July 1, 2013
It's 3:45 a.m. in Mendota, Calif. The migrant farm worker town of 11,000, just 40 miles west of Fresno, is pitch-black. Within 30 minutes, the rumble of multipassenger vans and a stream of headlights will fill Highways 180 and 33 leading in and out of Mendota, a community that is 98 percent Hispanic.
Robert "Beto" Mejia, the Mendota High School football coach, has agreed to meet me and my camera crew and to show us how many of his football players spend their summers preparing for each season. Mejia, a Mendota native and graduate of Fresno State, has been the coach for two seasons, in 2011 and 2012, and led the Aztecs to back-to-back Central Section Division VI championships.
The football team hadn't won a section title in its previous 18 years. I wondered how he won all of a sudden. He called it "The Aztec Way."
"It's just accountability, a little more discipline, commitment," he says. But time and again, Mejia would always come back to one thing: "These kids just work hard."
By 4:15 a.m., Mejia is sitting in the passenger seat of my rental car, directing us to an area of one-story, single-family units sprawling down multiple blocks of Sorenson Avenue. Nearly half the town lives below the poverty line, and unemployment commonly hovers near 40 percent. Mendota has homes you'd consider middle-class, but much of the real estate market is now scarred by run-down homes, inhabited by multiple families or farm workers. Senior cornerback Danny Amaral once lived with his grandmother and 17 others in one home. Former law enforcement officer Joseph Amador told me that the fire department once pulled 30 mattresses out of a house that had caught fire.
Mejia's offensive coordinator, Jesus Cardenas, grew up in this housing area that some call the projects, and some of the current players live here, including the star of the team, senior running back Edgar Segura. After rushing for more than 2,000 yards as a sophomore and 2,500 yards as a junior, Segura was on pace to shatter the section records for career rushing yards and touchdowns.
Segura and Mejia are both credited by some people for helping boost the economy in Mendota. More fans at games meant more money for the school, and more out-of-town visitors might discover a good coffee at Di Amici Café, or have an authentic Mexican lunch at Cecilia's.
Segura is determined to help get his own family out of poverty. His single mother works in the fields but has trouble finding employment during the winter. "The education of my kids is the most important thing," said Segura's mother, Maria Jimenez. In an interview in Spanish, she said she did not complete education past the ninth-grade level in Tijuana, Mexico. Segura's father is in prison and has never seen his son play football.
Segura is trying to become the first player from Mendota to play football at a major college. After his sophomore year, programs such as Oregon and Nebraska sent him letters and information about camps he could never afford to attend. His low GPA and small-school reputation have caught up with him. The letters stopped coming.
"Without the game, Edgar probably wouldn't be in school no more," Mejia says. "He probably would be working in the fields right now with his mother."