In the Rio Grande Valley, for a Different Kind of Football Story

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Late on the evening of Dec. 3, news broke that a high school football player from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas had rushed and leveled a referee after being ejected from a game. Video of the vicious hit spread rapidly, and the player was jailed and charged with misdemeanor assault. Social media responded with fury, condemnation and threats.

As a sports reporter for The New York Times, I had written a story weeks earlier, from telephone interviews, about how the pandemic had dimmed Friday night lights in the Valley, where high school football anchors communities along the border with Mexico. So I called a couple of coaching contacts there. My colleagues on the breaking news desk reached the player’s father, too. But we still lacked details and the full context of what had occurred. So the Sports department decided not to publish an immediate account of the incident.

At some point, we thought, there might be a broader story to write. One that gave a fuller, evenhanded account of the incident and explored how the player, Emmanuel Durón, now 19, and the referee, Fred Gracia, were trying to move forward with their lives. So we waited, and in mid-July, we published a 2,400-word article on the two of them.

Here’s how it came together. For months in the winter and spring, I checked regularly online to see if there were any updates to the story. In late June, I phoned Mr. Durón’s lawyer and explained our idea for an article. I was in luck. Mr. Durón was scheduled to leave on July 9 for college in Atlanta, where he planned to play football for an online trade school. He would speak with me, giving his first interview since the attack.

I also phoned the lawyer for Mr. Gracia, the referee, who, though initially reluctant, also agreed to speak with me. So I flew to McAllen, Texas, on July 5 and remained until the 10th. Before arriving, I reread numerous articles about the attack, watched the video again and again, and wrote 2,000 words of background material, most of which I later tossed out.

Early on, sportswriters learn how to speak to athletes who are in heightened states of emotion after victory and defeat. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana and have reported from more than 50 countries. I feel at ease speaking to almost anyone and have a casual interviewing style. I tried to make Mr. Durón feel comfortable as I do in all interviews, by showing empathy, trying to make a personal connection, steering the conversation as lightly as possible and using humor when appropriate.

Mr. Gracia had been gracious and forthcoming. Mr. Durón, on the other hand, was not being asked to speak primarily about his highly regarded football and wrestling skills. He still faced an assault charge and had shoved a soccer referee 10 months before charging into Mr. Gracia.

He sat in the family’s living room in Edinburg, Texas, with his father, lawyer and siblings. He appeared nervous, and the questioning, though necessary, felt awkward. I was essentially asking a teenager to psychoanalyze himself. What did he learn from weekly counseling? Where did his anger come from?

Thankfully, the photographer Verónica G. Cárdenas was there. She grew up and still lives in the Rio Grande Valley. Ms. Cárdenas put Mr. Durón at ease, suggesting he answer certain questions in Spanish if he felt more comfortable and translating his replies. He began to open up, speaking with eloquence and regret of an aim for redemption after Ms. Cárdenas photographed him in his bedroom, where he kept his trophies and certificates of athletic achievement.

Hours later, we accompanied Mr. Durón and two friends to an amusement center, where they shot pool and bowled a few games. He noticed familiar stares and whispers of recognition, but he relaxed with his buddies and laughed and joked like any teenager.

As he left for home, Mr. Durón checked his social media accounts on his phone, brushed off the hateful remarks he still receives and repeatedly watched a video loop of himself charging into Mr. Gracia. On Christmas Eve, he apologized to the referee in a video. Eventually, Mr. Durón said, he wanted to apologize in person. He said he wanted to prove that the angry player in the video was not his true self.

“I’ve learned my lesson,” he said.

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