For Diego, every school day begins with a special moment. Sometimes it’s hurried, sometimes it’s shared with friends. But he always makes a point to at least glance at the trophy case in the front hallway on his way to class. There, behind the glass, sits the first pair of trophies that Euless Junior High has ever claimed in Boys Soccer. Trophies that he thought could never exist when he came to the school as a seventh grader in the Fall of 2016.
Both Diego’s father and step-father come from a deeply rooted soccer culture in Peru. His grandfather played at a high level, and his mother — though never a player — is a devoted fan of the game. It’s the only sport he’s ever truly loved; one that brings him peace and joy whenever he gets to play. But his school doesn’t have an official team. There is no University Interscholastic League soccer program for junior high boys in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District.
Liga HEB, an intramural league run in partnership between 6 Stones and HEB ISD, was built to bridge that gap. To give young men like Diego a place to belong, and to extend the reach of other 6 Stones programs like Operation Back 2 School. And for these first-time champions, it did just that.
From Worst to First
Diego’s first season in Liga HEB was a tough one. His team, Real Euless, was made up entirely of young and inexperienced players. They lost most games by 6 goals or more, and didn’t get their first win until the final week of the 2017 season. That didn’t matter too much to him; he was grateful to be able to play.
“I did not know we were going to have a soccer team,” Diego remembers. “That really surprised me, because I like to play soccer but that wasn’t a sport to play. It wasn’t an option.”
The team caught fire the next season, going undefeated on their way to claiming the junior high championship trophy — the Champions Cup — which now sits beside a less flashy trophy commemorating their perfect regular season. If he had felt out of place without the league, the feelings that came with the school’s first title reversed that trend.
“You have the feeling that you’re representing your school in a really good way. And that feels really good on the inside,” Diego said. “Me and my friends won a trophy for the first time for our school in soccer. When you walk into the school, you can see it in the cabinet. Everyone can see it… that feels really special.”
More Than A Sport
The soccer team gave Diego and his friends a chance to do something for their school; to stake their claim as important members of Euless Junior High. That sense of pride is a key aspect of the program, but it’s far from the whole picture.
Liga HEB is a no-pass, no-play league. Volunteer coaches and teachers check every student’s grades before match days, and anyone who has underperformed is ineligible for the week. Players learn quickly that, no matter how talented they are, only hard work in the classroom can guarantee playing time on the field. For students like Diego — who came into the league with high marks — that system is an added incentive to stay focused. More importantly, it’s a source of accountability for peers who might struggle more.
“In class, I like to make people laugh. So I talk a lot. If I get detention and I have to serve it, I get Wednesday school. The games are on Wednesdays. If I get Wednesday school, I can’t play. So I’m usually quiet now. I don’t want to make a problem because I really want to play,” Diego said. Then, thinking of his classmates, he added:
“I look at their disadvantages. I’m like ‘ok, he gets in trouble a lot. I’m going to have to talk to him. He usually copies off of other people on his homework, I’m going to have to talk to him.’ I want everyone to have a chance to play, but they’re going to have to do their own work first.”
That culture runs league-wide. Compared to other students from a similar demographic, players in Liga HEB generally carry higher grades and fewer behavioral issues. On average, they missed half as many days of school in 2018.
More Than a League
Without seeing the numbers, Diego seems to sense that the league does more for players than keep them out of trouble. He credits the team for helping him form friendships and push cultural boundaries; no small feat for a student from a first-generation American like himself. But it also connects him to an organization that has become synonymous with compassionate support for his family.
“Me and my friends can finally play at our school together, and I think that’s really special. Because we all can’t really play together. But out here, we got brought together by 6 Stones,” he said. “They want the best for you. The only people that I know that actually help people are 6 Stones… they do everything they can to help people. They want everyone to have a better life.”
If you’re reading this, you’re a part of that culture. You’ve supported Diego and his family for years, even if you didn’t realize it. You helped to feed him after soccer games and fill his backpack with supplies. He and his sister have both relied on your consistent support of Operation Back 2 School. Both received school supply kits from 6 Stones last year.
And, it may interest you to know, you helped give Diego and eight of his teammates the confidence to try out for the Trinity High School team as ninth graders. He won’t be playing in our league this year.
He’ll be playing for the Trojans instead.