Football in the Land of Bridges and Walls

MATAMOROS, Mexico—The morning after the final Presidential debate, Juan first stirs at 5:05 a.m., reaching and shutting off his blaring alarm clock. He lies there resting his eyes until his cellphone alarm begins vibrating at the other edge of the bed at 5:25. Then he pops up, because if he stays there any longer he’ll probably be late. He has to cross the border to get to school.

Juan gets dressed and wakes his father. Normally, Juan would drive his small Chevy, but it’s in the shop and he needs a ride. They leave their home with the sky still dark, and his father drops him off around 6:30 a.m. at the Gateway International Bridge, which connects Juan’s hometown, Matamoros, a dangerous hub of the Mexican drug war, to Brownsville, Texas, a poor town in the southernmost corner of the state, near the tip. The two towns are separated by the Rio Grande, some brush land and an 18-foot fence. The only legal way to enter Brownsville from Mexico is over one of three bridges.

Juan pays the 25-cent toll and goes through a metal turnstile. He groans. The line to get into the U.S. already stretches nearly the length of the bridge. He puts on his headphones and Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, be Happy.”

Amongst the crowd, Juan stands out. He’s one of the bigger travelers on the bridge, and he wears a Nike backpack decorated with a silhouette of a blue cowboy riding a horse, the mascot of Gladys Porter High in Brownsville. Juan starts on the offensive line.

The line inches forward and then, at seemingly randomly moments, gains momentum. Juan stews as others cut in front. After crossing the bridge, they enter a tan-brick building to meet with customs agents, who ask for identification. Juan pulls his birth certificate from his backpack. He used to keep it folded in his wallet, until someone pickpocketed him on a bus and he had to pay $24 to get a new one, or else he couldn’t get to school. 

Dozens of students like Juan make this trip into Brownsville every day, as do countless others in towns like Laredo, Eagle Pass and El Paso on the U.S.-Mexico border. They’re U.S. citizens, but some members of their family are not, so they live in Mexico and commute across the border for school. These kids and their families are among those who’d perhaps be most affected by the immigration policies that have been debated during this election cycle.

After clearing customs, Juan still has to walk two blocks to the bus station and wait about 10 minutes for the next bus. Several other students who crossed the bridge take the same the bus. Finally, Juan arrives at school at 8:46 a.m., six minutes late for first period and nearly three hours after he had left his home in Matamoros. His teachers call him lazy because he’s always late. Despite his long morning, Juan is smiling wide now. He has a football game tonight—where he can release some of his pent-up energy.

“I’m excited,” he says, in unsteady English. “I want to hit them in the mouth.”

* * *

Though Juan’s parents live in Matamoros, he was born in Brownsville, and therefore is a U.S. citizen. Around Christmastime 1997, he explains, his mother, who is not a citizen, crossed the border and was visiting his grandmother when she felt pain in her stomach. She checked into a hospital, and then stayed with a relative in the U.S. until Juan was born. The mother of an acquaintance of Juan’s crossed the border each day near the end of her pregnancy to do the same thing. This practice divides members of an immediate family into two categories: U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens. Juan and his brother are American citizens, he says, while the rest of their immediate family is not. 

After the hospital discharged Juan and his mother, he says, she went back to Matamoros. Juan spent much of his childhood there, living in a modest one-story, three-bedroom home in a neighborhood called Buena Vista. His father worked as an accountant, he says, and his mother cooked for his school and eventually opened her own cafe. The family was not wealthy. Their roof leaked when it rained.

Eating his mother’s cooking, Juan grew to be one of bigger kids in his middle school class and also, he admits, the class bully. He got into fights and pulled pranks. He skipped class and ignored his homework. He called the teachers names, going as far as to make one teacher cry. The school got so fed up with him, he says, that the administration passed him through his classes just so they wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore. “I was a very, very trouble guy,” he says.

