Devine Warhorse: Jordan Fraga is the star his father almost was
From the top row of a high school football stadium built in 1928, Javier Fraga drew a nervous breath and pointed his video camera toward a spot near the north end zone.
It was fourth-and-goal at the 3-yard line. Seven seconds left in the game. The crowd in rural South Texas on its feet. The District 29 AAA championship in the balance. Devine High School -- the team Javier's son, Jordan Fraga, plays for -- trailed the Hondo Owls, 10-7, on a cool, wind-blown evening.
A chip-shot field goal would send the game into overtime, but Devine didn't want OT. Javier zoomed in on No. 25, Jordan, who entered the game with a Texas-best 2,395 yards rushing. Through nine games, Jordan was averaging nearly 10 yards per carry. Three yards should be no problem.
But on this night, the Owls stacked the middle, sealed the ends and swarmed, hitting him hard, high and low, holding him to four yards a pop. "Let's go!" his father shouted.
Quarterback Tyler Cook took the snap and handed the ball to Jordan, a long jumper on the track team. Jordan took one step and Javier couldn't believe what happened next.
Over the summer, father and son watched an old video of Walter Payton, the late Hall of Fame running back. As Payton went airborne at the goal line, flying over a mass of humanity and tumbling into the end zone, Javier turned to Jordan. "Why don't you ever do that?"
On Nov. 9, Jordan went airborne. The program lists him at 5-foot-7. He's closer to 5-5. In the long jump, Jordan has cleared 22 feet. Near the goal line, he needed the lift of a high jumper and got it, soaring up and over 6-foot-plus linemen, like a long-ago Chicago Bear.
The video camera in Javier's hand shook. His eyes grew wet. Players mobbed his son below, and the moment rendered Javier speechless. He could only stare and smile and nod as a celebration swirled around him.
Was this for real? Jordan himself wasn't sure. "It's amazing," he said in the post-game euphoria, "how we came back to make that play."
Jordan rose above the shadow of a legend, above expectations and physical limitations, to lead Devine into the postseason. He did not surpass his predecessor, the great Joseph Sadler, who in 2011 rushed for 3,887 yards and scored 451 points, two short of the national record. But Jordan put his name in the conversation.
He did not carry Devine deep into the playoffs. The Warhorses lost to Orange Grove, 49-0, last week and finished 9-2. But Jordan gave the community a season to treasure with 2,674 yards rushing and 36 touchdowns. And he gave them heart stopping drama against Hondo.
A little more than two minutes to play. Fourth-and-10 at their own 41. Devine lines up to punt -- but officials flag Hondo 15 yards for barking the snap count. Jordan pounds the ball downfield. Devine runs a reverse to reach the Hondo 12. Jordan carries twice to the 3. Devine calls time with seven seconds left.
When Jordan vaulted into the end zone, the emotion overwhelmed. He grew up in a home that knew heartbreak and tragedy, in the embrace of a father wanting to shield him from the pain and misfortune of his youth. Jordan not only looks like his father -- short and muscled with handsome features -- they say he runs like him, too. Quick, shifty and almost impossible to bring down. The resemblance, relatives say, is uncanny.
In 1987, Javier piled up yards and touchdowns for Natalia High, five miles northeast of Devine, and received letters from Texas Tech, Arkansas and Baylor. In the spring of his junior year, Javier attended a party in nearby San Antonio. A fight broke out. Javier suffered multiple stab wounds.
He touched the wound on his back and felt something strange. "My guts were hanging out," he says. "I quit breathing in the ambulance. I flat-lined."
Javier spent a week in the hospital and learned that the boys who stabbed him -- members of his own team -- would not be charged. To this day, he doesn't know why he was knifed or why no one was arrested. "It's been a demon of mine forever," he says.
Jordan knows the story. He also knows what happened next: His dad moved five miles up the road to Lytle and the anger and bad blood did not abate. Lytle coaches held him out of the first three games so Javier could fully heal. He ran for fewer yards, wasn't allowed to play against Natalia, apparently to avoid a fight, and most recruiters lost interest.
