September 1, 2022 [revised 9/7/22]
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
You know what the party line is on Thursday football. School night, small crowds, people tend to forget that there even are games on Thursday, a day which to Texans is always just penultimate in stark contrast to the ultimate, Friday Night Lights. There aren’t but a handful of such contests per week; for example, five around the Valley as September burst onto the scene at summer’s end.
Usually it’s comparatively quiet in the half (or more) empty stands and even the school bands and spirit groups are at times, if not just going through the motions, relatively subdued. It’s like your spinster tia used to say about the idea of marriage, when it came up: eh …
But every now and then, when the moon is right and the stars align, it happens, and you get a priceless moment, a Game For The Ages, an evening of magic and mystery, poignant and breathtaking, full of impossibilities become truth. And if you decided to sit that one out, you start kicking yourself once you hear what absolute madness went down, without you there.
And Thursday was such an evening at Richard R. Flores Stadium, as the Jags gave their faithful fans a mesmerizing struggle and victory that they will remember for all time.
Econ threw vicious hands for 48 minutes with a determined and tricky Brownsville Lopez squad, momentum swinging back and forth all the while. And when it was over, the Orange had done their best to prove themselves as a team on the rise, a gutty band of brothers who are going to refuse to give in this season, no matter what happens. Having assumed a commanding 35-21 lead with less than three minutes to go, Coach Raul Salas’ club watched in horror as the Lobos roared into a doubled down two-minute drill, scoring twice – including a miraculous two-point conversion with 0:53 left – to knot the taut affair once again.
Here, instead of cratering, losing belief, and letting the W slip away, the Jags manned up with mammoth force, crushing downfield in the waning seconds, seeking to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat, as the cliché goes.
And they did it, in classic style, punching through a 23-yard field goal with the clock going to grave, for a wild 38-35 triumph that elicited the kind of delirious, once-in-a-lifetime celebration that this program has been truly dying for, for some time.
WHAT A GAME!
The players went berserk, outdone only maybe by the coaches, while the throngs of fans – late arrivals many of them, but they got there – in strong numbers lined the fence, buzzing like a sack of bumblebees. They’d hung in there, just like the kids, and now they were jumping up and down, cameras popping, as they prepared to greet their victorious warriors. And the players were genuinely joyous, not playing it cool or plastically posturing like some will do in imitation of the pros on TV. Their smiles were natural, organic, and blazing with satisfaction, because they had tasted the beginning bitterness of a massively missed opportunity, but somehow managed to reverse the course of a night’s activity and snatch the result, as they say in the Other Football, at the death.
For drama, it cannot be bested, although one might bring up the tales of insanity from 2004; then, though, the Jags, in only their fifth season of existence, had ended up on the short end of a 57-55 multi-overtime thriller against EHS. Now, they were the victors, and they partied like it, down on the field and then over by the stands, their parents beaming and shaking their heads, some crying, others laughing uncontrollably, slapping backs and hands, kissing total strangers, you know, generally going bananas.
WHAT A GAME!
Thursday football. But it could have been played on an alternately blustery Tuesday or on a barge floating up and down the Rio Grande. Or in the parking lot at Wal-Mart. Doesn’t matter where, or when, this game will stand for eternity as a shining moment in the history of city football. And the Jags, long suffering and yet still buoyant, were the heroes.
THE ROAD BACK
Week One was a bummer for all Orange parties concerned, as Econ dropped the season opener at Donna North, a disappointing situation that had the program unhappy but unbowed. They played well enough to win that night, but a couple of turnovers and mistakes at the wrong time – is there ever a right time? – doomed the debut of Salas as head man out east. Heading into Thursday, then, Econ had a point to prove, and the goal against Lopez was to be more consistent, sharper, and more able to take advantage of chances.
Their opponent, the Lobos, had been clobbered the previous week by St. Joseph – no, not that one, the other one, the Bloodhounds and not the Mustangs – but they brought some athletes to town. Not a large squad, numbers-wise, but there were some weapons for a team that had scored 25 points against a Brownsville rival, allowing 40. A gigantic tight end with wheels. A dangerous scatback or two, a sizeable quarterback who would prove to have masterful ball work, with fancy fakes and feints.
