The Iraan Braves’ quest for a Class 2A Division II state title ended with their season’s lone loss Thursday afternoon, but for many on the football team, the cheerleading squad and the 1,200 or so folks who call the small West Texas town home, a bigger loss hurts even more.
The whole town, it appeared, was at AT&T Stadium, wearing red shirts with slogans such as #IraanStrong and “LIZ believes in the Braves” and “Iraan Braves Redemption Tour.” Iraan’s resliency was on display as the Braves fell behind by 14 points early in the second quarter but pulled within seven at halftime. Then Bremond and its star senior quarterback, Roshauud Paul, who finished with 231 yards passing, 153 yards rushing and six touchdowns, poured it on late in the third quarter and into the fourth for the 49-28 victory.
The Tigers were awarded the championship trophy and the Braves, tears forming in their eyes, lined up on their sideline to receive the runner-up medal. Next to them were the school’s cheerleaders, a group that could have been given MVP honors. Two weeks ago they were involved in a horrific crash on their way home from a quarterfinal playoff game. Their sponsor Liz Pope, 52, was killed. Her sister and fellow sponsor Christina Garlock was pinned in the driver’s seat and remains in a Lubbock hospital after two leg surgeries. A tractor-trailer lost control and crossed the median, giving Garlock no way to avoid it. The front of the small activity bus was smashed beyond recognition.
The half-dozen cheerleaders on board were injured in varying degree. Senior Lauren Garlock, Christina’s daughter, was one of the other half-dozen on the squad who caught rides home another way.
“I decided at the last minute not to ride on the bus, and I [usually] sit in the seat behind the driver,” Lauren Garlock said.
Freshman cheerleader Katie Kent — whose brother Clayton, Iraan’s senior quarterback, kept the Braves close as long as he could with 149 rushing yards and a touchdown pass — was wearing a neck brace to protect two broken vertebrae. She has three broken vertebrae in her back. Kiara Hodge was also in a neck brace. She had a fracture to the left side of her face, a fractured shoulder blade and a severe concussion, as did Hodge and Linda Martinez.
“I have numbness in my face and the doctor said I might not get feeling back in my face. All the pain is toward my head,” said Hodge, who was born in Iraan and knew Pope her entire life. “It’s heartbreaking, it’s really hard. At first it didn’t make any sense.
“It’s just really hard.”
Clayton was the first to receive the news of the bus crash. While eating a postgame meal with the team before making the trip back to Iraan that Dec. 2 night, his mother called with the news that there had been an accident. Very few details were available to pass along.
“It was just kind of like my heart dropped,” said Clayton, who is mulling a scholarship offer from Davidson College in North Carolina, the school that produced NBA star Stephen Curry. “I didn’t know what to think because I didn’t have any details by then. I just knew they had crashed, so I was expecting the worst.”
Nayleah DeLuna needed crutches to help her get around on a fractured right ankle, a sprained left ankle and small break in her fibula. Dhalia Butchee was also on crutches because of severe bruising on her left knee.
All the cheerleaders said there was no chance they would miss their school’s first shot at a state title since 1996, even if it meant climbing back onto a bus for a six-hour-plus drive. This time they traveled in charter buses with the school’s marching band.
“This is our team,” Lauren Garlock said. “It’s football — it’s what our town’s about. Our lives revolve around our team.”
Hodge said: “I took pain medicine so I could mostly sleep. And I made sure to wear my seat belt on the bus.”
The cheerleaders alternated standing and sitting, but for the most part each one gutted it out, playing hurt. Their courage and pain will be the lasting impression of a state title game few in Iraan will ever forget. Principal Jim Baum called them “the toughest cheer squad in Texas,” and he wasn’t alone in putting it that way.
“I mean we give them a lot of crap throughout the year, but they’re tough when it comes down to it,” said Steven Garlock, Lauren’s twin brother and a Braves lineman. “Them getting to come with us to AT&T Stadium and cheer right along with us even though everything was happening really shows the amount of pride and heart they have in this football team.”
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan