From the top of the press box at Calexico High peering to the south, you can see the blinking lights of a communications tower erected in Mexico. Under a clear night sky just a short walk from the border crossing with Mexicali, 30 Huntington Park football players hugged, cried and commiserated after a 40-18 defeat at the hands of Vincent Memorial in the CIF state championship Division 6-A regional bowl game on Saturday night.
Walking off the field while dangling his helmet was 5-foot-5 receiver James Rossum. He caught four passes for 115 yards and somehow dragged down Vincent Memorial's 6-foot quarterback for a 20-yard sack.
"It's almost like losing a loved one," he said of his emotions.
Anthony Vega, Huntington Park's fifth-year coach, was holding the second-place plaque. His eyes were watery and red. His team had made history a week earlier, winning the school's first City Section championship since 1959. But this was more than a defeat. It was Vega's final game as coach. He decided months ago he would give up coaching to spend more time with his 15-year-old son, a wrestler at Downey.
"We played with a small group of kids that wouldn't stop fighting," he said. "They gave me a ton of headaches, and I loved them."
Amid the players' bumps and bruises, tears and sorrow, there were repeated signs of resiliency.
"Even though I failed, it's my chance to get back up," Rossum said. "No matter how hard you get knocked down, you get back up."
Quarterback Victor Molina was intercepted seven times in front of his grandmother, grandfather and cousins who came from Tijuana to see him play for the first time.
"Horrible game," he said.
And yet, there he was in the locker room afterward, proudly putting his Huntington Park jersey and helmet on his 10-year-old brother before sending him off.
"Now it's all amazing memories," he said. "You just have to move on in life and pick yourself up."
This team was together for 17½ continuous hours on Saturday after meeting up at 8 a.m. for breakfast and traveling 225 miles on a charter bus past giant wind farms deep into Imperial County before arriving home in darkness just past 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning.
Huntington Park, a school of 1,500 with a 98% Latino student body, faced a small Catholic school run by nuns. About half of Vincent Memorial's 38 players live in Mexicali and cross the border daily. Many have dual citizenship. Players were speaking mostly Spanish before the game, though all are bilingual.
"I think we have a lot in common," Vincent Memorial receiver Andres Bryan said.
School officials had to reassure Huntington Park parents earlier in the week that there would be no issues with immigration officials, and there weren't. The charter bus was stopped once at a checkpoint on the way back. The driver told the officer he was taking the football team back to Huntington Park and the bus proceeded on. There were about 50 Huntington Park supporters in the bleachers for the game. Some parents decided not to make the trip for fear of problems with checkpoints near the border.
No possible scenario was ignored in preparation for the trip. Huntington Park sent its principal and four administrators to watch over the team and cheerleading squad. Players were given special identification cards with their photos. Two school police officers escorted two buses in unmarked vehicles.
The only commotion was trying to order lunch at a restaurant in Calexico. At first, players were supposed to call ahead on the bus and place their orders. Then after too many were calling at the same time, it was decided to text their orders to their coach who would make the order. Then an assistant coach went down the aisle taking orders. Chicken tenders was the overwhelming favorite dish on the two for $20 menu. The team ended up ordering at the restaurant.
Throughout the bus ride, immigration issues were clearly on their minds. After entering Calexico and seeing a fence that resembled a border wall, one player said, "I can see my cousin from here."
Football, though, proved to be the great uniter, taking away any fears or trepidation. The personal stories of these teenagers reinforced the idea something is always learned in sports competition.
Huntington Park's 5-9, 210-pound offensive tackle Jorge Escobar is a first-generation American whose parents came from Jalisco. "I love football," he said. "I've made so many friends."
Iganico Sanchez is a 5-9 defensive end who couldn't play because both of his hands were in casts from finger injuries trying to sack quarterbacks. Before the game, he led the team out, chanting, "It's war time," and teammates would pound their chest and grunt in unison.
Damarea Williams, a tiny, energetic 14-year-old freshman manager who looked young enough to be in elementary school, was always near the players. He carried a backpack filled with all kinds of candy — Skittles, Smarties, Nerds. He was like Santa Claus handing out his treats to smiling players. He might as well have been saying, "Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas."
Nothing was more memorable than how the team loosened up 2½ hours before game time. Rossum engaged a teammate in a dance contest in the showers of the Calexico locker room. With music echoing and players laughing, he put on his best disco moves. And he did the same in the game, proving you don't always have to take a nap to gain focus and resolve.
"We're not here to participate; we're here to win," Vega told his players boarding the bus.
The ending didn't go as planned but what a journey to savor.
"I'm so proud of them," the coach said.