Sul Ross State wanted him, though. Javier suited up for the Lobos but could not complete one season without another nightmare. He learned after a road game that an older brother, Johnny Fraga, had been stabbed.
"They missed his heart," Javier says, "by an inch."
Johnny recovered. But Jordan never got to know his uncle very well. On his way to work seven years ago, Johnny over-corrected on a turn. The car rolled. Johnny wasn't wearing a seatbelt. Four years after that, Jordan lost his grandfather, Javier's dad, to heart failure. To cope, Jordan visits Uncle Johnny and grandpa at the cemetery, sometimes before games, alone.
Are they watching? He's given them something to cheer. On Nov. 2, Jordan tore apart Carrizo Springs, scoring on first quarter runs of 50, 20, 3, 71 and 42 yards. He scored from 38 and two yards in the second period. His lone carry in the third went for 91 yards and six points. Jordan sat the rest of the game, finishing with 454 yards on 29 carries in a 61-29 victory.
The kicker: Jordan's eight touchdowns eclipsed by one the personal best of his former teammate Sadler, but fell one short of the school record. "We had a kid named Stephen Carrillo who scored nine touchdowns against Poteet a few years ago," says Devine coach Chad Quisenberry.
Carrillo did not bring national attention to Devine (pop. 4,460), a slice of farmland southwest of San Antonio. Sadler did. A year ago, Sadler needed five points to eclipse the once untouchable season scoring record of 395, set by Texas legend Ken Hall in 1953. Sadler scored 50 -- seven TDs, six extra points and a two-point conversion -- in a playoff game against Wharton.
Jordan primarily blocked and ran as a decoy for Sadler. Even so, Jordan may have been the most effective No. 2 back in Texas last fall, rushing for 1,070 yards, scoring 14 touchdowns, averaging 10 yards per carry. But then Jordan tore his hamstring while long jumping in the spring. After he recovered, coaches wondered if Jordan could run 30 times a game and last the season.
The Warhorses run seven basic plays out of multiple formations. The most common in 2011 were Sadler left, Sadler right, Saddler up the middle. The Warhorses rarely throw. Could Jordan's smallish frame hold up?
"We thought he'd have a chance to do some good things," Quisenberry says. "He lived in the weight room this summer. But we were worried about his hamstring. And we were concerned about his body -- whether it could take the beating with that many carries."
On the field, Jordan runs taller and stronger than he looks, kind of like the back he followed. Sadler stands close to 5-10 in cleats, weighs 185 pounds and knew how to slip tackles. Jordan knows how to make defenders miss and, like Sadler, excels in multiple sports. He's run a 10.9 second split on the sprint relay, bench presses 260 pounds and hits .500 for the baseball team.
In a way, Jordan and Sadler are like brothers. They possess the same small-town demeanor. Quiet. Humble. Unfailingly polite. Their fathers played on the same middle school football team in Natalia. The running backs share something else: Glittering high school careers that drew little college attention.
Sadler wound up at the University of the Incarnate Word, a Division II school in San Antonio. Jordan has received only two queries, from Trinity Valley Community College and Division II Oklahoma Panhandle State, but remains upbeat. "I plan to go to the next level," he says, "and be successful."
Late in the Hondo game, Sadler appeared on the sideline and wrapped an arm around Jordan. The Owls were leading, the Devine offense was sputtering, the home crowd was smelling upset. "Keep pushing," Sadler told Jordan. "Keep moving your feet."
Jordan returned to the field and the Hondo defense stiffened. The Owls seemed intent on enforcing the sign that welcomes visitors to the city: "This is God's country. Please don't drive through it like hell."
The kid blew past the sign and leaped into a moment. The father's high school moment was a knife in the back. A wound that killed a career. Twenty four years later, Javier felt a stab of pride. He closed his video camera, raced to the field and threw his arms around Jordan. The embrace lingered beneath the stadium lights until someone asked for a picture. The Fragas obliged and the camera captured a telling image: the torment of a father dissolving in the triumph of his son.