October 21, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

It takes quickness and guts (and a bit of crazy) to be a punt returner, because sometimes the cover team is barreling down on you – dependent on hang time, of course – just as you’re about the catch the ball and try to make a move. Half the time, headhunters will crack you a good one before you can wiggle away, sometimes it’s worth a fair catch to avoid getting clobbered. But every now and then, when the moon is right, you’ll Houdini escape and go careening downfield to give your team an excellent start to the offensive possession. Or more.

To show how tricky a wicket is really is to be the guy back there waiting on the spiraling boot from the punter, check these numbers. The highest career punt return average in NFL history was accomplished by a fellow named George McAfee, a baseball and track star at Duke who also played amazing football in the 1940s with the Chicago Bears. After a stellar college career, McAfee made his mark in the pros with the Monsters of the Midway, getting 12.8 yards per return and eventually earning election to both the College and NFL Halls of Fame.

His statline is just ahead of another 1950s great, Jack Christiansen, who peformed eight seasons with the Detroit Lions out of Colorado State and averaged 12.8 also, returning eight punts to the house and also chipping in with 46 career interceptions for a Lion franchise that won three NFL titles in the decade, in 1952-53 and again in 1957. He too is an NFL Hall of Famer.

Only five guys in NFL history have averaged more than 12 yards per return and only two have registered 10 or more return scores: Devin Hester of the Bears (14) and former UT standout Eric Metcalf (10). And finally, only 11 players have returned more than one punt for six in a single game, all getting two scores. Actually, eight because Metcalf and Christiansen did it twice (the latter in the same memorable season of 1951!), as did the Baltimore Ravens’ Jermaine Lewis. Younger fans might remember that Nyhiem Hines of the Colts did the double in 2019 against Carolina, the most recent case where a return man found the end zone twice in the same game.

All of this, to introduce one of the most interesting subplots of Vela’s 55-7 cakewalk of a win Thursday against Econ: junior Justin Navarro distinguished himself above all the rest with a tremendous fireworks show from the return spot, racing for touchdowns on three punts, two in the first period.

Unfortunately, history will record only one, as on the first two breathtaking jaunts, where Navarro started right and pinballed out to the left to complete runs on which he circumnavigated the flailing Jag cover team without a hitch, flags fell to cancel them out. Just a few rants here: the call was “illegal blindside block” on the first TD, and technically there is no such things as a “legal” blindside block, right? The old football dream of catching a guy from the blind side – when his head is not as it should be: on a swivel, was one of the joys back when hitting was the name of game. Granted, blocking below the waist, the infraction on Navarro’s second scamper, is fair enough. But observers of yesteryear can recall when that strategy, too, was just par for the football course.

Finally, in the third period, the dazzling safety was able to reach the end zone without any resistance from the Jags or the officials and scored on a 50-yard return. This time he caught the thing near the left sideline and with a quick burst of ingenuity and speed ended up way out right; at one point the crowd roar subsided and it appeared that the Magic Man was down. But no. he was up, still, picked his way out of the briar patch, and commenced to sprinting the distance to give the SaberCats (7-0 in District 31-6A, 9-0 overall) a 49-7 lead at 5:13 of the period. Phenomenal moment of the night.

Later in the mismatch, junior Jorge Vasquez took his turn in the catbird seat and was almost as good, gunning his return down to the 9 to set up the final touchdown. Econ punter Javi Medellin is a solid troop, banging rugby style punts with a single step, usually from no more than 8-10 yards deep, which is awful close. He spent a busy evening with nine punts, and after Navarro’s first exciting but ill-fated returns he started to direction-kick away from No. 7, with very logic and equally pleasant success.

On his final two punts of the night – and this indicates the one-sided nature of this City Rivalry game – the Sabes did not send a man back for the return, preferring to put all 11 men on the rush line. It was a modest way for Vela Coach John Campbell to show respect for The Game, not to mention to his former OC Sean Van de Merghel, now coaching at Econ.

The two were thick as thieves as coaching mates and are still close, so the last thing Campbell wanted was to show up an up-and-coming coach who has stated on more than one occasion how valuable his (Campbell’s) friendship and mentorship have been. Mission accomplished on that count because one could argue that if the Sabes had been in a foul mood, they might have challenged the school record for points, 72. Classy is as classy does, and the Jags, now 1-5 in district and 2-6 overall, knew they were up against it from the get-go Thursday. They had their moments against the Valley’s No. 1 team, but they were few and far between, admittedly.

