High school football teams and players across Texas and the United States made their long-awaited returns to the gridiron Friday night amid the roller coaster ride of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has gripped communities across the nation for months.

In Mission, however, football players and other fall sport student-athletes are taking a more indirect route back to the playing fields, opting first to take to the streets and address their grievances.

“I understand that we are in a hotbed for (COVID-19), but people have to understand football (and other fall sports) isn’t just for our amusement,” Mission High junior quarterback Jeremy Duran said. “People use football as a getaway from personal problems. They use football as a safe place from their situations at home. Football is more than just a sport.”

A small group of parents and student-athletes primarily from Mission High and Mission Veterans gathered outside the Mission CISD district headquarters building at 1201 Bryce Drive on Saturday morning to protest in favor of retaining fall sports competition for the time being.

The protest, which lasted for about two hours, featured about two to three dozen parents and student-athletes representing mostly the Eagles’ and Patriots’ football and volleyball games, whose seasons would have all been set to begin this week before COVID-19 induced back-to-school scheduling changes hit school districts across the Valley.

Parents from Mission High and Mission Veterans also started a hard-copy petition, which they plan to present at the next Mission CISD board meeting Sept. 9 in an effort to prevent further delays to the fall sports season by the school district.

“Football isn’t just something that we all do for fun. This is some people’s way out of the Valley. This is their ticket to free college,” Mission Veterans senior receiver Justin Rodriguez said. “It’s some people’s way to distract themselves from whatever problems are going on in their life.”

Parents and student-athletes from both Mission High and Mission Vets organized a drive-through petition signing Friday evening in Mission during the time window when the Eagles and Patriots varsity football teams were originally set to duel in the annual “Battle of Conway” at Tom Landry’s Hall of Fame Memorial Stadium.

Multiple sources have told The Monitor that more than 200 households representing mostly the families of Mission High and Mission Veterans varsity football and volleyball players have added their names to the petition, with sources also indicating they expected those numbers to grow next week.

In a news release earlier this week, Mission CISD announced it would be conducting an internal survey to gauge parents’ and student-athletes’ preferences relating to fall sports and extracurricular activities this school year. Mission CISD spokesperson Craig Verley told The Monitor they would have a better grasp of the complete situation next week when the survey responses are scheduled to end.

“The Mission CISD administration and Board of Trustees understands and appreciates the passion of the students and families involved in district athletics as demonstrated by their rally today, as well as their strong desire to return to play and their desire to be heard. This is why Mission CISD has made a concerted effort to include input from all stakeholders as a part of decisions and planning. The district requested and relied upon input from parents and staff, and also utilized COVID-19 Hidalgo County data in the planning of operations leading into the start of this school year that will take place Sept. 8. This included instructional preferences, and technology needs,” Verley said in a written statement.

“Early on, district officials planned to request input from all involved regarding the return to in-person athletic activities. As planned, parents of junior high school and high school students who are enrolled in athletics were sent a survey earlier this week, asking about their preferences. The insights gained through all stakeholder’s survey responses will continue to play a vital role in decisions that also take into consideration the status of COVID-19 community spread data for the county. The Mission CISD administration and board of trustees is committed to making sure that feedback from all stakeholders is heard during this time and used in making decisions regarding student services while balancing the needs of the health and safety of students and staff.”

Mission parents expressed that their kids need and want an escape, a return to some kind of normalcy and something to rally around and feel optimistic about again.

The Dallas Morning News reported earlier this week on a similar fall sports protest movement that took place in front of the Dallas ISD headquarters building to bluntly tell school district officials that parents and student-athletes wanted to take the power back and evaluate the safety and risks of participating in school-sanctioned.

The protesting Mission CISD parents and student-athletes are echoing the sentiments from fall high school sports protests in Dallas and around other parts of the country, with the Twitter slogans ‘#LetThemPlay’ and ‘#LetUsPlay’ being used increasingly throughout the Valley as a unitive rallying cry for RGV student-athletes and parents.

As they watched their counterparts in locales like Corpus Christi, the DFW metroplex and the Texas Hill Country suit up and return to game action this weekend, dozens of athletes from every nook and cranny of the Rio Grande Valley articulated their willingness to unite to fight for their right to have an option to participate in fall sports this year.

“Football is a big thing here in the Valley. Obviously we want to play, and the parents want us to play too,” Mercedes senior linebacker Brandon Adame said. “To protest like that in the Valley is a big thing for us especially.”

“It takes work to make it work, and I know student-athletes will do all they can to make it work because they want to be on volleyball courts, football fields, running cross-country, cheering and performing in the band just like normal high school kids,” Edinburg Vela senior quarterback AJ Sotelo said. “I understand the severity of this pandemic, but we have all changed our lives to be out in public (already). Masks and sanitizer are the new norm we just have to deal with if we want to be safe (and able to play).”

On Friday, officials from Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties reported that at least 21 more RGV residents died from COVID-19 complications.

Hidalgo County officials reported 11 more residents died due to COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the total there to 1,156 COVID-related deaths. The county also reported 175 additional positive tests as of Friday, bringing the total number of active COVID-19 cases in Hidalgo County to 2,587 and 27,252 confirmed cases since the novel coronavirus pandemic began locally.

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch