There's not much that would get me out on a hot Arizona afternoon to watch a high-school soccer match, but Sal Reza as "coach" is one of them.
Reza, the bane of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former state Senate President Russell Pearce, the guy who's led thousands in marches protesting both Senate Bill 1070 and Arpaio's anti-immigrant enforcement measures, coaches a co-ed soccer team for Esperanza High School, a small charter school in North Phoenix that caters mostly to the children of working-class Hispanic families.
Think of a Latino Bad News Bears playing futbol, and that's Esperanza, which means "hope" in Spanish. Reza told me it's the first year Esperanza has had a soccer team, and he was practically drafted into coaching, as the school could not afford a professional coach.
"I know nothing about soccer," Reza shrugged. "But nobody else would do it."
Despite the civil rights leader's inexperience, despite the impoverished backgrounds of many of the kids, and despite a run-in by one of their star players with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement last week, Esperanza came within one point of taking their division's championship on Monday, losing to rival Phoenix College Prep, 3-2.
That made for tough loss, especially since Esperanza had come back from a 2-0 hole to tie the game at 2-2, only to have PCP score a crucial goal and clinch the win.
Still, Esperanza wasn't even supposed to be on that field at Phoenix's Desert West Park where the championship game took place. The team started its season with a loss, one that depressed the players, until they were given a sign of sorts.
A hawk circled above the team following the defeat, and one of the kids asked Reza what it meant.
"It means you can either fly like an eagle, or crawl like a snake," he told the teens.
From there, Esperanza went on to beat teams with superior training and veteran coaches, taking their sometimes better-heeled rivals by surprise. In short, they had heart, which seemed to make up for the deficit in experience.
Still, Esperanza nearly suffered a fatal blow when one of its star players was pulled over by Scottsdale police on his way home from his restaurant job. What would normally mean a ticket for most turned serious when police discovered the 17 year-old was undocumented. He was then turned over to ICE custody.
Fortunately, the team had its own attorneys, as its sponsor was the Phoenix law firm of Alcock & Associates, which specializes in criminal and immigration law.
The firm's owner Nick Alcock told me how ICE pulled a trick on the boy's family, telling them they could come pick up their child with no hassles. When the kid's father, who was also undocumented, showed up at ICE offices to claim the boy, ICE nabbed him as well.
Fortunately, Alcock's attorneys were able to score bail and a court date for the father and son, but just listening to this tale ticked me off. A 17 year-old going to school and holding down a part-time job should not have to worry about possibly being deported every time he or she drives to work.
"It's easy for some people to demonize them," Alcock said of those in Arizona who are fervently anti-immigrant, even toward immigrant children. "But these are just good kids."
Alcock did more than assist with legal services. His firm picked up the tab for Esperanza's white, green and red uniforms, emblazoned with the team's mascot, the emerald-and-scarlet-hued quetzal, national bird of Guatemala.
The firm helped with fees needed to enter the competition and to secure fields for play and practice.
Additionally, Alcock set up a scholarship to reward students who do well in their classes, and he would feed the team after the games. Following the championship match, for instance, he took the team to a Chinese buffet, where the 2nd-place trophy was placed at the head of the table.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
(I should note that in January Alcock & Associates also sponsored some of Esperanza's students for a half-marathon run.)
Reza told me that in spite of the help with the soccer team, the school itself still needs financial assistance and is struggling.
"These are the kids other schools don't want," he said. "A lot of them come from very poor families."
And yet, they have, as their name suggests, hope for the future, and perhaps hope that next year, they'll take the championship.