Football Player Who Assaulted a Referee Seeks a New Start

EDINBURG, Texas — Emmanuel Durón, 19, was scheduled to depart for school final Friday. A shock pool celebration was organized to ship him off to revive a ruined soccer profession. But the commerce college he plans to attend in Atlanta was nonetheless making an attempt to safe a subject for its inaugural season. So Durón must wait not less than a few extra weeks earlier than beginning a new life, aiming to develop into somebody apart from a eternally villain who attacked a referee.

Fred Gracia, 57, spent final week touring throughout South Texas for a grocery chain, putting meats and different gadgets of their correct instances, on their designated cabinets. He drives 500 to 1,000 miles a week, making an attempt to revive the abnormal rhythm of his life, searching for what nearly each referee needs, to be invisible.

For seven months, Durón and Gracia have been making an attempt to flee the brutal, viral purpose most individuals have heard their names.

Their violent encounter got here throughout a highschool sport in December. Durón was ejected after being flagged for 3 penalties on the identical play. He went to the sideline, then rushed again onto the sphere, slamming into the referee. Gracia appeared to levitate earlier than falling backward to the turf, his legs helplessly within the air.

Until that second, Durón, then 18, was largely unknown past his circle of household, buddies and teammates within the Rio Grande Valley, on the border with Mexico. He was a star defensive finish and wrestler at Edinburg High School, 6 ft tall, 250 kilos, with scholarship potentialities. Four school scouts had been reportedly within the stands that night time.

Then Durón rammed Gracia, breaking certainly one of sport’s most inviolable guidelines. With that lack of management, he grew to become a nationwide outrage, jailed, charged with misdemeanor assault. Video of the incident unfold in a digital dash. Within hours, social media was aflame with fury, condemnation, threats.

This is likely one of the extensively seen photos of Durón from the Dec. three incident.Credit…Joel Martinez/The Monitor, by way of Associated Press

Iris Gracia, a musician and Fred’s daughter, wrote on Twitter of Durón, “I hope he’s never allowed to step on the field and play a sport ever again.”

Then she reconsidered and wrote: “I’ve had some time to reflect on what I said yesterday. I know it may have come off as harsh to some. It’s tough in the heat of the moment. Prayers and good vibes for everyone at this time. We could all use a little bit more positivity this year.”

Gracia’s reassessment recommended a variety of necessary questions. When a younger athlete commits an egregious act, the place ought to punishment intersect with compassion? Does the athlete deserve a second probability? And how does a teenager start once more after going through nationwide disgust and cancellation?

‘He’s simply beginning his life.’

Even whereas he lay dazed on the sphere, Fred Gracia stated in an interview, he forgave Durón. He is glad, he stated, that Durón appears to have a probability to rescue a self-sabotaged athletic profession. Gracia stated he additionally confronted the regulation as a youthful man, spending 24 hours in jail after he was arrested on a drunken-driving cost in 1990. In that second, he stated, he discovered himself. Perhaps, Durón will discover himself, too.

“I wish him the best,” Gracia stated within the interview, performed by video final week. “I hope he’s made peace with himself. He’s just starting his life.”

In making an attempt to place the incident behind them, Gracia and Durón have a lot in frequent. Both have struggled to sleep at instances. Both have grown weary of the general public stares, the whispers of recognition, the dreaded query: Are you that man?

“I’m trying my hardest to forget everything and be someone in life,” Durón stated final week in his first interview because the December assault. “I want people to see the real me. I’m not just a kid who did something wrong.”

He spoke at his house after a day of rain left his neighborhood flooded. Visitors needed to be ferried out and in in pickup vans. His father, who can also be named Emmanuel and erects scaffolding at refineries, sat on a couch in the lounge and spoke of the significance of his son changing into the primary individual within the household to attend school. Durón’s lawyer, Jose Antonio Solis, stood within the room and repeated a acquainted admonition.

Durón and his household. He would be the first to attend school.Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times

“This is the beginning of your story,” he informed his consumer. “What you do going forward will determine how the story ends.”

The outburst on the soccer subject was not Durón’s first. Ten months earlier, he had shoved a referee in a soccer match and been suspended from Edinburg High’s crew. Weekly counseling classes, Durón stated, have taught him to manage his anger. He has realized to calm himself with respiratory strategies, to assume earlier than he acts, to forgive himself when others won’t.

Perhaps it’s best that he’s going distant for school. No one is aware of him in Atlanta. It’s a probability for a recent begin.

“I don’t want people judging me every single moment without knowing me,” Durón stated.

Yet he understands that the judgment will proceed. Earlier this summer time, whereas working a building job, he was acknowledged at a Walmart in Nebraska. It struck him“how the world knows in a matter of seconds,” he stated. “One mistake can ruin everything.”

One of Durón’s greatest buddies, Arturo Gonzalez, 18, went into a native retailer two months in the past, carrying a T-shirt, often known as a fan shirt, that bore Durón’s title and jersey quantity on the again. Gonzalez stated one of many retailer’s employees informed him: “That’s the guy with the referee, right? Maybe he should get some more time in jail.”

