As the bus hurried down Interstate 10, raucous boys overwhelmed our driver with their chant: “Hurst is First, Hurst is First, Hurst is First.” Over and over again they howled the catchy phrase, some dancing in the aisles while others simply rolled down their windows and shouted with glee. Usually, the driver would have yelled “shut the window” or “get in your seats,” but the excitement was intoxicating. All he could do was smile, look back in the rearview mirror, and give me a thumbs up. It was at that moment that I understood just how important soccer is to Hurst Junior High. It’s a powerful tool that can change lives. I’ve seen it firsthand.
Carlos reinforced that belief as he gave me a high five, rolled down his window and began shouting along with the other boys. My team chanted all the way down the highway. They continued the chorus as we turned onto Harmon Road, and never lost enthusiasm even as we pulled up the driveway to the school. The boys in our soccer program are all different, but Carlos is perhaps the best picture of the kind of student we’re trying to serve.
Administrators have a term for kids like Carlos: “frequent flier.” He had been to in-school suspension (ISS) more times than any other student that year. In addition, he had a bad habit of making disparaging and inappropriate remarks about the school in general. Carlos hated Hurst; he hated school. Yet, on that afternoon, I watched him shouting with a large, toothy smile on his face. Carlos chanted “Hurst is First” all the way to the locker room. That day, school was cool.
Our league wasn’t always that way.
It was a cold, January day when the inaugural Hurst Euless Bedford soccer match took place. The bus was late. Our uniforms were just T-shirts with the words 6 Stones written across the front and a hastily scrawled number on the back. The coaches and administrators didn’t really know what to expect that season. We only knew that we wanted to create an intramural soccer league in HEB to engage students that were at-risk and failing. Yet, on that particular day, it seemed like everything, including the weather, was working against us.
The referees arrived 30 minutes late. No one remembered to bring a game ball. The principal of Central had to run into the locker room and find one. It didn’t seem like our intramural soccer league would ever work out. Finally, the referee blew his whistle, the ball went into play, and one of the most memorable games I’ve ever seen began.
Hurst scored early on a brilliant header after a long cross, but there weren’t many opportunities after that. We took a 1-0 lead into the half. The two teams were evenly matched, and neither side could get off a shot because our defenders were so tough. As the second half started, the wind began to pick up. Central came out playing with even more determination to find an equalizer. We managed to create two more opportunities, but one hit the goal post and the other landed flatly on the ground after being carried off by the wind.
Making a Memory
By the last two minutes, both coaches were yelling commands to their players. I decided to defend the 1-0 lead and dropped one of my midfielders back. I realized later on that doing so was a big mistake on my part. The midfield was open, a loose ball floated to the middle, and a Central player approached it quickly. After hesitating for a moment to gauge his location, the player looked up, leaned over the ball, and struck it with the power of a shotgun blast.
To this day, I can see that play unfold in slow motion: the ball twisting in the wind, curving toward the goal, and then slowly passing the goalie into the net. At the moment, my first thought was that it looked like a knuckle ball: all that movement, and no spin.
The Central players jumped into the air with joy; the Hurst players fell to their knees in dismay. That day was as stressful as it was dramatic, but it ended in a way that no one could have predicted. The teams came across the pitch to shake hands, but there wasn’t a quiet mouth on the field. There were laughing in unison, exchanging congratulations, discussing the finer moments of the game. As we approached the bus, Carlos yelled out that we were the better team and the better team would eventually win the championship.
That was when he started the “Hurst is first” chant.
More Than a Game
That “frequent flier” who was constantly telling us how much he hated school, and hated Hurst Junior High in particular, instantly transformed into a leader for my team. I don’t think we would have won the championship that year without him. But Carlos wasn’t the only person that match affected.
Recently, I enjoyed the best interruption to a meal I’ve ever had. I was sitting inside the Chik-Fil-A on Precinct line when a young man approached to ask if I was the soccer coach at Hurst. As soon as I confirmed his suspicions, he followed up with the question he clearly wanted to ask from the beginning.
“Do you remember the first game between Central and Hurst?”
“Of course! Were you there?”
“I was the guy that made the last goal!”
“Woah, that was you! Man, that was an incredible shot!”
“Yeah, well that was a great game. I think about it all the time!” he told me, his smile spreading from ear to ear. I invited him to sit and eat with me. We talked about soccer, that very first season, and the excitement from that very first match. As I watched him leave, I had to process the importance of the program all over again.
No More Outsiders
According to U.S. Soccer, over 3 million kids between the ages of 12-17 played organized youth soccer in 2016. It is now the fastest growing youth sport in the country, dwarfing football, baseball, and basketball. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, youth soccer participation has doubled that of tackle football in America, and there are now over a million more kids playing soccer than baseball. Soccer is the fastest growing sport in the nation and arguably the most renowned game in the world. But the state of Texas has been slow to provide opportunities for kids in schools.
For now, the other “football” remains King in Texas.
But the growth of soccer, coupled with the knowledge that an entire population of our students was not engaged in their school’s culture of success, prompted a small group of administrators and teachers to come up with the idea that eventually became LIGA HEB. Using soccer as a motivational tool, the schools involved have been able to build character, encourage leadership, and promote self-esteem in a population of students that, up until that point, felt left behind. Students who need to be valued and appreciated in a school that they felt didn’t care about them before soccer came along.
Students like Carlos.
Adolfo ‘Franky' Girau is the longest-tenured coach within the Liga HEB intramural soccer program, which is jointly operated by 6 Stones and the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District. Formerly a reporter for the Miami Herald, he now teaches English at multiple levels for Hurst Junior High students. His mastery of both Spanish and English help him to reach students from all backgrounds. His thoughts, as recorded above, were provided as a courtesy to 6 Stones and revised with the help of our staff. To learn more about Liga HEB and how it supports students like “Carlos,” visit 6stones.org/soccer.