Matamoros had more serious troublemakers to worry about. Around this time, violence and crime permeated Matamoros, where the Gulf Cartel, one of the country’s biggest criminal syndicates, holds sway. Every day seemed to bring more crime in the news. Gunfights in the streets. Grenade attacks. Kidnappings, robberies, murders. The cartel even hung bodies from a bridge, like ornaments. In 2015, NPR called Matamoros “ground zero” of the drug war.

The figurative gap between Brownsville and Matamoros widened. Parents in Matamoros forbade their children to go out at night. Brownsville residents stopped crossing the border out of fear. “There are people waiting at the bridge, lookout guys,” says Rafael Gonzalez, an assistant football coach at one of the schools in Brownsville. “They’re just watching, seeing what kind of car people are driving. They’ll pull you over disguised as cops. Ask for money. If you don’t, they’ll pick you up, take your car. They’ll target anyone.”

When Juan was 11, he says, he was sleeping at home alone when someone broke in and robbed the house. After that, he says, the family bought a stronger door and built a fence. In time they developed a routine: Before they went to sleep, Juan or his older brother would check that the house was locked, the cars were safe and everyone was in their beds.

Eventually Juan’s parents decided to send him to high school in America, in Brownsville, where they had family members, to escape the violence. Juan was nervous at first. He didn’t know any English or have any American friends. “But I could start again, over there,” he decided.

* * *

Other families want to escape the violence, too, but not everyone is a U.S. citizen like Juan and can simply cross the bridge. The MMQB spoke to another high school football player in Brownsville who described how he came to the U.S. illegally. In an interview, with one of his coaches acting as a translator, the player, who says he has since gained U.S. citizenship, said that when he was nine years old, he was part of groups that made five attempts to cross the border in the span of six months. A few times, he says, he was caught and sent back. Other times he made it across safely and returned to Mexico on his own.

Each time, the boy’s family would pay a handler to help facilitate the crossing, someone with connections. The going rate, the boy says, was $2,500 up front and $500 once across. One time he crossed the Rio Grande, crawled through some pipes, and crossed a field. Another time he took a makeshift raft across the river, found a gap in the border fence and was instructed to wait in the cafeteria of a Brownsville college until someone picked him up. Once, he was taken in a car, for an extra fee. He hid in a space underneath the backseat but was discovered at the checkpoint going over the bridge. He guessed the guards must’ve known he was there.

Then on his 10th birthday, the boy says, on his sixth try, he crossed the border and settled in Brownsville with his family for good. It was actually quite easy. A large group went to the outskirts of Matamoros, where the river wasn’t very deep. They found a gap in the fence and came upon a ranch, where his father picked him up. “I literally just walked across,” he says.

* * *

When such kids cross the border illegally, their families generally congregate in the poorest part of Brownsville, a neighborhood called Southmost, after Southmost Boulevard, a stretch of road not far from the bridge, lined with taco stands, used car dealerships, pawn shops, boarded-up homes and a man selling watermelons out of the back of a truck. You can buy breakfast there, a burrito and soda, for two dollars, and a home for roughly $30,000.

Families in Southmost send their kids to either Porter or Lopez High, two schools located a few miles apart down Southmost Boulevard. The two schools accept all children, even those who entered the country illegally, if they’re living within the school’s zone. In 1982 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe, a case that originated in Brownsville, that public schools could not exclude undocumented immigrant children. The court ruled that children shouldn’t be withheld an education because of something they had little control over, their parents bringing them to the U.S.

Kids like Juan who commute from Mexico end up at Porter or Lopez, too, because they say they’re living with a relative in the area. The school district often sends an “attendance monitor” to check whether they in fact live at the given address, but the students find ways around it. “If you bring us a utility bill from an address and tell us you’re living there, and if we go and check, and there’s pictures of you on the wall and food in the fridge, and it’s an actual home? That’s all that’s required,” says Jason Starkey, the Lopez head coach. “By law, we cannot look any further into that.”

The school district superintendent, Dr. Esperanza Zendejas, added: “We just know that we’re educating kids who enroll here and have an address here.”

