High School Football

El Paso and Plano unite, heal together on football field in ‘win for both communities’

The football game had been scheduled for over a year.

But it has received extensive coverage in the past month after a tragedy that happened off the field.

Plano and El Paso Eastwood played Thursday night at the Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, the headquarters for the Dallas Cowboys.

It was televised live on WFAA in Dallas-Fort Worth and picked up by its affiliate in El Paso.

But it took awhile to get here.

Originally scheduled for Friday at Kimbrough Stadium in Murphy, Plano school district administrators announced they had canceled the game on Aug. 15, less than two weeks following the El Paso mass shooting on Aug. 3.

Plano ISD cited “safety concerns” and that the game was “too soon after the tragedy.”

“I was saddened and thought ‘why, these boys didn’t do anything so why should they pay the price,’” said Jackie Luedeman, who has a son, Nick, on the Plano team. “They enjoy football so we were upset about it. But now we’re excited. Eastwood needed an uplift and this is a big uplift for the team and the people of El Paso.”

The shooter, Patrick Crusius, killed 22 people at a Walmart less than three miles from Eastwood High School. He’s from Allen, but graduated from Plano in 2017.

The cancellation started an uproar on social media with the majority of people against the decision.

Fortunately, 24 hours later, Plano administrators, including Superintendent Sara Bonser, announced the game was reinstated and moved to Frisco.

“This is a special night, there’s no two ways about it. Both communities come together as one,” said WFAA reporter Mike Leslie, who was doing play-by-play alongside longtime anchor Dale Hansen. “The fact that the shooter was from Plano, is not a representative of Plano. Tonight is much bigger than football.”

El Paso Eastwood running onto the field at the Star in Frisco. Matt Smith Special to the Star-Telegram

From El Paso to Frisco

Art and Mary Alvarez attended Thursday’s game after traveling over 10 hours from El Paso, even though they don’t have relatives in the game. They are both born and raised in El Paso, and attended and retired from Ysleta ISD, the school district Eastwood is in.

“Just out here supporting the city of El Paso,” Mary said. “I took offense at the initial decision from Plano and it’s one of the reasons I told him that we’re going to this game.”

The couple said they would’ve attended the game if it was still scheduled at Kimbrough.

“El Paso is not a bad town,” Art said. “It’s a healing process and we’re trying to recover from what has happened. That’s why we’re here supporting the kids and the parents, and the city.”

Terry Castellanos didn’t have to travel far. His kids graduated from Plano, but he’s a season ticket holder.

“Thought it was unfortunate they canceled the game at first, but glad they changed their mind,” he said. “I understand, safety is the priority and you never know how people will react.”

Playing for No. 3

As much passion, devotion and motivation Eastwood had for playing Plano at The Star, the Troopers received more bad news when a former football player drowned on Labor Day.

Eddie Cruz was a freshman on the football team at Western New Mexico. He was on last season’s squad that won a district title and accounted for more than 1,000 yards of total offense and nine touchdowns.

“They need this game, one for the tragedy that happened and two for Eddie and that’s why we’re here supporting. They’ve decided to dedicate this game for Eddie,” said David Grajeda, who has a son, Jon, on the offensive line.

Grajeda took a charter bus with other parents at 11 p.m. Wednesday and arrived Thursday morning.

“When they first canceled the game, I was disappointed, but it was understandable,” he said. “It’s about the safety for everyone, but we were excited when it was reinstated. Both teams are going to come together and unite as one.”

Marc Graham graduated from Eastwood and was watching his son, who is a senior running back on the Troopers.

“There was disappointment, but we were looking forward to this game. The kids couldn’t grasp why they didn’t have the game any more. We would’ve hosted in El Paso or met halfway, they just want to play football,” Graham said. “Eddie’s passing was unexpected, but the kids are going to play for him this year.”

El Paso Eastwood honoring Eddie Cruz before kickoff vs Plano at the Star in Frisco. Matt Smith Special to the Star-Telegram

Supporting communities

Students from Plano started a petition to bring the game back and more than 600 people signed it by the time Bonser reinstated the game, but as she said at the press conference, the petition and social media backlash had no affect on her decision.

Plano began raising money for the El Paso community to help bring the Eastwood cheerleaders and band to the game and created T-shirts with the money going to a charity selected by Eastwood.

The Cowboys and the Gene and Jerry Jones Family Foundation, and the NFL Foundation also each donated $50,000 to the El Paso Community Foundation Victims’ Fund on Aug. 7.

“Technically there’s a loser and a winner tonight, but it’s a win for both communities. It’s representing the state, these two communities and that’s what Texas high school football is about,” Leslie said. “It’s a cool night and we’re honored to be a part of it.”

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Born and raised in Hawaii, Brian Gosset graduated from Northern Arizona University with a degree in journalism before coming to Texas in 2014. He’s covered high school sports — yes, pretty much every high school sport — for the Star-Telegram ever since.