Two yellow school buses roll along the dusty road in Texas, puttering at 10 miles per hour through what is left of the cattle town of Refugio, located 30 miles inland of the Gulf of Mexico. Gazing out the windows, 36 high school football players see a wasteland—homes with no roofs, double-wide trailers cleaved by 50-foot trees, a random refrigerator and a doll in a ditch, a dozen FEMA utility trucks gassing up at the skeletal remains of a service station and a woman on West Fannin Street holding a baby as she yells, "Win for us, boys! Please, please, win for us!"
Several of the players nod their heads as the buses pick up speed and turn north onto Highway 77, passing fallen mesquite trees lining the two-lane road. For one evening, the reigning Class 2A state champions are leaving behind the horror of Hurricane Harvey; for one evening, the dream is once again stirring. The Bobcats' first game of the 2017 season is only a few hours away.
"We need football," says Casey Henderson, a junior wide receiver whose home was ripped apart by the storm. "We need something to help us forget about what happened."
According to several local residents, here's what happened: In the early morning hours of August 26, most of the Refugio players were hunkered down in their families' trailers, apartments, brick houses and homes made of wood as a Category 4 hurricane shredded their town of 2,876 residents. With the warm waters of the Gulf still fueling the massive storm, the western edge of Harvey's eye inched over Refugio. For about 90 minutes, hurricane-force winds tore through the community.
Parts of the roof of Refugio High School were blown away, and the wind toppled the school's football scoreboard. The roof at the First Baptist Church didn't survive, and a Shell gas station was turned into a heap of mortar, wood and glass. Most of the homes in Refugio were destroyed or damaged. Power was out for nine days. The town was without water for seven days. The start of school at Refugio High was delayed three weeks.
Some of these teenage players had roofs fall on them. Others were pelted with shards of debris. Others believed they were moments away from being lifted into the air—and gone with the wind. "I thought I could die," says Trevor Ross, a junior wide receiver. "I don't even like to think about how scared I was."
Sports can't solve the myriad problems created by natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, which annihilated a few Caribbean Islands and parts of South Florida last week, or Hurricane Maria, which continues to batter the region once again, even right now. But in some places, they can play a role in the rebuilding—brick by brick, life by life.
And one of those places is here on the flatlands of South Texas, deep in cattle and oil country, where for one night in September, a team and its dream revealed the power and beauty of high school football.
It is now September 8, and the two yellow school buses motor closer to Goliad, Texas, a town 25 miles to the north. Many of the players confess they have trouble sleeping, and when they do close their eyes, most are tormented by please-God-wake-me nightmares. Five now live on cots in the high school's windowless weight room, having nowhere else to go. Last night, head coach Jason Herring slept with his boys there.
"I'm so tired I can't think straight," Herring says as he scans one of his 45 unread text messages in the front seat of the lead bus. "We live in a war zone, hoss. Our kids didn't have much to begin with—we live in a low socioeconomic area—and now the things they did have are gone: their homes, their clothes, their shoes, their possessions, everything. I'm doing the best I can, trying to get a house for one kid, a place to stay for another, this and that. I've had kids stay at my own house, which is also damaged…
"We're playing football tonight for one reason: hope. For three hours, we're going to give the people of our town hope, because we sure need that now."
How important is high school football in Refugio? The high school stadium seats 7,000 and is routinely sold out, with the home-side bleachers overflowing with 4,000 fans from Refugio and the surrounding area. Around 2,500 fans typically make the trip to away games.
"Football binds us together here," says T. Wayne Price, the team chaplain known as "Brother T."
Yes, they adore their high school football in Refugio (pronounced Rah-FURY-oh). The Bobcats compete in the smallest classification that plays 11-man football in Texas. Since Herring arrived as head coach in 2007, his team has a record of 134-12 and has played in four state title games, winning two. Recently, a dying elderly woman in Refugio had one final request: She wanted a handful of football players to be pallbearers at her funeral. They came and carried her.
"The community comes together on Friday nights to watch our kids play," says Brandon Duncan, the school's principal. "That's why this first game after the hurricane is so important. We need to be with each other and see each other. We need to tell each other that everything is going to be OK."
The school buses pull into the parking lot at Goliad High, a school with twice the student population of Refugio. The Bobcats' first game of the season was canceled because of Harvey, and they didn't practice for 12 days. The coaches are worried about the players' physical condition, not to mention their precarious mental state. But as the players step off the bus and walk into the blue-sky afternoon, they are smiling.