The surging Sabes improved their all-time City Rivalry record to 19-5, with 18 wins in a row over the locals since a 1-5 start from 2012-13. This season they have blasted their way through such grudge bouts by the aggregate score of 166 to 23. Ouch.

Thus, it could have been expected that the final Thursday would be “a lot to a little,” seeing that Vela had scored 327 points in seven previous wins (not counting the so-called COVID forfeit W against Lincoln last week) and allowed just 48. Econ meanwhile had managed a pedestrian 80 points in seven contests and been held to less than 10 on four occasions; the Jag defense was torched for 223 points in those seven games.

Facts are facts, but no numbers can gainsay the effort that the East Side put in Thursday, despite the lopsided result. They only gained 88 total yards against the marauding Vela D, 45 coming on one long pass from senior M.J. Barrientos to Medellin in the second quarter. After gaining 15 more via a Vela penalty on the play, the Orange (Medellin) crashed in from the 5 at 10:22, to get on the board.

They worked hard all night but just couldn’t stay with the Sabes in any category. And notably, there was a minimum of “extracurricular” activity, even when the score zoomed out of sight, and that is to the credit of both rosters; sometimes when it’s over but not, you get a series of cheap shots, fights, and petulant behavior. This one was thankfully short on such unseemly monkey business, and given the recent and slightly ignominious history, hooray for that.

At any rate, Vela was super-quickly off and running for the W Thursday and never was headed. Teddy Galvan romped half the field for the initial TD two minutes in, and then Chase Campbell floated a backside throwback to Jaden Tovar, who can now authoritatively report what the old cliché “wide open” truly means. Senior P.J. Rivera rambled in from the 32 shortly thereafter for a 21-0 lead, which led to the Jag scoring drive mentioned earlier.

Rivera (112 yards rushing) is starting to reprise his role as a feature back after having spent much of the 2021 campaign in the hybrid role, often as a receiver. It’s as if the coaches know that once the playoffs hit, they are going to need the agile and muscular leader in a rushing as well as a catching role. Galvan meanwhile continues to attack the holes with force, and he picked up 98 yards Thursday to help the unit collect a healthy 317 on the ground. When Campbell the QB threw, and it was not often, he showed his growing affinity for the clutch toss, converting a pair of third-down chunks in the opening period to fave target Justin Vega.

The Sabes were flying, 35-7 by the half, as next, Ryan Clough (6-yard run) and then junior Carlos Tamez (30-yard reception) waltzed into the Good Place. After the intermission, Galvan would tack on a 4-yard run, Navarro would get his third punt return bomb to count, and junior Bobby Garcia would end the point parade with a 10-yard rush late in the third. By that time, it was getting challenging to recognize most of the Blue and Black onfield characters, as Vela had begun to substitute liberally back in the second quarter.

Besides Medellin, Econ stalwarts on this most difficult of nights included junior LB Tim Plata, who made nine tackles, and defensive teammates Ulises Zuniga (8) and Josue Arredondo (9). Sophomore Miguel Sauceda illustrated promise with seven stops, matching the number posted by Raul Montemayor. Juan Morales, a rangy sophomore lineman who has gotten the chance to play more due to a torrent of injuries on the defensive front, acquitted himself well against Vela.

Next up for the Sabes is a Thursday home date against a dangerous Mission unit, and the program’s latest district title can be achieved with a victory there. Then it’s a bye week, which under ordinary circumstances can be good or not good, depending on injuries and current form. In Vela’s situation, the last thing the coaches want is to have to sit for a week while the rest of the Valley is slugging it out during the first dates of November. After all, the forfeit against Lincoln robbed the program of four quarters of live work, regardless of the quality of the foe. As it is, the Sabes will head into the postseason having barely been tested – contingent on the Mission result for sure – and that is always a worry. With a high-powered San Antonio squad looming on the area horizon should the Sabes get past bi-district – San Benito, perhaps – such inactivity will be a hurdle to overcome.

And as for Van de Merghel’s Jag group, well, it hasn’t been a banner season in terms of wins and losses but as the kids showed Thursday, they continue to compete with heart and dignity. That should make the first-year coach happyish, because he’s been preaching about those elements since taking over in the spring. Econ is at Pharr North next Thursday and without pulling punches, this is another very taxing muster. The Orange will wind up the 2021 slate at home against La Joya Friday, Nov. 5 and the safe bet is that Van de Merghel’s crew will be wanting to finish with a victory. Says here that they stand a good shot at doing it, as long as they come at the Coyotes with the same pride exhibited against Vela. “One step a time” is the mantra these days out east. Hard work, patience, and belief in the process augur better times to come.

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