So the Porter and Lopez football teams are made up mostly of poor, Latino, first-generation football players. Some of them play football because they want to fit in. What’s more American than Texas high school football under the Friday night lights? Or they dream of football leading to a college scholarship and a way out. Or they simply need an distraction from the things going on in their lives. There are players from single-parent homes; players who work side jobs; players whose fathers’ have side families; players whose parents are drug addicts; players who leave to be migrant workers; players whose relatives are connected to the cartel. One player who lives near the border says he has been offered $1,000 to hide illegal immigrants. Another joined a team last year because he wanted to make friends; he says he moved in with his cousin and switched schools after his father murdered his mother and brother. A Lopez player missed a practice last year because the cartel had kidnapped his father. The father ran a grocery store in Mexico, the player says, and when the cartel saw him driving a new car they took him and held him for $40,000 ransom. To this day, the son says, he doesn’t know his father’s whereabouts. “Football is where I can release my stress,” he says. “Let everything out.”

The Porter and Lopez football coaches do their best to help. They drive kids to the bridge, give them food and clothes and are understanding when a family situations interfere with football. Many of the coaches are Latino too, and some have ties to the area, so they can relate.

One exception is Starkey, the Lopez head coach. He’s a 6'4″ Anglo who grew up in West Virginia, a world away from Southmost, thinking that the U.S. should secure its borders to keep out criminals and illegal aliens living off the taxpayers’ money. Starkey played on the offensive line at Marshall, blocking for Chad Pennington, and then spent four years with the Arizona Cardinals—where, he says, he developed an addiction to pain medication and alcohol. After his career ended, he says his life spiraled out of control and he ended up living out of his car. Pennington and others staged an intervention to send Starkey to rehab. A few years later he found himself coaching high school football in Brownsville. He views it as a sort of mission trip, a way to give back.

Now he sees how a 40-foot border wall would further divide families like Juan’s. One of his players lives in a crowded home with a single mother who’s an undocumented immigrant living off welfare. The player works at a fast-food restaurant to help support his family. Hearing this, Starkey sold the player his own car to help him commute to school.

“I can see how people like our presidential candidate, who’s never lived in a town like this, might have a firm stance on immigration,” Starkey says. “There’s got to be a compromise here where we can still be the country that opens their arms to immigrants that need help or need a safe haven, but also, at the same, not allow in the criminals and the killers and the cartel. I don’t know what the answer is. That’s why I’m not running for president. I just know I empathize a hell of a lot more having lived down here six years and getting to know these kids.

“If it were me and my family, I’d be doing a similar thing these guys do. Coming over here in search of a better life.”

* * *

When Juan showed up for varsity practice at Porter his sophomore year, the coaches wondered how long he’d last. He had the technique of a Pee Wee player, and he seemed quiet and shy and not too interested in playing. He stared at the ground when coaches tried talking to him. Even after a year of American schooling, Juan still barely knew any English.

“Not even ‘hello,’ ” says Greg Fortner, the offensive line coach at the time. “It was ‘hola.’ ”

Fortner had little patience for that. He had grown up in Amarillo, in the northern part of the state, where football is king. He was a hulking, mean-looking, man, a former offensive lineman who ran the conditioning program like a drill sergeant. “He made you grind until you cried,” says Armando Payan, a former Porter player.

Fortner’s ideal player was Armando’s brother, Roberto Payan, a senior lineman. Roberto started commuting to Brownsville in the fourth grade, not knowing any English either. He learned by reading Dr. Seuss books, and at Porter he’d read books before games. He played three years as a starter, graduated fourth in his class and earned a full scholarship to Texas A&M. The coaches even created the “Robert Payan Achievement award,” for players who demonstrate all-around excellence.

Roberto Payan had set a standard, and so Fortner imposed a rule directed at Juan: no Spanish on the field. The whole offense would be slowed down, Fortner reasoned, having to translate every call. Every time Juan used Spanish, Fortner ordered that he run or do conditioning as punishment. Fortner often had the entire offensive line run, too.

