In the Rio Grande Valley, for a Different Kind of Football Story
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Late on the evening of December 3, news broke that a high school football player in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas had rushed in and equalized a referee after being kicked out of a game. Video of the vicious move quickly spread and the player was jailed and charged with a violent offense. Social media responded with fury, condemnation and threats.
As a sports reporter for the New York Times, I had written a story a few weeks earlier, from phone interviews, about how the pandemic had turned off the Friday night lights in the valley, where football in the high school anchors communities along the border with Mexico. So I called a few coaching contacts there. My colleagues in the breaking news office also reached out to the player’s father. But we still lacked the details and the full context of what had happened. The Sports Department therefore decided not to publish an immediate account of the incident.
At some point, we thought, there might be a bigger story to write. Whoever gave a more full and unbiased account of the incident and explored how the player, Emmanuel Durón, now 19, and the referee, Fred Gracia, were trying to move their lives forward. So we waited, and in mid-July, we published a 2,400 word article on them both.
Here’s how it came together. For months in the winter and spring, I checked online regularly to see if there were any updates to the story. At the end of June, I called Mr. Durón’s lawyer and explained our idea for an article to him. I was lucky. Mr. Durón was due to leave on July 9 for the University of Atlanta, where he planned to play football for an online business school. He was talking with me, giving his first interview since the attack.
I also telephoned Mr. Gracia’s lawyer, the arbitrator, who, although initially reluctant, also agreed to speak to me. So I flew to McAllen, TX on July 5th and stayed until the 10th. Before arriving, I reread many articles about the attack, watched the video over and over and wrote 2,000 words of basic documentation, most of which I subsequently threw in the trash.
Very early on, sports journalists learn to speak to athletes who are in heightened states of emotion after victory and defeat. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana and have reported in over 50 countries. I feel comfortable talking to almost anyone and have a laid back interview style. I tried to put Mr. Durón at ease as I do in all interviews, showing empathy, trying to make a personal connection, leading the conversation as lightly as possible and using the humor where appropriate.
Mr. Gracia had been courteous and open. On the flip side, Mr. Durón was not invited to speak primarily about his highly regarded football and wrestling skills. He was still facing an assault charge and hustled a football referee 10 months before charging Mr Gracia.
He was sitting in the family living room in Edinburg, Texas with his father, lawyer, and siblings. He seemed nervous and the questioning, while necessary, seemed awkward to him. I was basically asking a teenager to psychoanalyze himself. What did he learn from the weekly tips? Where does his anger come from?
Fortunately, photographer Verónica G. Cárdenas was there. She grew up and still lives in the Rio Grande Valley. Ms. Cárdenas put Mr. Durón at ease, suggesting that he answer some questions in Spanish if he felt more comfortable and translate his answers. He began to open up, speaking eloquently and regret of a goal of redemption after Ms Cárdenas photographed him in his bedroom, where he kept his trophies and athletic achievement certificates.
A few hours later, we accompanied Mr. Durón and two friends to an amusement center, where they played pool and bowling. He noticed familiar looks and grateful whispers, but relaxed with his pals and laughed and joked like any teenager.
As he walked home, Mr. Durón checked his social media accounts on his phone, brushed off the hateful remarks he always receives and repeatedly watched a video loop of himself charging Mr. Gracia. On Christmas Eve, he apologized to the referee in a video. Eventually, Mr Durón said, he wanted to apologize in person. He said he wanted to prove that the angry player in the video was not himself.
“I learned my lesson,” he says.
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