"Time to put on a show," a player says, confidently.
Trevor Ross jogs onto the field at Goliad's Tiger Stadium, with kickoff 45 minutes away. In the distance, he can see a line of pickup trucks from Refugio driving into the stadium parking lot, their low-beam headlights shooting through the Texas twilight.
The 5'10", 165-pound junior is a wide receiver and defensive back. He didn't believe Hurricane Harvey would be a serious event in Refugio, so he spent the night of August 25 at a friend's house. As he played Xbox around midnight, the lights fell dark and the power went out. His fear turned on.
Trevor called his mom, who was at their home a mile away. "The hurricane is fixing to hit us," his mom said. "You stay safe."
"Whatever happens, I love you, Mom," said Trevor, his voice quivering.
"I love you too," she replied.
The winds intensified. Trevor felt his friend's house start to sway. He grabbed a mattress and moved with his friend to an interior hallway. They covered themselves. The winds grew even stronger, tearing away part of the roof. Water started falling inside the house. Huddling under the mattress, it sounded like a jet engine was revving only feet above them.
The front door swung open and, outside in the rainy darkness, Trevor saw a utility pole sparkle and catch fire, the flames jumping several feet high. Seconds later, a large portion of the roof caved. Prayers were uttered, but Ross was so frozen with fear he could barely move his lips.
The winds finally slowed around 3 a.m. A few days later, after it was safe to return, Ross was reunited with his mom. Together, they went back to their house. What he saw was a gut punch: A giant fist from the sky had slammed down on top of his boyhood home and crushed it.
Trevor needed to find one thing: his medal for winning the 2016 state football championship. "It hung over my bed so I could see it every night," he says.
Picking through the debris, stepping over his clothes and books and random childhood mementos, he spotted the shiny medal, still hanging from one of the few standing walls. He grabbed the medal and handed it to his mother, who now keeps his most prized possession in her purse.
"Hopefully football will bring back a little happiness to us," Trevor says before the game. "I've been staying in the weight room. There are a lot of us who don't have anywhere to go. If I didn't have football right now, well, I wouldn't really have anything."
Trevor continues to warm up on the Goliad football field in the cool summer evening. The game is 20 minutes away. He looks to the stands and sees his mom. He knows his medal is safe.
Inside the visitor's locker room, minutes before kickoff, Herring tells his players to take a knee. The eyes staring back at him are all wide, all aglimmer with intensity.
"We've been through hell together, boys," the coach says. "We know struggle. We know heartache. Let's do this for each other. Better yet, let's do this for our community. Let's give them hope. Let's show them what toughness is. Let's show them how to overcome obstacles! Let's do this!"
The players run out onto the field, charging through an inflated helmet and white puffs of steam. Refugio receives the opening kickoff. On the first play, Herring calls a flea-flicker. Sophomore quarterback Jared Kelley heaves a deep pass, and the ball spirals through the summer evening. The Refugio crowd of 1,000 rises.
The ball lands in the arms of Casey Henderson, a wide receiver whose home was reduced to ruins by the storm. Casey gains 42 yards before he's tackled. His brother, Sylvester, an offensive lineman, runs to him, and the two embrace. More teammates arrive and lift Casey into the air.
Only seconds into the game, as players on the sideline jump up and down, the joy is everywhere.
He had to work.
On August 25, Jacobe Avery left his house at 3 p.m. for his job as a cook at the local Burger King. Jacobe, a 5'6", 185-pound senior running back who was the offensive MVP of the state championship game last December, works to help his parents pay the bills. He knew the hurricane was coming, but he didn't want to miss his shift.
The fast-food restaurant closed early as the storm approached, so Jacobe drove to a friend's brick house. He fell asleep around midnight. But at 2 a.m., a piercing scream echoed down a hallway. "I need help," the mother of his friend yelled. "I need help."
The wind had blown out her bedroom window. Jacobe and his buddy ran to the garage to grab some wood—they were nearly lifted off their feet—and tried to cover the window. But they couldn't get the nails to penetrate the wood, so they covered the window with a cardboard box and hoped for the best. For the rest of the night, Jacobe didn't sleep, knowing what the wind was doing to his town.
