East L.A. Classic’s celebration of life and football helps a community heal

Roosevelt linebacker Carlos Velasquez celebrates after making a game-sealing interception.
Roosevelt linebacker Carlos Velasquez celebrates after making a game-sealing interception during a 22-19 victory over rival Garfield in the East L.A. Classic on Friday.
(Luca Evans / For The Times)

As the water cascaded down his back, the lid of the container smacked Roosevelt coach Aldo Parral.

The Rough Riders had just beaten their crosstown rival Garfield for the first time in a decade, and around Parral, the jubilant relief of breaking the streak erupted in chaos. Players sprinted in tearful loops across the field at East Los Angeles College. Hundreds of fans spilled over from the stands.

With the 22-19 win, Roosevelt moved ahead of Garfield in the seeding for the City Section Open Division. The Rough Riders (7-3) will take on San Pedro (8-1) in the quarterfinals Nov. 12, while the Bulldogs (8-2) will face Wilmington Banning (7-1).


Parral’s mind cleared for a moment as a Rough Rider bumped the coach’s head while dousing him with a Gatorade shower. The late Richard “Dicky” Guillen, a former Roosevelt assistant coach and pillar of the program, wasn’t there to give him a hug. But the Rough Riders won this game for Dicky.

“The first person I thought about was Dicky,” Parral said. “I’d like to think that he was still there.”

Roosevelt snapped its 10-game losing streak against longtime rival Garfield in a 22-19 victory in the East L.A. Classic on Friday night.

The 86th installment of the East L.A. Classic on Friday night was as much about honoring those who had been lost as celebrating the exploits of the athletes on the field. With last year’s game canceled for just the second time in its history because of COVID-19, each play felt like a pent-up release of the frustration of a community devastated by the pandemic.

“I miss [Dicky] so much,” said Julian Quezada, a senior Roosevelt running back. “I’m proud we were able to do this, and I know he was watching over us.”


Roosevelt players look on from the sideline during the East L.A. Classic against rival Garfield.
Roosevelt players look on from the sideline during the East L.A. Classic against rival Garfield at East Los Angeles College on Friday.
(Luca Evans / For The Times)

Richard Guillen. Al Chavez. Al Padilla. Danny Vargas.

Before kickoff, thousands in the stands, loudly jeering each other just moments before, were silent for 40 seconds to honor four longtime members of the East L.A. football community, all of whom died since the last Classic was held in 2019. Chavez and Padilla coached at both Roosevelt and Garfield; Vargas was a hard-nosed fullback who ran for the Bulldogs from 2008 to 2011 and wore No. 40, inspiring the seconds of silence.

Coach Lorenzo Hernandez read Vargas’ eulogy at his funeral.

“Once you start seeing what took place during this terrible pandemic and the loss of life, it became pretty clear to me that everything was a little more important than football,” Hernandez said.

COVID-19 decimated both teams’ communities. An East Los Angeles area with a population of around 120,000 has a total case count of nearly a quarter that. As Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de Leon put it, if Los Angeles was the “epicenter” of the early stages of the pandemic, East L.A. was “ground zero.”

De Leon, who represents District 14, which encompasses both schools, gave the crowd a speech to pump it up before kickoff. In the stands were thousands of residents who’d survived a period of feeling trapped. East L.A. and Boyle Heights consist of households with multigenerational families packed together, with some residents being forced to expose themselves to unsafe working conditions.

“They had to work to survive, because if they didn’t, they were at the verge of being evicted,” de Leon said. “It goes beyond football and this rivalry.”

VIDEO | 04:24
Roosevelt-Garfield: A rivalry on the field and in the stands

After being sidelined by the pandemic, fans on both sides were grateful to once again attend the East L.A. Classic, one of the greatest high school matchups in the nation.

Normally, during Wednesday’s media day in advance of the Classic, Parral would run with the opportunity to talk some smack. Everyone in attendance expected it. Parral doesn’t like the Bulldogs, and he’s not shy about saying so.

But a few minutes after he stepped to the microphone, a man known for his playful machismo broke down in tears, saying he missed his friend Guillen.

“I wore this shirt today because he gave it to me — I was just talking to him this morning,” Parral said, his voice trembling. “Even though he’s gone, and many people that we lost are gone, we have their memories. And that’s a good thing. This game continues again this season.”


Roosevelt lineman Victor Lozano (60) walks on the sideline during a win over Garfield.
Roosevelt lineman Victor Lozano (60) walks on the sideline during a win over Garfield on Friday.
(Luca Evans / For The Times)

After the game, as the Rough Riders scattered after posing for a photo, they broke out into a chant of “Dic-ky!”

Parral said among his decades coaching, this year has been the easiest because he hasn’t had to do much. The motivation was there — players wanted to win for Guillen.

“You don’t want to let him down,” Parral said.

In a season dedicated to Dicky, the East L.A. Classic became a capstone — particularly given Roosevelt’s long history as the underdog of the rivalry.

“We really want this win,” team captain James Cortez said before the game. “More than anything.”

Buzzing with that momentum, Roosevelt shocked the Garfield crowd into a dull murmur in the first half as the Rough Riders rung up a 22-0 lead. Roosevelt’s ground attack overwhelmed the Bulldogs, punctuated by two long Quezada touchdowns, as Garfield fans became more interested in a beach ball being batted around the stands.

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As the second half dragged on, though, the pendulum swung completely. Hernandez and the Bulldogs swallowed up Roosevelt’s run game, while receiver Jayden Barnes hauled in a couple of touchdowns to cut the lead to three points.

With just three minutes left in the game, Garfield had the ball at midfield and a golden opportunity to take the lead — but on third down, senior Rough Riders defensive back Carlos Velasquez dove for a crucial interception on the sideline as the Roosevelt crowd exploded.

“When I caught that, I already prophesized it at practice on Thursday,” Velasquez said. “I just said to my friends, what I want to do is just grab a pick and call the game.”

Garfield had a last-second chance to tie with a field goal but missed it as the clock expired. All hell broke loose. Security pleaded with students rushing the field to return to the stands, but to no avail.

Parral watched as Roosevelt alumni from 20 years earlier joined the fray. It was a catharsis after a decade as underdogs on the field and two years of pain off it.

“It’s like we’re free,” Parral said.

There are 14 Roosevelt Rough Rider teams in America, including one in Los Angeles, and they all had to deal with playing, or not playing, during a pandemic.