Football practice turned into English class. During film sessions, when Fortner yelled at Juan, the other linemen had to translate. On the field, they pointed to their surroundings—there’s a bird!—and called things out for Juan in English. Fortner picked up tips from his wife, an English teacher, and sometimes checked Juan’s homework for errors.

After a year of this, Juan started making noticeable progress—with his English, with football, in the classroom. His junior year, he became a starter on the line and came out of his shell. He danced at pep rallies, cracked jokes with his teammates and ribbed Fortner whenever he could. After one loss, as Fortner ripped the line in a film session, the room got awkwardly quiet. Juan spoke up: “Coach, this is YOUR fault!” Everyone laughed.

Before that season, the Cowboys had lost 33 of their last 35 games. Juan earned accolades that year, blocking for a running back who set a school record, and the Cowboys went 6-4 and made the playoffs for the third time in 41 years.

That offseason Juan got a job working as a cook flipping burgers for about $8 an hour at a fast food joint on the way from the bridge to Porter. His parents didn’t force him to work, as is often the case for his teammates. But his father has diabetes and his mother has a blood condition, Juan says, and he wanted to lessen their load.

Now, Juan, the former bully who barely passed middle school, is perhaps the hardest working member of the Porter football team. After a week of those 15-hour days—getting up at 5 a.m., commuting to school, and arriving home after 8 p.m. after football practice—Juan spends his weekends working double shifts at the restaurant. Sometimes after Friday games, he works the graveyard shift and shows up for practice Saturday without sleeping. The coaches find him napping in the parking lot in his orange fast-food uniform.

“With football in my life,” Juan says, “I got more—I don’t know how to say … I started to be more responsible, to be more disciplined—ah, right! More disciplined. Give more effort in my life. I started to think, I don’t want my dad to get mad or sick because of me. I want to do things that are right.”

* * *

After crossing the bridge and going to school all day, Juan plays every offensive snap for the Porter Cowboys, against a team of more affluent kids from a school across town. Juan hits them “in the mouth,” as he promised that morning, and Porter keeps the game close, running hard and controlling the line of scrimmage. On the Cowboys’ only touchdown, Juan pancakes a defender to the ground. Then as his teammates celebrate, he helps the boy up. The school from across town still pulls away late for a 23-9 win.

The loss drops the Cowboys to 0-8 on the season, but afterward Juan is beaming; his father and brother made a rare trip across the border for the game. They take him to the restaurant where he works for a post-game meal, and as Juan limps into the restaurant barefoot, wearing ice packs on his left wrist and left ankle, he’s still smiling wide.

A few weeks earlier, his coaches thought Juan had reached his physical breaking point. He was working the graveyard shift at the restaurant when, during the night rush hour, he felt pain in his back. A few hours later Juan was lying on the greasy floor, trying to stretch it out, as someone called an ambulance. Juan says the doctor told him that he was overworking himself and prescribed that he rest for at least a week. Instead, Juan returned to his regular routine. He needed the money for repairs to his car, and now the hospital bill, too …

They settle into a corner booth, and Juan’s father inspects his left hand, which Juan suspects to be broken. His father asks him to make a fist, and Juan’s face twists in pain as he tries. With the other hand he eats his chicken nuggets. The conversation turns to the future. What will Juan do after he graduates? He says he wants to go to college, maybe study engineering—he says he’s good at math, the universal language. He wants a job that pays well enough that he can bring his parents to America and help them become citizens.

“I’ve got to keep moving, keep moving,” he says. “I don’t want to stay in this corner of the United States. I want to live—I don’t know—wherever is good. I need to leave from here. I want to make my parents proud of me. I can make it. I know I’m going to make it. If I’m going to make it alone, I’m going to make it alone.”

His voice gets quiet. “But I’m going to make it.”

After they finish eating, Juan and everyone climb into the Chevy that was back fresh from the shop. They drive off toward the bridge, where they’ll pay $3.50 to get home, just as it approaches midnight. Juan has to wake at 5:05 a.m. for school the next day.

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