Refugio head football Coach Jason Herring spent all summer planning for this week, the Texas Class 2A State Championship game. He would have no idea how far he would have to veer from that plan to get to this point.
“A hurricane would wipe out almost any football team in the world, but our kids have been hit in the mouth since they were that little by life,” he says. “So, the hurricane was just a little bump in the road. Does that make sense? Our kids are so resilient because they’ve had to be their whole life.”
The team has had to overcome months of storm cleanup and a life-changing injury to one of its players. Herring has had both the necessity and the distraction of raising tens of thousands of dollars for storm relief.
Now, just shy of four months after Hurricane Harvey, his team is on the precipice of a second-straight state championship. And for one more time – the 13th out of 15 games – the team, the band, the town loads up buses and heads out on the road. This time, they head to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, a venue that could hold the population of Refugio 35 times over.
And even though this would be the team’s third championship game in a row, this one would be different.
"To win a state championship this year,” Refugio High School Principal Brandon Duncan said, “after, you know, we had kids sleeping in the field house, we had damage to our school, we couldn’t play any home games, all of our 'home' games were out of town – except for two – I think it would mean a great deal more this year just given the hurdles that have been placed in front of these kids, and coaches, and the staff, and the town.”
Championship week for Duncan begins at the First Baptist Church in Refugio. Since August, churchgoers have been meeting at the elementary school because of storm damage. The Rev. T. Wayne Price says his church is still waiting to clear up some things before renovations begin next month.
School Superintendent Melissa Gonzales points to repairs just outside the school as a sign the town is getting past Harvey. But there are still a number of roadblocks to fully repairing and renovating the schools.
“There are a number of agencies that we’re dealing with, and I think that sometimes slows the wheels down,” she says. “And just keeping it straight in your mind is a challenge. But it’s a blessing that so many people want to help us. And I just have to keep that at the front of my mind. And I just have to keep the ultimate end goal in sight and that’s to rebuild our school.”
Standing in the back of the room is Casey Henderson.
In September, during the second game of the season, Casey broke two of his vertebrae; he couldn’t feel or move his lower extremities. After two months of rehab at University Hospital in San Antonio, he’s walking now and talking about the future. He hopes somehow it includes football. He also knows how fortunate he is.
“It feels pretty good to know that many people aren’t supposed to be walking from my injury, and I’m one of those that are walking away from my injury,” he says.
The Hendersons gathered in their newly rebuilt home, which had been deemed unlivable after the storm tore it apart.
Casey's mother, Nichole Henderson, is thankful.
“Casey’s walking,” she says. “We have our family together. We have this gorgeous house, thanks to Coach Herring and Brian Miller. I’m just, I’m happy. I’m happy we’re all together. I’m just – there’s really no words to describe it. I’m just in awe, I guess.”
“Just to be back home, back in our house, I got all my family back together,” Casey’s father, Charlie Henderson, adds. “Casey and her are not halfway across the state. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling real blessed. Thank the Lord that he really helped us get back together and everything.”
But it’s not all good news for the Hendersons. Nichole was let go from her nursing job. With physical or occupational therapy visits five days a week, she says, taking care of Casey has been full time.
And Casey still misses being out on the field with his teammates.
“You know, scoring touchdowns, being out there every Friday practicing with them, all of that,” he says.
One person not in church is Coach Herring. To say he’s been busy with work would be an understatement. He is the type – as many coaches are – to throw himself into the sport.
“Let me give you a perfect example, you ready?” he says. “And I’m ashamed to say this: The 15th was our 20th anniversary, [and I did] nothing more than [say], ‘Hi, baby, happy anniversary.’ That’s it! I mean, I was here at 6:30 [a.m.] and I got home at 9 [p.m.].”
He and his staff have been deep in preparation for the last game of the season, the state championship against the Mart Panthers.
The game starts as most Bobcat games do: Two quick touchdowns put Refugio up 14-0 in less than four minutes.
But then, Mart finds its bearings in the second quarter and takes control of the game. Mart scores 28 unanswered points, before finally winning the game 34-21.
As time ticked down, the people of Refugio began to look toward what’s next.
“You know, we made it to state and I’m proud of those boys,” says Refugio County Sheriff Raul “Pinky” Gonzales, who is married to the school superintendent. “I really, really am. They really shouldn’t be here, with all that they’ve gone through with the hurricane and being homeless and stuff, I’m very proud of them.”
“After this game, I’m sure a lot of them will be working and concentrating on getting people back in their homes and trying to get with their life,” he says. “Including myself.”
Pinky and Melissa Gonzales have been living in an RV behind their storm-damaged home all fall. She says roughly 13 percent of Refugio students are still technically homeless. That may not include folks staying with family or friends.
All the public housing in Refugio is closed indefinitely. Most of those residents have had to commute from the town of Beeville, about a half hour away.
As for the Rev. Price, the team’s unofficial chaplain, members of First Baptist Church are meeting with an architect and contractor Jan. 3
“So, we look forward really getting started and possibly in four or five months getting back in the building," he says. "That’s our hope.”
The end of the season also means Herring can tend to his own house.
“Our house still has a lot to be done to it after the hurricane,” his wife, Lisa Herring, says. “And then hopefully he can settle down a little bit and just relax. I know he’s been working really hard, through football season, of course, but also through the aftermath of Harvey. So hopefully, we can some R&R.”
The Herrings, much like the rest of Refugio, are ready to let Harvey go.
“That’s the truth,” Lisa Herring says. “Ready for it to be over! But it’s been a beautiful season and we’re proud.”
After the game, Herring finds his wife in the crowd.
“Son of a bitch, we didn’t play well,” he says.
“I thought y’all had it when you came out,” she replies.
“I know,” he says. “I think that bit us in the butt, because we came out so on fire –”
“And then you were just flat afterward,” she says.
“– and then we were flat the rest of the time,” he echoes.
Their 10-year-old son gets their attention.
"Oh, you gotta go pee?” Herring asks.
And just like that, the biggest loss of the football season seems to wash away, for now.
They know, in the end, it’s just football. But for this small Texas town, the game has been so much more this season.
“The longer your football team goes, the better your school year goes,” says Principal Duncan. “Less discipline, you have better attendance, kids keeping their grades, the town, there’s a lot playing into football than just wins.”
“It’s the one constant we’ve had in our lives this year,” Superintendent Gonzales says. “Everything else seems to be in turmoil, but football is still there and still keeping us going.”
“Football has not only been medicine for this community and these kids, but it’s been medicine for me,” Herring says. “When it’s over, it’s like depression sets in, good or bad. But I’m always sad when football ends.”
But, like so many other Refugians, he’ll have some projects at home to keep him busy.