In Texas Towns Gutted by Covid-19, a Fragile Effort to Sustain a Cherished Sport

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“Every player tested neg.”

The text message seemed full of relief as much as hope.

It was sent Oct. 13 by Ernesto Lerma, a 78-year-old assistant coach for the Palmview High School football team in the Rio Grande Valley, where the southern tip of Texas forms the toe of a cowboy boot along the border with Mexico.

A day later, Lerma sent an ominous update.

“Big left tackle tested positive.”

This was what everyone had feared as the fall sports season approached.

The coronavirus pandemic had ravaged the valley in summer. In July, ambulances lined up in a grim parade, waiting to drop patients at emergency rooms. Some funeral homes ordered refrigerated trucks to store bodies.

During such a crisis, Palmview High School’s fragile effort to hold a football season might seem inconsequential. But the game is perhaps more urgent and galvanizing in Texas than anywhere else. As towns along or near the Rio Grande — like La Joya, Palmview, Mission, Progreso, Weslaco, Rio Hondo — have shut off their Friday night lights, or left them flickering in uncertainty, there has been a sense of cultural casualty.

In late August, the school district that includes Palmview High, La Joya High and Juarez-Lincoln High decided to cancel fall sports. But some parents and athletes protested, and in late September officials reconsidered. In the end, though, only Palmview decided to proceed with football — and only with severe limitations and precautions.

Margarito Requénez, 44, the head coach, insisted that every player and coach be screened weekly for the virus. If anyone was infected, the season would be shut down to keep the spread from getting out of hand.

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

Accommodations were made for Lerma, who as a septuagenarian would be especially vulnerable to effects of the virus. He coached the offensive line from the bleachers as Palmview opened practice, wearing a mask and gloves and spraying his whistle with disinfectant. For games, he planned to coach from the running track surrounding the field.

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

Palmview hoped to play an abbreviated season, beginning Oct. 30. But 16 days before kickoff, a starting tackle had tested positive and was awaiting the results of a retest. So was one other player. Palmview’s four scheduled games seemed in jeopardy.

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

The valley’s fields are rich with cotton and grapefruit and oranges, but its predominantly Latino population is among the poorest in Texas and among the most susceptible to the worst effects of the virus.

As of Wednesday, more than 63,200 coronavirus infections had been reported and more than 3,200 people had died in the four counties that constitute the valley — more fatalities than in any of the urban centers of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

If this were a season of expectation instead of sickness, every team in the valley would be chasing the elusive accomplishment of Donna High School, which in 1961 became the first and last team in the region to win a state football championship.

The story of that team is legend. Eighteen players. A six-hour bus ride to Austin, the capital, to play the title game on a rainy evening. A stop to eat and perform a parking-lot rehearsal of a trick formation that proved decisive. A trip home in the middle of the night because the school could not afford hotel rooms. An early-morning walk of eight miles along Highway 83, accompanied by dozens of townspeople, to attend a celebratory Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle.

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

Surely, said Progreso High School’s coach, José Meza, every member of his Mighty Red Ants team has driven past the water tower in nearby Donna that commemorates the long-ago title. But Progreso’s season has been canceled. There is no championship to aim for.

Underclassmen are training for next 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,” said 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 activities will not be permitted until students return to classrooms, said Rocky James, 52, the football coach and athletic director. In-person schooling kept being pushed back, to next Monday or possibly into November. That would have left room for only two football games. So the season was shelved.

James said he might have expected dozens of calls of complaint. He got none.

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

Only six offensive linemen were among the interested in playing at La Joya High.

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

Farías understood. Over the summer, when he would normally have been preparing for the season, he instead found himself among the grieving. On July 18, his father, Ruben, died of a heart attack related to Covid-19. He was 83.

Ruben Farías was a longtime coach, teacher, administrator and school board member. After retirement, he still attended all of his son’s games.

But he also possessed fragile health — diabetes, kidney failure that required dialysis, a heart condition that forced him to wear a pacemaker — conditions all too familiar to the valley’s close-knit but vulnerable families. More than a third live in poverty. Up to half of the residents lack health insurance, and more than 60 percent are diabetic or prediabetic. Rates of obesity and heart disease, two of the conditions that tend to worsen effects of the virus, are among the nation’s highest.

While driving his father to a dialysis treatment in the spring, when the pandemic was imminent, Reuben Farías asked if he was prepared to die. The son remembered the answer as philosophical. His father said he had lived a good life. He had wanted to reach 75 and outlive his own mother. He had.

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

Elva Farías, 77, Ruben’s wife and Reuben’s mother, tested positive for the virus on July 17. Her husband felt fatigued that night and labored to breathe the next morning. He was admitted to a hospital, which determined he had pneumonia and the coronavirus, his son said. That afternoon, Ruben Farías had one heart attack, then another, and could not be resuscitated.

It was out of the question to hold the funeral immediately. Stricken with Covid-19, the family matriarch would not be able to attend. Reuben Farías moved in with his mother, leaving his own family and putting himself at risk of getting the virus, but he could not bear to leave her by herself at such a time.

Both of them developed symptoms 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 began to recover. After three weeks in isolation, they said, they tested negative for the virus and finally turned their attention to burying the family patriarch. Twenty-four days after he died, Ruben Farías was laid to rest.

Even in death, the coronavirus was disruptive. Drive-by funerals became part of the pandemic lexicon. Ruben Farías’s funeral procession stopped at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission, Texas, and a priest came outside to bless the coffin with incense and holy water. At the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery, mourners remained in their cars. The priest approached Elva Farías, who lowered her window in her mask and face shield, and read from the Scriptures, standing close in his own mask so she could hear.

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

Two weeks after the funeral, when football was abandoned at Juarez-Lincoln High, Isabel Rocha, 42, felt a sense of relief. Her son, Ángel Portillo, 17, was to be a senior cornerback. Rocha felt bad he would miss his final season, but said she had not wanted him to play. Her father and an uncle had died of Covid-19. She feared that her son might catch the coronavirus and spread it to their extended family. Portillo said he understood and would not have played.

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

At Palmview, the safety concerns remained worrying into mid-October: The two Palmview players who had tested positive were being screened again. Practices for last Thursday and Friday were called off.

“With our poor kids, it was a matter of time,” Requénez, the coach, said. “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 received good news. The initial tests turned out to be false positives. The retests were negative. Another weekly screening for the entire team took place on Monday. The results for 45 of the school’s 60 or so players had been returned by Wednesday, all negative. Practice resumed after a week for those who were cleared.

“I don’t know how other school districts are doing it,” Requénez said, referring to teams that have continued after players tested 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 things continued to grow complicated at Palmview. A volunteer helping out the team tested positive early last week, Requénez said on Wednesday, so Lerma, the 78-year-old assistant, went into quarantine as a precaution. The season won’t start now until Nov. 6.

Palmview’s principal and the school district’s athletic director suggested that football continue, Requénez said, to give the team every opportunity to play at least one game. He and his assistants agreed, as long as testing continued weekly, he said, and with the understanding that if there is a positive test once the season starts, “That’s it, we’re done.”

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

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