McALLEN — Several of the top high school football players from across Hidalgo County and the Rio Grande Valley are stepping up to voice their frustrations regarding the current state of affairs of the COVID-19 pandemic and fall sports competition in South Texas.
Many of these players have found themselves living in a dystopian present, where they can watch Texas high school football games as soon as this weekend featuring schools and teams from nearly all corners of the state.
They, meanwhile, still haven’t been able to put on helmets or pads, as RGV school districts continue to debate how, if and when to proceed with the high school football season as well as other fall sports and extracurricular activities.
“It does feel weird, especially because this past month we should have started two-a-days,” said Micah Lopez, a senior linebacker at Mission High. “That month of August is the time we’re all always itching for two-a-days, scrimmages and Week 1, and that not being here, it’s kind of a weird feeling.
“It definitely feels weird because looking at the calendar, we’re supposed to be getting ready for Week 1 right now,” Mercedes senior linebacker Brandon Adame said. “It feels weird because you’re at home watching all these other schools getting ready and you want to get out there play too, but you’ve got to wait until it’s your turn.
“It feels weird because we should be in the film room and at practice right now … but you can’t really do anything about it.”
For Lopez and Adame, whose dads are both local coaches, the absence of August football in the Valley feels especially eerie after growing up under the Friday night lights.
“Football means a lot to me and my family,” Adame said. “I grew up being the ball boy ever since I was little. I worked my way up and now I’m playing at the varsity level. It means a lot, especially right now. You kind of just sit back and reflect on it and think about all the great times you’ve had. Hopefully, they don’t take away any of my senior season, so we can keep continuing all those great times.”
Hidalgo County released a public health order in mid-July that will keep K-12 private and public school campuses throughout the county closed for in-person instruction and on-campus activities until after Sept. 27.
Cameron, Starr and Willacy counties have also enacted similar measures running into late September.
But it’s not as simple as walking in on Day 1 — whenever that may be for school districts around the Valley — and hitting the ground running. Many programs in the RGV are already finding themselves at competitive disadvantages.
Edinburg CISD high schools — Economedes, Edinburg High, North and Vela — represent a handful of local football programs whose players haven’t been physically practicing or training together in any official capacity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I do know some guys who play football up there in San Antonio and stuff and they’re getting their workouts in,” Edinburg Vela senior quarterback AJ Sotelo said. “I think that’s another thing that’s possibly going to hold a lot of programs back. We (Vela) weren’t able to get any workouts in at all this summer together.”
“To be honest, I’m missing the times in the locker rooms with the guys after or before practices because, you know, that’s where some of the most interesting conversations go on,” he added. “We all go in there, we’re all on the same team and we all know what we’ve got to do. At the end of the day, we all know we’ve got each other’s backs. It’s that brotherhood feeling that I miss.”
But senior football players and other student-athletes across the Valley stand to lose more than just the exercise, comradery and escape that practices and games provide.
Many of the RGV’s top football and volleyball players, cross-country runners and tennis and golf standouts work tirelessly year-round in hopes of earning college athletic scholarships.
For several, it’s seemingly the only way to further their education, afford college and brighten their future prospects away from the gridiron.
“You need that senior season to show colleges that you can continue to play at that level,” Adame said. “If you were to miss that one year without the pads or without football, it’s hard to come back from that. Missing a year and then trying to jump right back into it would be hard. You need that senior season to showcase your skills, and for that, you need to play.”
“It means everything. Football is my way out of here to go play college ball. To have that one last season, it would mean the world to go out there one last time,” Lopez said. “It would be something to look forward to and something for the community to rally around a team. It’s what we need right now.”
Seniors like Adame and Lopez are stressing the need to get back onto the Valley’s fields and courts so seniors in their shoes can have an adequate amount of game tape to pass onto college recruiters, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic when recruiting visits are becoming increasingly rare.
They also emphasized that no football season would hurt the Valley’s student-athletes especially adversely since other programs throughout Texas and America are already proceeding with their seasons or are at least trying.
“They’re going to have those highlights, and they’ll be more ready for next year because they will have had an extra year (of playing games) under their belts,” Adame said.
“This past weekend was the first time I had actually gone out to play some competitive 7-on-7. But I kind of told myself, ‘Who knows, this could be the closest I get to an actual football game (this year),’” Sotelo said. “I went out there, kind of hoping that it wouldn’t be the closest I would get to a game, but at the same time, I knew that it may possibly be the closest I can get to a game. I went out there with a very competitive attitude and all that stuff. I just had fun with it.
“I actually got to go outside and have something take up time in my day. But at the same time, even though it’s a different day, I find myself doing the same things every day.”
Sotelo, however, finds himself in a different boat.
A multi-sport star for the Edinburg Vela SaberCats, Sotelo has verbally committed to pitch for the Cardinals’ baseball squad at the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
But he acknowledges that for several of his current and former football teammates, football has been the only thing to keep some of them active and engaged at school, both on the collegiate and high school levels.
“We all know the kids on the team that are the kids that pass the class, but you know they’re doing it because they know if they don’t pass, they can’t play,” Sotelo said. “I know guys who will say, ‘Oh, it’s football season; I’ve got to pass.’ But as soon as football season is over, that’s it. Then they’re just laying back.
“At the end of the day, we’ve just got to realize that we have to make the most of the situation.”