But the first window of opportunity went to the home boys, as Lopez failed to move the ball to start, and punted into a suddenly stiff wind for all of six yards, setting the Orange up at the enemy 31. Against Donna North that had been one of the storylines, with the resurgent Chiefs able to cash in their breaks, the Jags – though they had about as many yards on the night, a Thursday too by the by –not.
This time, though, senior Ethan Barron made sure that things would begin swimmingly, hauling in a perfect spiral down the right sideline from sophomore passer Jonathan Flores, for a 28-yard touchdown connection at 9:07 of the first period. The promising thing about the play, besides the six points, soon to be seven, was the fact that it had taken place on fourth and 7. Shazam! Money conversion, and the Flores-to-Barron firm was in business, soon to add five more transactions in the first half alone.
Next, it was the defense that illustrated the lessons it had learned in the Week One defeat, stopping Lopez near midfield thanks to some pass rush prowess from Ramsey Ramirez and Iram Vazquez, Double Ram Jam.
The crowd had started filling in now, at least on the home side. Lopez, bless ‘em, has never been a football powerhouse, and does not travel very well. By the midsection of the quarter, there were 65 fans in visitors’ section, one could count them and then compare that digit to the amount of folks in the Lobo band and cheer groups. Pretty close. Pretty silent. Band was good, though.
No matter, because the Econ side was surging with life, and when the Jags cracked off 13 plays to reach the Red Zone, the Orange crush was thinking, cool, this might be easy.
The fulcrum of the excellent march was Barron, rising to snag the aerials from Flores with panache. But there was also the mystical contributions from Ray Media, who at 5-foot-1 (probably, maybe, not sure) is one of the smallest running backs to ever lace them on.
To run down the list of the great mighty mites in the history of the game would take too long, obviously, but maybe a few names. Trindon Holliday was a 5-foot-5 flyer out of LSU who had a 42-inch vertical leap and ran a 4.3 40. Jacquizz Rodgers was a 5-6 product of Oregon State who compiled 3,667 yards from scrimmage in his NFL stint. Lionel James, called “The Little Train,” played five seasons for the Chargers as a dangerous all-purpose back. At 5-6, the Auburn grad was strong as a little bull and very elusive. Oh let’s see: Darren Sproles (5-6); Boston Scott (5-6); Tarik Cohen (5-6); Devin Singletary (5-7); Maurice Jones-Drew (5-7). What about Walter “Flea” Roberts, actually too tall for the list, at 5-9, but he had some high-wire kickoff return moments for four teams in the 1960s. Best season, for the original Saints of 1967. “Mini” Mack Herron, out of Kansas State, stood but 5-5 when he rushed for more than 800 yards in 1974 with the Patriots.
And Barry Sanders. 5-8. Word. Best little back ever.
All these tiny titans have something in common, which is the ability to use their size, or lack thereof, to positive gain, with quickness, speed, elusiveness, what have you. Disappearing behind gargantuan linemen and reappearing downfield, running free as a bird. A hummingbird. Or some use unlikely strength and durability. Sanders, obscene balance on titanic ankles leading to piston legs.
Which brings us back to Medina, No. 4 in orange, who is an amazing kid to watch. Gifted with super quick feet, ever improving vision and decision-making, and a toughness that must be seen to be believed, Medina is a bona fide football player. He was to jet and juke, slip and slide for more than 70 yards against Lopez, and his production was part of a Jag offensive output of 432 total yards, with a whopping 27 first downs. That sort of total, re: chain moving, suggests ball control and domination up front, and Econ did enjoy a fine night in this regard. But just now came a hiccup, when the long march ended up with no points to show, as two crucial penalties gummed up the works. They could have and should have been up, 14-0, but it didn’t work out that way.
Instead, Lopez hit on three long gainers as the second quarter began, slap-stunning the Jags to tie the game at 11:44.
