Drive, determination at Mendota High

Mendola HS Football Scott Harves/ESPN

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."

Segura's hopes rest on getting his grades up and finding a college to take a chance on him. Junior college is also an option. His dream, as he sees it, is to play professional football.

By 4:25 a.m., Segura emerges from his home. Within minutes, a multipassenger van with two large water coolers attached to the front arrives as his transport. We follow, heading east on Highway 180, then across a set of dusty dirt roads in the pitch black of morning, more than 20 miles out of town.

Our destination is a dry field filled with steel poles. Planted at the base of each pole is a small green plant that is showing signs of life, sprouting leaves outside of a rectangular cardboard place holder about 10 inches off the ground. By football season, there will be grapes, thousands of them on acre after acre, row after row.

On this day, Segura is part of a crew that will attach bolts to each pole and strengthen guide wires that eventually will be lined with each individual grapevine. Dressed in jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and a pair of work gloves, Segura gets to work on the first pole before the sun appears.

He grimaces when he talks about the work.

"You don't want to go out there . . . It's not cool working there."

The work wasn't difficult compared to some jobs, but the wires were wound tight, and the slightest slip of the finger caused one or two people to bleed on this morning. Mejia estimates that 70 percent of his players have to work in the summer and much of the year to help support their families.

By 10 a.m., we're in a cornfield just outside of Mendota to film with Llimy Garcia. Working here usually means you start at 2 a.m. in a field under a large set of lights, and finish at about noon. Teams of workers pick the corn, pack it into boxes and stack them on a constantly moving trailer that eventually gets driven off and packed onto trucks to be shipped, sometimes within hours of being picked. The heat that gets trapped within the cornfields is too much to work in by the afternoon. The high temperature in Mendota this day was 106 degrees. Garcia took a quick break to tell me that  everything in there already was hot by 10 a.m., and that it was really hard work.

He sends some of the money he makes back to relatives in Honduras. His English isn't great yet, but his grades are. He's an honor student, taking AP courses, and has a 3.7 GPA. Garcia works weekends during the football season, as well, and Mejia says, "he'll outwork any kid on the team."

Driving back through Mendota, you'll notice half of the signs are in English, half are in Spanish. The majority of adults speak only Spanish, and nearly 70 percent of them did not finish high school. The kids now are mostly bilingual, and many will become the first from their families to graduate from high school and try to go to college. Most of the kids were born in the United States; most of their parents were not. Some are citizens, but some of the players told me that half of the town's population are likely undocumented residents. Mejia worked a few summers in the fields with his parents and many of his six sisters. They always were paid minimum wage.

The 31-year-old coach had a son at the age of 20; his son's mother was 19. Isaiah was born premature at 5 months, and spent more than 200 days in a hospital. Mejia is remorseful and apologetic about the way he handled his relationship with his son's mother.

"I could've been there for her more emotionally," he said, "but I didn't know how important it was."

Now, Mejia sees his son once a week and every other weekend. Despite recently completing a master's degree in special education, Mejia has no full-time teaching job to support his son the way he would like. Coaching kids has always been his dream job, but he understands a coaching position that comes with a teaching job is the future he seeks as a coach, but more importantly, a better life as a father to his son.

It's 1:30 p.m. as we arrive at Stamoules Produce to check in on senior lineman Chris Figueroa. He's among a group of three players getting a reprieve from the heat on this day, working in the cooler where the food is stored. Here, pallets of produce are brought in, stacked and moved by forklift, cooled and loaded onto refrigerated semi-trailer trucks that will haul the food directly to food suppliers and grocery stores.

Figueroa previously spent time working 12-hour days in cornfields. Like most of the players, he uses the money to buy things like school clothes and supplies, and helps pay bills at home. It is there where many of Mendota's problems are revealed, and the true story of these kids grabs a hold of you.

Figueroa's father left. His excessive drinking caused too many fights with his mother.

Junior lineman Jose Calderon and his mother moved to Mendota with little, and they live with extended family members in a home of 10. Calderon cries when talking about how hard his mother works to support him, whether in the fields, delivering newspapers or just ironing clothes for people who come from Mexico.

Senior lineman Jose Ortega lives with relatives while his mother, originally from El Salvador, lives in Arkansas. When I asked about his father, he responded, "He did bad, some bad things to my mother, and that cost him to get sent back."

Junior defensive back Ismael Romero was taken from his mother when he was an infant after she crashed their car while intoxicated. Romero has spent years in foster homes and has withstood whippings from jump ropes and fishing poles by the people taking care of him.

Out of the nine players who shared their stories with me, only three of them currently have their biological mother and father in their lives.

As wrestling coach Joe Gamez put it: "A lot of migrating Hispanic parents put a lot of faith in the school. They see the school as not only an authoritative figure, but a parental figure almost."

Math teacher Philp Nho says his students commonly go to his tutoring hours because they need a quiet place to study -- something, he says, many of them just can't get at home.

By 4 p.m., we're in a cramped and crowded weight room at Mendota High School. For two hours, Mejia's strength and conditioning coach, Nate Ferrante, will put the team through a set of lifts and other activities spread out over two different rooms and outside on the hot concrete.

Segura is there, as is Figueroa, along with Llimy Garcia. He's there, despite the fact that he'll have to wake up at midnight to prepare for another day that starts at 2 a.m. in the cornfield.

This is the Aztec summer workout program -- work in the fields all day, catch a quick break and meal if you're lucky, come lift weights, do conditioning, then run through full practices without pads.

"This is their two-a-days," Mejia says.

Figueroa gets a big grin on his face when discussing his summer days.

"It's just hard, man," he says, "but it has to be done."

Mejia is hardest on the team when it comes to conditioning. Most of his starters play both ways, so being in shape means fewer injuries and more results. Their varsity roster is usually 30 players or fewer.

But some players, like senior Sal Garcia, can't come at all during the summer. He usually worked 12 hours a day in a plant bagging tortilla chips. Once fall camp starts, though, he is here, and embraces the challenge. "Nobody wants to run, but us in Mendota, we know that running is going to get us to the point where we need to be," he says.

After conditioning, multiple agility drills, and a full set of offensive and defensive 7-on-7 plays, Mejia called the group together to deliver some final thoughts. "I don't want an out-of-shape team. Out-of-shape teams don't win. I can tell you there's about 15 to 20 guys missing. I'm sure you guys want to kick back, too, but guess what? Kicking back ain't going to win you nothing."

Mejia says football should be easy for these kids. Andy Boogaard of The Fresno Bee put it this way to me: "There's nothing more difficult that they're going to face on a football field than what they're facing on a field that's 105 degrees in the summer."

By 8:15 p.m., the players head home. Four of them hop into senior Julio Lainez's truck, one of the few players on the team who drives a car. Many players will have time to go home, shower, eat dinner and set the alarm for 4 a.m..

Note: After winning back-to-back section titles in the Central Section's small-school Division VI, Mendota petitioned to move up to Division V in 2013, where its roster depth would face a stiffer challenge from larger schools with much bigger players. The Aztecs lost one regular-season game in 2013, against a school three times its size, and made it once again to the championship game. This time, the team faced the defending Division V champion from Liberty-Madera Ranchos and lost 31-19. Edgar Segura broke the single-season and career records in the Central Section for rushing yards and touchdowns, and tied the state career touchdown record with 137. His 900 total points scored, including point-after conversions, made him the highest scoring player in the history of high school football in the hotbed that is California.

Scott Harves is a producer for ESPN's Feature Unit. Follow him on Twitter:  @scottharves.