In order to get to Pecos, Texas, you have to go down I-20.
Pecos is in one of the furthest reaches of West Texas, closer to El Paso than Abilene or Lubbock. If you’re going to go there, your drive will be mostly uneventful. You’re driving through oil country, the pumpjacks are taller than the trees, the windmills are taller than the pumpjacks, and besides the mesas there isn’t anything taller than the windmills.
The drive is only uneventful because of the length. Out here it takes at least an hour to get from place to place, you will put miles on your truck or car if you’re planning on visiting this area of the United States. It’s romantic in a grizzled kind of way, these towns out here are tough towns populated by tough people. The soundtrack is either some form of country music, Explosions In The Sky, or rap songs from 2008. Today, it’s overcast, there are a few light sprinkles but nothing more, it’s almost as if the clouds are daring you to say that it won’t rain today.
There isn’t much to be said about the football out here that hasn’t been said before. It’s a religion, it’s a lifestyle, it’s life, the superlatives go on and on. Pecos is 1-1 on the year, as are their opponents, Alpine. It’s Saturday Night, the hometown Pecos Eagles are facing off against the Alpine Bucks, and it feels like the populations of each town are at the game.
It’s a land that’s truly made by the people, by the tight-knit communities that dot the plains. This what makes happened to Alpine on Thursday that much harder to stomach.
There’s no need to exacerbate or give deep description to the tragedy in Alpine. The story speaks for itself.
At 9 AM, gunshots rang out in the halls of Alpine High School. The shooter, a young girl aged fourteen, wounded another before taking her own life. Investigators don’t believe that the shooter and the wounded knew each other.
The shooting was followed by a series of unrelated threats from a male caller, only adding to the confusion of the moment. The young girl’s name and the name of the wounded haven’t been released at the time of writing.
Alpine cancelled school, and the two teams decided to move the game to Saturday.
According to the Odessa American, the coaches didn’t cancel the game in order to allow both communities to be together following the shooting.
The game started innocuously. There was already a first responder’s tribute night planned, and the announcer wove the tribute to the tragedy in the pregame announcements. Pecos quarterback Bubba Henson had several bouts with bad snaps, Alpine missed several opportunities in the end zone, and Henson took a draw play back to the house late in the first quarter to score first for the Eagles. The extra point missed its mark.
The game is classic High School Football. Both schools are small, so all players play both sides of the ball. The band and the cheerleaders comprise most of the rest of the student body. Parents watch excitedly and anxiously, their cries of adulation heard crystal clear from the small stands. It’s movie quality, the kind of scene you’d see in Varsity Blues.
It’s been overcast all day, and as the second quarter begins, a few miniscule raindrops begin to fall and Alpine is stopped on fourth down in the red zone. Pecos comes roaring back after the turnover with a 40 yard pass from Henson to EJ Garcia, bringing the Eagles to the Buck’s fifteen yard line. The Alpine defense holds, and Pecos is forced to settle for a field goal. They lead 9-0. The sky begins to lighten, and all around the city of Pecos, there’s sunshine. A gray raincloud still hangs over the stadium.
An Alpine interception is wiped out by a pass interference call that Pecos quickly turns into a touchdown. The Bucks are fighting, they’re scrapping and playing admirably. There’s just something not whole here, there’s something missing. Pecos leads 16-0.
Alpine isn’t out of this one yet. They drive the field thanks to some deft running from quarterback Isaac Gallego, and punch one in before halftime. The two-point try is no good, and Gallego goes down with an injury. Immediately, a player from the Pecos side rushes to his aid. He’s waved off, and the training staff comes on the field. Gallego gets up gingerly and stays in the game.
The entire stadium is silent. There are a couple, maybe two toddlers talking in the stands, but nothing else. Normally, when a player is injured, the two teams kneel separately, far away from one another. Pecos and Alpine are so close that they can touch each other.
Pecos takes a 16-6 lead into halftime. The band’s halftime show is punctuated with an emphatic “We Are Alpine Strong”
Alpine didn’t win this game, because life isn’t like a movie and someone has to lose. They’d lose big, 42-18, but despite the stoic nature of the Alpine fans and the very serious attempt to forget the tragedy that had befell them, one couldn’t shake the feeling that despite everything that had happened on the field, the result on the field was less important than being together this weekend.
In the third quarter, on the Alpine side of the stands, two young men sit, talking about girls, football, and whatever else high school aged boys talk about. I asked them about how the town was coping with the tragedy, how they were getting past this.
“I think we’re handling it well”, one of them said. “We’re a tough community – “
In the middle of his sentence, Gallego ripped off a 70 yard touchdown run to put the Bucks back in striking distance. After standing, pumping his fist, and yelling several “LET’S GO!”s, he said,
“And what better way to cope than like this?”
Alpine didn’t win the game, and it didn’t matter. The Bucks lost 48-12. The fans there knew the facts of life: touchdowns don’t bring back dead friends, tackles won’t raise the dead. But just like in football, it’s all about the next play. The citizens of Alpine moved along the only way they knew how, by gritting their teeth, knuckling down, and moving forward.
As their cars peeled away into the night, the vibe wasn’t of a community that had just been shattered. They were already in the rebuilding process. Through everything, the strength of the Alpine community prevailed.