A few hours later, he stepped outside into a calm, cool, clear morning. "The downed trees were so high in the yard that you couldn't even see the street," he says. "I texted everyone to see who needed help. We then went around and spent the next few days picking up trees."
With eight minutes left in the first quarter against Goliad, Jacobe takes a handoff and rumbles four yards up the middle to score the first points of the game. In the end zone, he is mobbed by his teammates.
Reaching the sideline, Jacobe sits on the bench. Like a drip of hot candlewax, a tear rolls down his left cheek.
Refugio leads 7-0.
Early in the second quarter, with the ball on the Goliad 34-yard line, Coach Herring signals in the play to his offense: 80 Fast N' Go Liz. This calls for the quarterback to take a deep shot down the field to Trent Ross, the older brother of Trevor, who also lost everything in the hurricane 13 days earlier.
Dropping back to pass, Jared unleashes a beautiful spiral, the ball spinning as it soars high through the air. At only 15 years old, Jared can throw a 92 mph fastball and has already verbally committed to play baseball at TCU. The crowd ooohhhhs as the ball sails through the air.
Trent Ross cradles it in his arms at the 5-yard line and glides into the end zone. Trevor Ross is the first player to leap into his brother's arms, and the two immediately point to their mother, who is celebrating in the stands.
The Bobcats lead 14-0. The visiting crowd, which now has grown to 1,500, is thundering and high-fiving and eating free sausage wraps that a Mexican restaurant in Refugio has been giving away for days.
Out on the road leading to the stadium, the headlights of more trucks shine in the dark as they file into the parking lot.
The burly teenager dressed in overalls and a cowboy hat watches the action intently as he stands on the sideline. It's now the third quarter—the Bobcats are up 21-12—and 17-year-old Kris Campos is monitoring every movement of his half-brother, junior Armonie Brown, who is Refugio's most imposing defensive lineman.
"I had to quit school to help my mom with the bills," Kris says. "I'm working for a wrecker service. But man, I think Armonie can make it out of here. That's my hope for him."
Just then, the 6'3", 250-pound Armonie bursts through the offensive line and sacks Goliad quarterback Rocky Morris, throwing him to the ground as if he's tossing a bale of hay. This is the kind of play that gets the attention of college coaches.
Two days before the hurricane, Armonie was sitting in his family's double-wide trailer after football practice when his cellphone rang. The voice on the other end was a coach from Syracuse. "We'd like to offer you a full football scholarship," the coach told him.
Armonie thanked the coach profusely, and then, alone in his trailer—alone in his tiny bedroom in the double-wide—he dropped to his knees in thanks. "I love Refugio, but I want to see what I can do with my life," he says.
Some 55 hours later, Armonie was cowering in a hallway at a friend's house when the roof above him collapsed. Suddenly, he could hear the wind lashing the house, a sound so loud it seemed like the outside walls were being pressure-washed.
"Never been so scared in my life," he says. "My mom was in our trailer, and I was worried to death about her. She was fine, but it took a long time to figure that out."
Now out on the field, during a timeout early in the fourth quarter, Armonie takes a knee. Like the rest of his teammates, he's gassed and gasping for breath. Refugio held only three practices before this game. The coaches opted not to do any post-practice conditioning work, hoping to keep their players as fresh as possible.
But now, with the Bobcats leading 21-20, the question is: Can Refugio hold on?
Casey and Sylvester Henderson couldn't take their eyes off the crumbled remains of their house. The brothers on the Refugio team lived in a small three-bedroom across the road from the school on James Street. When they saw it for the first time after the storm, it looked like a wrecking ball had taken several swings at the house.
Sylvester, a linebacker and offensive lineman, fled 185 miles to Kerrville for the hurricane. Casey, the wide receiver who scored the game's first touchdown, retreated 225 miles to Temple. They returned a few days later, hoping to pick up the pieces of their lives.
Trouble was, there weren't many pieces to find.
"I grew up in that house," says Sylvester, his eyes moistening. "I have trouble talking about what it all means, because it just hurts so much. I think I'm still in shock."
Early in the fourth quarter, the brothers stand next to each other on the sideline with Refugio still leading 21-20. The Bobcats have the ball, and Casey jogs onto the field and lines up at his wide receiver position.
The ball is hiked. Jared hands the ball to Jacobe, who then tosses it back to Jared. The flea-flicker worked earlier, and now the coaches call it again. Jared winds up and launches a deep ball, another textbook spiral.