Key Juncture reached. After such a wakeup call, a 14-point swing of sorts, how would Salas’ unlettered crew respond? Cool, as Barron came up with a catch-and-run of 18 yards on third and 13 (see, there is a play designed for that situation, ha) and then the O converted a fourth-and-2 snap thanks to an offside call against the Lobos. Having started at their own 25, the Jags now reached the Red Zone, where it was Flores to Barron again, this time for 14 yards and the six at 4:49 of the half. In the opening stages Flores was winging it well without fail, and Barron was finding gobs of open space in which to operate.
But still, Lopez was a Big Play Machine, never controlling the ball for long stretches but ripping off no fewer than 10 separate plays gaining 20 yards or more. They used a 32-yard pass to get into range, scoring with less than a minute to go before intermission, tying it at 14.
Another point of note: the Jags made the comeback to take the lead, but Lopez answered, spreading the field, using misdirection plays, making multiple use of the Jet Sweep, and fooling the Jags with excellent faking by the QB. This was a competitive game, alright. Which side would gain the initiative following a spirited first 24 minutes?
TOUGH TIMES OF TUMULT
It was Lopez, who pounced on an Econ fumble two plays into the third, wasting no time in converting it for a 21-14 lead at 10:15. Would the Jags wilt under pressure, lose the momentum, and feel belief withering on the vine? Or would their conditioning, so important these days under Salas, come to the fore, to the good? Time for mental toughness.
At this point, enter Miguel Saucedo. Fresh off a 100-yard night at Donna North, he started slowly Thursday but the second half would be his playground. On the way to a massive 226-yard performance – 197 in the final two periods alone – Saucedo commenced to bossing the game behind an o-line that is looking pretty salty these days. A couple of facemask penalties on the Lobos helped out, one of them coming against Medina – he just doesn’t care about getting hit, this guy, he’ll pound it time and again, or scoot out of harm’s way, whatever it takes – and soon Saucedo had barreled in from the 15 at 7:26. Tied again, at 21, and what was the old bromide about Thursday football? Eh.
Barron, after six catches for 92 yards in the first half, saw the offense go to the run game now, but he still made his mark with a TD-saving tackle on the ensuing kickoff, and when Vazquez made a terrific interception, the latest Lopez foray was stopped. It was one of those sequences that seem to unfold in slow motion; receiver breaking free on the deep route, ball on the way and defender coming over desperately, seeming to be too late, until … GOT it! Vazquez swooped in front at the last minute to glove the pick right at the goal line and came racing out to the Jag 33. Very much a turning point right there, among several.
Into the fourth now, still 21-up, and someone had to grab this tilt by the horns. Two programs on the mend and grow, which one would be able to heed the tutelage of its mentors, show the progress of learning, find the mental fortitude to make it happen? [Bites nails nervously].
Just then Econ surged ahead, as Saucedo rounded left end, picked up an atomic bomb of a downfield back from the fearsome tackle, Eduardo Davila, and steamed into the north end zone at 11:09. Great roars of happiness from the Orange side!
And it got better, as the defense crunched out a fumble, which went to the Jags at the Lopez 43. Soon it was 35-21, smooth sailing as Saucedo, unstoppable now, carried seven times on an 8-play drive, hammering in from the 1 as time was on the march. Smooth sailing. Or not.
The Lobos, showing that like the Orange, they too are resilient and determined to put recent low spots behind them, made a Herculean effort, tearing through the Jags for two huge gainers, scoring with 2:37 left but … missing the extra point!
Salas sent the Hands Team out there to corral the onside kick, which it did, thanks to Vazquez, who turned in an excellent playmaking performance.
But then the wrench, as Econ dropped the ball at its own 41, only to have Lopez grab it, and score after three gashing snaps; for the night, Econ allowed 386 yards and more than 50 percent of it came on just a handful of plays. Two minutes, two TDs and all of a sudden: the foul stench of overtime hung in the air. Howard Cosell reference for the greybeards out there.
