FIVE YEARS AGO, as Omaha South High soccer player Manny Lira lined up his penalty kick, he could make out one voice in the chorus of jeers raining down from the stands. It belonged to a heckler who yelled, "Speak English!"
This is an article from the June 29, 2015 issue
When Lira's spot kick found the back of the net, sending the Packers to their first state final, the cries suddenly came from Lira, his ecstatic teammates and their fans. "That's definitely the best weapon to use against someone who's talking about you," says Lira, whose family emigrated from Mexico in 1999.
Once upon a time Italians, Poles, Germans, Lithuanians and Croats turned Omaha's south side into the meat-producing capital of the world and lent the local high school its nickname. But by the end of the 1990s the stockyards had closed, and today many of the families of the South High soccer players—with immigrant parents from not only Mexico but also Central America, Southeast Asia and Africa—live in the housing stock abandoned by those Europeans and work in the lone meatpacking plant, a few blocks from the school. "Just drive down South 24th Street," says coach Joe Maass, whose roots in the neighborhood go back three generations. "You'll see international bakeries, different kinds of ice cream, Mexican grocery stores—most of the businesses are Latino-owned now."
While playing at nearby Bryan High during the early 1990s, Maass routinely scored hat tricks against South's doormat soccer team. The Packers continued to finish below .500 after he became their coach in 1999. But in 2007 they broke through, going 16--2. The source of their progress was discernible in the way they broke huddles: "Uno, dos, tres, South!"
In 2010, after Lira buried that spot kick, South met an elite soccer program, Lincoln East High, in the title game. The Packers lost 4--2 in extra time, and as they accepted their silver medals, a Lincoln East fan littered the field with green cardboard rectangles—"green cards." Lincoln East administrators and students sent South High a notebook filled with apologies, and some parents donated money to South's soccer program.
After falling short of a championship the next two seasons, the Packers in 2013 outscored opponents 133--3. In the title game, which drew a record 8,200 spectators—more than that year's Class A football final—they beat Omaha's Creighton Prep 1--0 to cap a 23--0 season and earn the top spot in a national poll. The school once known for producing former Nebraska All-America center Dave Rimington and modern pro football's first black starting quarterback, Marlin Briscoe, now sends first-generation Americans to college on soccer scholarships.
Two weeks after that championship, then governor Dave Heineman, who opposed state support for undocumented immigrants, received the Packers at his residence in Lincoln. Afterward senior goalkeeper Sayeg Moreno wrote and sent Heineman an unsigned open letter on behalf of the team, asking the governor to change policies that, as the letter put it, "make it look like we are good enough to die in war for your rights, wash your dishes and mow your lawn, but we are not good enough to drive on your roads, to go to work and to class."
By the time Heineman was succeeded by Pete Ricketts in January, Nebraska was the only U.S. state where so-called Dreamers—undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before they were 16—couldn't apply for a driver's license, student aid or a work permit. "It was personal to all of us," says Moreno, who was eight when his undocumented parents brought him to the U.S. and who's now in college. The Nebraska legislature voted to change the law last month and overrode a veto by Ricketts.
Success in sports has brought new life to South High, a magnet school focused on bilingual education and the arts. Enrollment is up 25% over the past decade. "Nobody used to care about any sport here," says Maass. "Our basketball team got good. Our boys' and girls' cross-country teams are ranked. The community's buying into the school, and it started with soccer."