(UVALDE, Texas) — From the roar of the crowd to the hot summer air, this football stadium could be any Texas town on a Friday night.
But this is a Friday night in Uvalde.
Uvalde’s Honey Bowl Stadium is just 2.4 miles from Robb Elementary School, where 19 children and two teachers were killed in a mass shooting on May 24, 2022, that shook the nation.
After the tragedy, the Uvalde High School football program helped uplift its grief-stricken community.
The team had a 2-8 record in 2021. But when the 2022 season started three months after the shooting, the Uvalde Coyotes games gave the community a reason to smile.
Supporters packed the stands and erupted in cheers as the players ran out onto the field each weekend, bringing happiness to those desperately seeking solace from their grief, anxiety and anger.
Heading into the season, senior linebacker Justyn Rendon said he was excited to help “bring the joy back to this town.”
“It’s gonna mean a lot more. … It’s gonna be very emotional, very exciting,” he said. “And hopefully those little kids get to come out and watch us win. And that they don’t have to feel scared, or have to be sad, but they get to feel the joy of being around their friends, their families.”
Rendon said nearly everyone in Uvalde was impacted by the massacre, including those on the football team.
One player lost his sister.
Rendon’s neighbor, bubbly 10-year-old Tess Mata, was killed.
“She was our light. She was our joy,” said Tess’ mom, Veronica Mata.
Rendon’s youngest brother was at Robb that day.
In honor of the 21 lives lost at Robb, the football players decided to start a new tradition, bestowing the No. 21 jersey to one deserving senior whose character made him a role model.
Rendon was selected by his peers for the inaugural 2022 season.
“It was an honor,” Rendon said.
But he added, “I felt a lot of pressure. … Running out on that field every Friday night and representing that number, it’s a big deal. It’s a lot of emotion at one time, especially for someone my age.”
“At the beginning I was a little skeptical [of the jersey number], because I didn’t want to take away from the tragedy,” said Justyn’s dad, Eluterio Rendon. “But I also know that the community has to begin to heal.”
Veronica Mata supported it, saying Justyn Rendon “represented our kids to the fullest.”
Football was not only an outlet for the community, but also for the players.
Practice became “like a therapy,” Justyn Rendon said. “Everybody didn’t have to feel the sadness and the sorrow. They just were able to feel the comfort of the family that we have.”
“We didn’t want to put all this [pressure] on Justyn ’cause he’s [No.] 21,” added wide receiver Jarrett Hernandez.
So many of the team seniors came together to shoulder the weight.
Head coach Wade Miller commended the teens for the maturity and compassion they showed throughout the season’s uncharted waters.
“I don’t know how many kids would’ve handled it the way these guys have,” he said.
“Winning football games keeps me employed,” Miller said. “But to me, my job is to make sure that these guys [become] good husbands and fathers and citizens.”
After a losing 2021 season, the Coyotes racked up a mix of wins and losses in 2022.
Pushing through a maze of overwhelming emotions, the resilient Uvalde Coyotes finished their transformative year 5-5 and made it to the playoffs, where they lost in the first game.
“It’s nice to know that you’ve taken what is, quite possibly, one of the bottom 10 teams in the region, and you got ’em in the playoffs the next year,” Miller said. “As we get better and as this program grows — and I have no doubt it will grow and get better — you can look back at this football season and [these seniors] as leaders. They’re the building blocks.”
It was the way they led with grace and united the community that made it a winning season, their coaches said.
“They took the time to honor our kids and honor our two teachers every chance that they had when they were out on that field,” said Veronica Mata. “I’m proud of them. We really appreciate everything that they did for us.”
After the 2022 season concluded, the team, including seniors ready to move on to their next chapters, gathered one last time to clean out their lockers.
“To say that we’re proud of you would be an understatement,” Miller told the players in the locker room. “You guys have done things that’ve gone way beyond football.”
“21: Loyal and True,” from ABC News and ESPN Films, follows the 2022 season of the Uvalde Coyotes High School football team in the aftermath of tragedy. It premieres Jan. 3 on ESPN+, then streams on ABC News Live starting on Jan. 5.
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