NOW OR NEVER
Here now, it was time to make miracles, and avoid having to go to OT. The team with recent juice – that would be Lopez here – generally has the upper hand in the extra session. Jags had to do it, and do it, they did. The hard running of Saucedo, who seems to be stationary, upright for a moment, vulnerable, until he makes a smooth cut and slides on for mucho yards, was paramount as Econ began at its 41. Instead of firing bullets into the night, wayward bombs and last-ditch trickery, Salas’ crew just gave it to Saucedo, and he ran wild, getting 10 and out of bounds, later 28 vital yards and again, stopping the clock by finding the sideline. Thinker. Econ took possession with less than a minute to work with but ran its plays to perfection. The only pass was a short one to J.C. Balderas, who grabbed it on the run and headed for the side, shaming a Lopez defender with one of the hardest stiff-arm shoulders one will see. Gotcho, 9 just erased that dude!
With 11 seconds left, the home side was 20 yards away, the cheerleaders right down there near the action, megaphones waving wildly in the wind, voices screaming for glory. Everyone was crazy, everywhere, amid one of those breathless moments football fans live for!
A pass? Nah, bro, a Saucedo! He traipsed for 14 yards, down to the 6 and on came a fellow whose name will always be recalled with reverence. Sophomore kicker Ponciano Vazquez, with cool and calm and resolve, punched through the all-important field goal from 23 yards out, the clock screamed zeroes, and pandemonium ensued.
WHAT A GAME!
The celebrations began, joy and relief, silly fun and seconds in time that the participants will relive for a life’s breadth, every and then. Remember that game, the kids (now men) will say, and yes, they will, because it was that nutso, that great, that improbable. Having outplayed their opponent more or less, the Jags had to go hard and fast against the timeless words of the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft a-gley,” meaning “go awry” to our modern ear. And yet, they saved it, in the end, they didn’t succumb to the pressure or the temptation to settle for almost.
It’s hard to win when you don’t have a track record, everyone knows that. Once you do win some, the habit is contagious and tends to replicate itself. Getting to the stage where your kids know what it takes and are able to make it happen, consistently, building a sturdy culture of success, well, it’s the Holy Grail for every football coach, anywhere, whatever night, Friday, Thursday, the 12th of Never.
In the postgame melee, Salas got his gang together, all halfway to misty-eyed, seeming like characters in one of those classic country songs, you know the ones: about high school football, coming of age, QB’s and cheerleaders, memorable moments.
“That’s a great feeling, isn’t it!?” he rasped hoarsely, punching his chest and heart. They nodded, still brilliant in the glow of great things. “Now you see why we run all the time, right?” One player hollered yeah, we could have played five quarters.
But they didn’t have to.
Salas, the diligent worker, the motivator, the guy the kids love, then told his team that the biggest thing about the comeback win wasn’t just the result. It wasn’t about the victory, only. What is to come from it?
“You know now, guys, listen … you have to be there tomorrow, no questions!” Dedication, follow through, commitment, riding the wave of joy into the next challenge. Day after a game, you lift and watch movies. Football ones, of the game just completed. Then he added that he and the staff would be giving the guys Saturday off and the whoops of happiness rolled hurriedly out of the huddle and into the night air. Oh yeah, baby!!!
“We have to stay close, stay together no matter what,” he stressed, showing the leadership and team-building knack that has made him a winner at every level.
Minutes later, exhausted but exhilarated, fired up and yet drained after such a trying night, Salas debriefed. He had watched the long line of bouncing kids, hands raised to slap the hands of the fenced-in fans, and he was satisfied. For now.
“We cleaned up some of the mistakes we made last week,” he said. “We showed what conditioning is all about, because when it got tough at the end, we didn’t quit, we had something left. We have some tough kids and they showed what they can do tonight. They got a taste of what is possible, what might be out there if we are willing to work. Games like this show the kids what it’s all about, and hopefully we can keep this thing going and have a really good season.”
Amen to that, brother. What a night, what a comeback, and what an experience for a hungry team, determined coaches, and for all those supporters who decided to come out to the stadium Thursday, yes Thursday.
At the risk of repetition, let it be noted once more, with gusto:
WHAT A GAME!