’s spouse and Reuben’s mom, examined positive for the virus on July 17. Her husband felt fatigued that evening and labored to breathe the following morning. He was admitted to a hospital, which decided he had pneumonia and the coronavirus, his son mentioned. That afternoon, Ruben Farías had one coronary heart assault, then one other, and couldn’t be resuscitated.

It was out of the query to carry the funeral instantly. Stricken with Covid-19, the household matriarch wouldn’t have the ability to attend. Reuben Farías moved in with his mom, leaving his circle of relatives and placing himself liable to getting the virus, however he couldn’t bear to depart her by herself at such a time.

Both of them developed signs of Covid-19 — fever, fatigue, a cough, congestion. But Elva declined to go to a hospital, telling her son, “I’d rather die here at the house instead of alone at the hospital.”

Eventually, they started to get well. After three weeks in isolation, they mentioned, they examined adverse for the virus and eventually turned their consideration to burying the household patriarch. Twenty-four days after he died, Ruben Farías was laid to relaxation.

Even in loss of life, the coronavirus was disruptive. Drive-by funerals grew to become a part of the pandemic lexicon. Ruben Farías’s funeral procession stopped at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission, Texas, and a priest got here exterior to bless the coffin with incense and holy water. At the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery, mourners remained of their automobiles. The priest approached Elva Farías, who lowered her window in her masks and face defend, and skim from the Scriptures, standing shut in his personal masks so she might hear.

“It was hard, everything we went through,” Elva Farías mentioned. “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.”

Two weeks after the funeral, when soccer was deserted at Juarez-Lincoln High, Isabel Rocha, 42, felt a way of reduction. Her son, Ángel Portillo, 17, was to be a senior cornerback. Rocha felt unhealthy he would miss his closing season, however mentioned she had not wished him to play. Her father and an uncle had died of Covid-19. She feared that her son would possibly catch the coronavirus and unfold it to their prolonged household. Portillo mentioned he understood and wouldn’t have performed.

“I didn’t want to be the one to hurt my family just to play football,” he mentioned. “Safety over sport. Family over anything.”

At Palmview, the protection considerations remained worrying into mid-October: The two Palmview gamers who had examined positive had been being screened once more. Practices for final Thursday and Friday had been referred to as off.

“With our poor kids, it was a matter of time,” Requénez, the coach, mentioned. “If colleges and pro teams are having trouble containing it, what makes us think a high school team that doesn’t have the resources could?”

On Friday, Palmview acquired excellent news. The preliminary exams turned out to be false positives. The retests had been adverse. Another weekly screening for all the staff happened on Monday. The outcomes for 45 of the college’s 60 or so gamers had been returned by Wednesday, all adverse. Practice resumed after per week for many who had been cleared.

“I don’t know how other school districts are doing it,” Requénez mentioned, referring to groups that have continued after gamers examined positive. “I don’t know how they can put people’s lives in jeopardy.”

“When one of your athletes gets sick, all you do is ‘next man up,’ send him home and monitor the rest,” he added. “We’re not going to do that. We’re going to make sure we protect everybody.”

But issues continued to develop difficult at Palmview. A volunteer serving to out the staff examined positive early final week, Requénez mentioned on Wednesday, so Lerma, the 78-year-old assistant, went into quarantine as a precaution. The season gained’t begin now till Nov. 6.

Palmview’s principal and the college district’s athletic director urged that soccer proceed, Requénez mentioned, to present the staff each alternative to play at the very least one sport. He and his assistants agreed, so long as testing continued weekly, he mentioned, and with the understanding that if there’s a positive take a look at as soon as the season begins, “That’s it, we’re done.”

“We’re going to give it one more shot,” Requénez mentioned. “If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But at least we tried.”

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