"I'm afraid to smile."
That is how the father of the Uvalde High School football player who was chosen to represent the 21 victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary answered when I asked if he was excited about the upcoming football season.
An 18-year-old gunman brought immense grief to the small Texas town of Uvalde on the morning of May 24, 2022. Nineteen fourth graders and their two teachers were killed. The police response to the shooting, or lack thereof, added to the suffering of the community. This is a town small enough to know everyone, if not be related in some way.
Another ABC News producer and I were having lunch with the senior linebacker picked by his peers and coaches to wear the #21 jersey.
The idea to recognize the shooting victims this way was born out of a question to the football coach days after the tragedy: "Are we going to retire the number?"
He asked his coaching staff and players and they suggested electing a senior each season to wear it. Someone who exudes character, is humble, well respected, and has the wherewithal to understand the responsibility.
Justyn Rendon had the honor this first football season after the shooting.
Uvalde:365 is a continuing ABC News series focused on the Uvalde community and how it forges on in the shadow of tragedy.
We reached out to the Rendons asking if we could have lunch and talk about a potential story on Justyn. He's quiet, respectful and doesn't speak unless spoken to. He's the son of a San Antonio homicide detective and a Uvalde school district employee, equally cautious and curious about what we had to say.
We kept the conversation light. The producer and I were just beginning our yearlong project in Uvalde. We didn't know which stories we were going to tell just yet. As we were explaining the objective for our project, I remember asking how the community was doing.
It was such a naïve question less than two months after a tragedy of this magnitude, something I was about to learn. Both parents' eyes filled with tears. Neither could find the words, but eventually one said, "we are getting a little better".
From the moment I met with Eluterio and Venessa Rendon, they expressed they didn't want to be in the spotlight, but had hope the upcoming football season might provide some type of healing for the community. They were proud their son Justyn would wear the number 21 jersey, but they didn't want to be the focus. They had their family intact. They didn't lose a child. Their youngest was inside Robb Elementary School, but in a different hallway.
The Rendon's, all five of them, slept in the same bed the night of the shooting knowing how lucky they were. Across the street from them was a family torn apart. That family's child was killed in the shooting. And another close family friend lost his wife that day.
We followed the team the rest of the summer. We went to practice and watched this team bond and lean into each other. The coaching staff welcomed us with open arms and were eager to brag about this group of teenagers. We heard over and over that the players savored their time on the practice field together. Some evenings they had to be forced home by the coaches. Those two to three hours a night became their sanctuary. They were changed by the events back in May.
The first football game on Aug. 26, 2022, was an away game in Carrizo Springs, Texas. The team gave us access to the locker room where Coach Wade Miller told his team they would represent this entire town in a new way. He said the extra pressure wasn't fair, but he knew they could handle it. As a sign of solidarity, there was a sea of maroon on both sides of the stadium -- Uvalde High School's color.
The Carrizo Springs cheerleaders even wore big maroon bows in their hair with Uvalde Strong printed on them.
Across the field, Coach Miller told me had never seen so many Uvalde Coyote fans in the visitor's section in his time with the team. It wasn't your typical Friday night of Texas football, but the minute they kicked off, some of that anxiety melted away. You could feel it. For two hours, the fans from Uvalde just got to be fans.
The game ended with Uvalde winning 21-13. The fact the Coyotes scored 21 points was not lost on anyone in the stands. It was a sign. As Eluterio Rendon told me, "The 21 angels are with us this season." Coach Miller said the same.
It was the first time I'd seen anyone from Uvalde smile.