CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — In Mexico, where soccer dominates, students who play American-style football are the underdogs.
But the Jaguares team has faced obstacles both on and off the field.
Gunmen killed two players and injured several more as they celebrated a birthday in a notorious attack in Ciudad Juarez.
Three years later, players and parents have found a way to heal, thanks to a team that has made a remarkable comeback
At a recent practice, players warmed up as thunder clouds loomed, and Lupita Davila and Marisela Godoy Luna watched from the stands.
The two mothers share a love for the team, but they’re also bound by that terrible night that changed their lives forever.
“I’ll never be able to forget the faces of so many mothers covered in the blood of their children,” said Godoy, recalling the night she rushed to the hospital after getting a frantic call from her son Rodrigo, 17.
It was January 30, 2010. Gunmen attacked a birthday party killing 16 people and injuring a dozen more.
Many were student athletes. Investigators said the killers confused the Double-A team with a rival gang known as the Doble AAs because of their name, the Artistas Asesinos.
Godoy’s son, Raul Parra, was shot three times, but he managed to drive of two of his teammates to the hospital — including the team’s quarterback, Juan Carlos Medrano.
Medrano died from his wounds during surgery.
Parra survived and is now studying nursing, inspired by the caring medical staff that helped him return to the football field. He’s now the team's quarterback.
“It’s my family. We are all brothers. All the mothers of my teammates are mothers to me,” Parra said.
One of those mothers is Davila, whose son Rodrigo was the second player killed in the birthday party attack. Davila and her husband still attend every game, and are the team’s biggest supporters.
“It’s like having him here with us,” said Davila of her time spent with her late son’s team. “I am especially excited to see the youngest players.”
There are Jaguares teams from Pee Wee to the college level, which is dubbed “Big Black” because of the players' black-and-yellow jerseys.
“Whether they win or lose, we’re here to motivate them” said Adrian Cadena, Rodrigo’s father.
He sees value in a sport that relies on teamwork. “It builds character and discipline,” Cadena said.
Godoy, a single mother, believes her son’s team can help keep youth in school and out of trouble.
“Instead of grabbing a gun, we want them to grab a football,” she said.
The players are required to volunteer in the community. Recently they planted 70 trees at a center for people with psychiatric problems.
In addition to community service and school work, many players also hold down jobs, so practice begins at 9 p.m. The college level players share a practice field with high school soccer teams.
They rely on hand-me-downs for equipment, including shoulder pads and helmets from high schools across the border in El Paso.
Even with old equipment, the Juarez team managed to take on much wealthier Tec de Monterrey in the regional championship in May, on Mother’s May.
“We have 30 players and 29 were injured.” said Pedro Daniel Gallegos, the Jaguares' 25-year-old coach.
At halftime, the team was losing 30-17, but came back to win the game.
“The satisfaction was indescribable,” said Gallegos, who volunteers his time to coach the team.
The first game of the season is in two weeks in Chihuahua, and the players and their working class parents are trying to raise money so the team can travel.
As the defending champs prepare for what they hope will be another winning season, Parra, the quarterback, tossed a pass at practice in the shadow of a memorial with two busts of his fallen teammates and friends.
“Every game we play is in their memory,” he said.