Casey is running hard down the far sideline. He cruises past the defensive back, catches the pass in stride and glides into the end zone for a 72-yard touchdown.
His brother chases him down the field, waving his hands in the air. Sylvester reaches him in the end zone and wraps his arms around Casey. They fall to the ground, brother and brother, screaming in happiness.
Refugio leads 28-20. But a few minutes later, Goliad converts a 4th-and-19 and scores a touchdown. The Goliad quarterback then plows forward into the end zone for the two-point conversion.
The game is tied at 28-28.
The news travels fast, as if pushed by the night prairie wind: The Bobcats are in danger of losing.
The visiting crowd, which numbered 1,000 at kickoff, is growing by the minute, as the pickup trucks from Refugio have steadily streamed into the stadium parking lot. With eight minutes left in regulation, more than 2,000 fans are seated behind the Bobcats' bench. Another 500 are leaning on a chain-link fence that wraps around the field, most of them pressing forward on the four-foot-high fence as if to inch closer to the action.
Almost the entire town that was shattered only two weeks earlier is now here, under the lights on Friday night, their hopes tethered to their boys.
Jamel LaFond was asleep in his house at 2 a.m. when he was stirred awake by the creaking sound of his house shaking. He moved to an interior hallway with his family and sheltered under a mattress. But then a portion of the roof ripped off and disappeared into the wind.
"That's when I got really scared," says Jamel, a cornerback and wide receiver.
He found a bucket and tried to catch the water as it pelted into the living room. Then, suddenly, the roof collapsed on Jamel, covering him in sheetrock and insulation. For a few heartbeats, he lost his breath. For a few heartbeats, he didn't know if he'd survive the night. But then, as fast as the winds came, the storm moved on.
"I didn't know what to do when the ceiling collapsed," he says. "When I walked out of my house the next morning, I knew that nothing would ever be the same—not for our town, and not for me."
With just under five minutes to play, the 5'10", 175-pound Jamel lines up at cornerback. On a third-down play, he chases down a running back from behind to make a critical tackle, forcing a Goliad punt. Running to the sideline, Jamel pumps his right fist in the air to the crowd; hundreds pump their fists back at the young player.
Two minutes later, Jared, who rode out the storm in a hotel room outside of town with 20 family members, again throws a deep ball. This one is another thing of beauty, hitting a wide-open Jake Tinsman, a receiver who evacuated to Utopia, Texas. Jake gallops for a 54-yard touchdown. Refugio leads 35-28.
The clock is ticking, the visiting crowd in full throat. Now 91 seconds remain in the fourth quarter. Goliad faces a 4th-and-8 near midfield.
A pass falls incomplete. Refugio wins.
Nine Bobcat players collapse onto the ground, each face a portrait of exhaustion.
For 45 minutes, the players, coaches and 1,000-plus Refugio fans linger on the field, the stadium floodlights washing over them. No one wants to leave.
The touching scenes are everywhere: Players hugging players, fathers crying with sons who are players, fathers crying with sons who aren't players, fans embracing fans, mothers holding daughters and telling them to remember this moment, this happiness, this time.
Armonie Brown takes a seat in front of his locker and removes his grass-stained jersey. "This is what our town needed," he says. "Every single one of us."
Casey and Sylvester Henderson, the brothers who lost their home, stroll through the midnight darkness toward the idling team bus. They are wearing donated clothes, but they are together, their bond stronger than ever.
Jamel LaFond carries a pillow and blanket as he collapses into his seat in the back of the lead bus. Real life will begin again in a few hours, but now, only minutes after the bus is cruising down the dark two-lane highway, he's fast asleep.
A few miles outside of Refugio, Coach Herring checks his phone. He has dozens of new messages, ranging from a mother who needs a new house to a grandmother who needs a new place of business for her hair salon to a father who is asking how his son his holding up.
"We'll get back at it in the morning," the coach says, his face pressed close to the glow of his iPhone screen. "It wasn't important that we won tonight. It really wasn't. What was important was that we played. All that mattered was the game, hoss. All that mattered was the game."
The buses roll into the dirt lot outside the Refugio athletic facility. Several players carry their life belongings into the weight room. Each young man says the same thing:
Monday's practice can't come soon enough.
Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of eight books, most recently The Quarterback Whisperer. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71.