The last time McAllen High football advanced to the second round of the playoffs, the Bulldogs clashed with Brownsville Rivera.

The game was close and high scoring. Late-game drama flowed into overtime.

Ruben Gutierrez and Jose De Leon first discovered they were both on the field for that game as they walked through a desert in Afghanistan. They had to discuss all of the details.

“We were just saying, ‘What a game,’ how close it was,” Gutierrez said. “We both have a couple good memories from that game. It was just crazy memories.”

Gutierrez was a junior starting at defensive back for McAllen High for that 2014 clash. De Leon was on the defensive line for Rivera.

The Raiders prevailed 36-29, and Gutierrez and DeLeon both went on to graduate in 2015. Gutierrez closed his high school career without any offers to play at the next level.

“No one really taught me how to make films and talk to coaches, so I just kind of gave up on it,” Gutierrez said. “I knew my parents weren’t able to help financially, so I was like, ‘Maybe football is not my thing.’”

Eventually, Gutierrez settled on the U.S. Army, because he said he knew that path would help him pay for his college education.

Before he knew it, Gutierrez, who had never really been outside of the Valley, was waking up at 4:30 a.m. to go running in subzero temperatures with snow on the ground.

He was stationed in Colorado, which means those runs were made even tougher because of the elevation.

“Basic training was tough, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle,” Gutierrez said. “Being an athletic guy, and having gone through coach Brewer’s practices, I was ready. The physical part wasn’t that tough for me, and I am used to coaches yelling at me, so that part wasn’t difficult.”

While Gutierrez was going through basic training in Missouri, he was unaware that De Leon was also beginning his Army career. The two were stationed together in Colorado, but never crossed paths.

Gutierrez was then sent to Afghanistan, where he is currently stationed. He is a mechanic, specializing in work with hydraulics. De Leon is also a mechanic.

Soon enough, the two were sent out on a mission together. They still didn’t know each other, but Gutierrez had a hunch.

“I heard his accent, so I asked him where he was from,” Gutierrez said. “He said, ‘I am from Mexico, but I moved to Houston and then went to school in Brownsville.’”

Gutierrez: Oh no way, I’m from McAllen.

De Leon: Did you play football?

Gutierrez: Yes, what year did you graduate?

De Leon: 16.

Gutierrez: Same!

And with that, the conversation quickly turned to that second-round matchup in 2014.

Rivera won when its quarterback, Danny Elizondo, rushed the ball into the end zone from a few yards out. He was met at the line by McHi defenders, but he fought through the helmet-to-helmet hit and plunged over the goal line.

Gutierrez and De Leon connected and gave each other a slice of home.

“We didn’t end up meeting until we were in the middle of nowhere on deployment,” Gutierrez wrote in a Facebook post about the incident. “YALL THOUGHT WE LIVE IN A SMALL WORLD….OUR ARMY IS EVEN SMALLER.”

Gutierrez hopes he is not done with football.

“My plan is to go to UTSA and try to walk on,” Gutierrez said. “I have a friend who is there now. He was telling me the coach is tough, and they are always looking for DBs. Sounds like a perfect fit to me.”

In Afghanistan, the temperature can get up to 120 during the day. When Gutierrez, De Leon or any other member of the armed forces leaves the base, they are wearing full gear, including a 45-pound vest, a weapon and a helmet. One method to combat the heat was to wet a sock and put a water bottle in it. The bottle and sock placed in a window sill, then start to cool off just enough to make the water a little more tolerable, otherwise, the water is just hot.

“The guys here tell me I will love Colorado when I get back there, just because at least you can breathe there,” Gutierrez said. “The air doesn’t move here.”

Like all members of the armed forces, Gutierrez had to make sacrifices in service of his country.

“It’s really hard out here, saying goodbye to your loved ones,” Gutierrez said. “Once I started traveling and got out of the Valley, things got easier.”

Gutierrez can’t wait to get back home, see his family and get a fresh order of tacos. Until then, he is focused on his goal of returning to the football field. Gutierrez said he still works out regularly, and he and some of his squad mates hold weekly football games.

“We play every Friday, and we all almost get into a fight every Friday,” Gutierrez said, laughing. “All of these guys think they are athletes, but only some of them really are.”

Since Rivera beat McHi twice, De Leon is one of the few people who has earned bragging rights against Gutierrez.

“He basically trash talks me every time we see each other,” Gutierrez grinned.