NOGALES — You might not expect to find Main Street USA smack on the United States-Mexico border, but here it is.
It is a Friday night, brisk and electric, homecoming against Sunnyside High. This could be Youngstown, Ohio, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The homecoming court is a walking Macy’s catalog. The girls are wearing more sequins than Las Vegas showgirls, the queen is in sparkling gold. On her arm, the king, in a purple shirt and tie. She looks better.
Overlooking the field, which not too long ago was a mountain that had to be dug out, are homecoming floats representing different states. The seniors — Nevada — win best float. They were the favorites coming in, but when it’s announced, the massive student section explodes as if the Apaches have just scored a touchdown.
Four generations of fans celebrate, even as Nogales is trailing, big. Little boys watch their brothers on their field, and their eyes dance, standing next to fathers and grandfathers.
“It really could be anywhere,” athletic director Tim Colgate said. “I moved here from South Dakota, and I can look at our kids out here, and their last names may be Martinez or Ramirez, but I can see them as a Johnson or a Smith. They’re the same kids, with the same families, same aspirations. Different last names.
“This is small-town USA; it really is.”
You don’t get too much of that Friday Night Lights atmosphere around Tucson, but drive a little south, and you start to feel it. The football stadium glows as you approach.
This is not a big city — 20,837 according to the 2010 census — but it is vibrant. It is home to four international ports of entry; billions of dollars pass through in trade every year. Nearly 94 percent of the population is Latino.
They care about sports here in this hard-working town, which sometimes doesn’t see the fruits of its labor — 34 percent of the population is below the poverty line.
They band together on Friday nights to support their children, and their children’s children. They come from in town and out; many cross the border on Friday nights to watch the team.
“It’s really great knowing you represent not only your school but an entire city, and an entire border region,” head football coach Kevin Kuhm said. “We’re not just playing for Nogales High, but for Nogales in Arizona, Nogales in Mexico and the Apache and the tribes. We’re a multicultural, multinational team.”
On this Friday night, the dreams are crushed.
Sunnyside, the big, bad boys from the big city of Tucson, are stomping all over them. Long touchdowns and short. Kickoff returns and deep bombs.
Standing alongside homecoming marshal Hector Ramirez, former principal Mark Valenzuela surveys the scene. It’s carnage. Valenzuela coached for years at Nogales — football, golf, “everything.” He looks over at Ramirez and says, “How many games have we seen from this very same spot?”
He breaks his conversation.
“Uh oh. Uh oh. Uh oh. Uh oh,” he says, as the Blue Devils return a kick for a touchdown. “He found his wall right there.”
The Apaches aren’t quite there yet, just 3-6 heading into tonight’s season finale against Desert View. But under Kuhm, a rising young coach in Southern Arizona, they’ll get there.
Kuhm graduated from the UA in 2010 but started coaching at Rincon two years prior, at the age of 21. Then it was over to Rio Rico, where he turned the Hawks around, going from 3-7 in his first year to 6-5 and the state playoffs in his second season, a remarkable improvement for a team that had never before reached the playoffs.
But Kuhm could not resist the overtures from Nogales — and the support, facilities and practice field — and after two years at Rio Rico, he took over the Apaches program this season.
Now he needs the kids to hit the weights.
“We’ve got the support, but if we want to turn this into a team that’s a playoff contender we’ve got to make some changes,” Kuhm said. “A bigger and better weight room that can match our facilities, getting kids involved.”
That shouldn’t be a tough chore.
Kids are dying to be Apaches here in Nogales.
As the team trudges back to the locker room at halftime to lick their wounds, a young boy in a Nogales shirt is almost trampled. He has never looked so proud.
It’s the same look on the face of Juan Pablo Rodriguez, a 15-year-old freshman fullback. He is walking the grounds, soaking it all in, wearing his jersey. Proudly, to be sure. He arrived in the United States six years ago; immediately, he started playing football.
Someday, this will all be his.
“I have always wanted to be an Apache,” Rodriguez says. “I love this team. I want to be on varsity one day and to win a state championship. It’s about the pride. It’s about the joy of playing football and wearing your school’s colors.”
And around Nogales, it means a little more.