After the presentation of the medals, the boys grabbed me from underneath and lifted me onto their shoulders. I was embarrassed but they were happy. I raised the plaque the high school athletic association had presented to me. They carried me from the field to the sidelines to the waiting crowd of folks from Siler City and beyond who had come out to support JM’s first state soccer champions. A cheer went up from the crowd when I got to them. And then the boys lined up along the sidelines and started a victory lap. Fish led them, holding the state championship trophy above his head all the way. When they got back to the fans, Enrique and Dougie-style came down from the stands to congratulate them.
Somehow the school found another bus and had it waiting to take us home. On the road to Siler City, I looked in back to see how the boys were doing. The sun was shining through the windows and the day had grown unseasonably warm. I could see the freshmen in the back, happy and horsing around. They hadn’t played a minute, but they seemed to revel in the victory more than the starters. Indio had changed out of his uniform into his street clothes. He was on his cell phone, smiling. Behind me, Lechero sat quietly with one of the freshmen. I could see tears slowly streaming from his eyes. This was his senior year and he was ending it a champion. Across the aisle, Edi lay with his head against the window, sleeping. He was exhausted.
When the bus pulled onto Raleigh Street in Siler City . . . we were home. We passed the steaming white stacks from the chicken plant and headed downtown. The boys leaned out the windows of the bus and waved and cheered as we passed people on the sidewalks. Along the way, cars began to honk their horns as they saw us pass. People stepped out of their homes along the main road and waved back, smiling, knowing that the team had returned triumphant. I saw white folks cheering, black folks clapping, and Latinos shouting happily. When we turned onto Second Avenue the sounds of the horns began to rise. All of Siler City now knew of the Jets soccer team winning the state championship. They were turning out of their stores, shops, and homes to stand and watch the bus pass by with the smiling brown faces of the chavos.
I watched as we passed by the gray stone city hall building where David Duke and his supporters had once stood and blasted the poultry workers and their families. This was a different demonstration, a joyous celebration of a team and a town that was overcoming its difficulties with the great Latino migration of the twenty-first century. Where was the town now? If accepting the migration was like going through the five stages of grief, Siler City had left its anger behind and was on its way to acceptance. All across America, local communities like Siler City were struggling with this very migration. Some were in denial, but many were angry, just as Siler City had once been. But watching the townsfolk turn out and wave, honk their horns, clap their hands and pump their fists in the air, I knew that the team had transcended the prejudices on all sides and brought the community to root for one team. I knew then that these kids were no longer Latino kids in the eyes of the waving people. They were Jets. We were all on the same team.