Durón at dinner, tearing meals into smaller items for his two 2-year-old sister, Samantha.Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times

And then there are the threats on Durón’s social media accounts like, “Where do you live so I can go kill you?” He has realized to disregard such hatred. For a whereas, he stated, it left him depressed, overwhelmed.

“It was basically the whole world against me,” Durón stated. “That’s how I saw it.”

Durón has not spoken to Gracia because the assault. The assault cost in opposition to him continues to be pending. On Christmas Eve, he sat on the couch at house — carrying a tie and costume shirt, flanked by his dad and mom, all of them in somber distinction to the adorned tree within the nook — and stated in a video that he was sorry.

He clasped his arms, the anger from a few weeks earlier gone from his eyes, and stated in a calm voice: “To Mr. Fred Gracia, I would like to apologize to you personally. I hope you’re doing well. I am extremely sorry for my actions towards you, and I hope one day you can accept my apology.”

“He touched my heart,” Gracia stated.

‘Number 88 on the defense has been disqualified.’

In the vacation spirit, Gracia stated, he thought of asking that the assault cost be dropped. But he demurred. Though he had forgiven Durón, he stated he couldn’t condone his conduct. In April, Gracia testified earlier than a state legislative committee and supported a invoice, signed into regulation in June, that prohibits Texas athletes who assault a referee from enjoying highschool sports activities once more, with sure exceptions.

“The last thing I would want anyone to see is a fellow official getting paralyzed out there or losing their life,” Gracia stated.

Fred Gracia at Mercedes High School Stadium. He graduated from the varsity, which is about 25 miles from Edinburg. Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times

He and his lawyer additionally need the Edinburg college district to start administering psychological well being screenings to athletes, together with conventional bodily examinations.

“He was 18; people deserve a second chance,” Richard Hinojosa, Gracia’s lawyer, stated of Durón. “But he was put in a very bad situation. He had done this before, and nobody gave him the tools to learn to cope with whatever issues he had.”

Gracia has been a referee for 30 years, discovering pleasure in clearly outlined guidelines, equitably utilized. But he’s not positive that he’ll proceed officiating. His neck has begun bothering him and his again aches. He stated the ache may very well be associated to the hit by Durón.

“My heart and my mind say yes,” Gracia stated about persevering with. “Sometimes my body doesn’t agree.”

He felt worry, too, he informed The Monitor newspaper of close by McAllen in May. “Sometimes,” Gracia stated, “I don’t know how I’m going to react if somebody charges at me and wants to confront me about a rule.”

The public response to the incident has been whipsawing. Gracia stated he was surprised and grateful in regards to the quantity of people that took time to want him properly amid a pandemic that ravaged the Rio Grande Valley. But he may solely muster a single phrase — “Really?” — when a pal crouched into a soccer stance as if to playfully assault him. And he drained of people that approached him, asking whether or not he was the referee who had been assaulted.

“That’s not me,” he stated at instances.

Gracia on the turf after he was hit by Durón.Credit…Joel Martinez/The Monitor, by way of Associated Press

Because the legal case stays unresolved, Durón’s lawyer declined to let him give particulars about what occurred in that explosive second on Dec. three.

The Edinburg High Bobcats, their season shortened by the coronavirus pandemic, entered the sport that night time with a 2-2 report, needing a victory to succeed in the playoffs. In these first 4 video games, Durón had been credited with a unprecedented 102 tackles. He appeared positioned to be named once more as one of the best defensive participant in District 31-6A, whose groups play amongst Texas’s largest excessive faculties.

Durón had additionally been named the realm’s high wrestler as a junior after constructing a report of 44-Eight and ending fifth within the 2020 state event within the 220-pound class. He was an early favourite to win a state title in his senior yr. Area coaches described him as an athlete with uncooked power and kinetic depth.

“He never stops,” stated Koy Detmer, the highschool soccer coach in Somerset, Texas, and a former N.F.L. quarterback.

The guidelines of soccer and wrestling allow managed antagonism. But Durón strayed far past the permissible in Edinburg High’s sport in opposition to the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High Bears.

Durón’s trophies and awards are displayed in his bed room.Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times

This is Gracia’s description of what occurred: With Edinburg forward by a landing within the second quarter, Durón complained that he was being held illegally. Gracia informed Durón to not speak to him. He most popular to have these discussions with coaches, not gamers. Durón went to the sideline, spoke to his coach, then charged into the opposing quarterback on the following play. Gracia flagged Durón for a late hit.

The line decide then assessed two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in opposition to Durón — one for taunting a rival participant, the opposite for saying one thing untoward in regards to the line decide’s mom. The infractions known as for an automated ejection. Gracia raised his proper hand, thumb prolonged, and stated over the general public handle system, “Number 88 on the defense has been disqualified.”

The night time of the sport, Durón’s father informed The New York Times that the referee had cursed his son. The Washington Post reported comparable accusations from unnamed Edinburg gamers. Gracia denied them. Lupe Rodriguez, the coach of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, stated that he had heard no cursing and had by no means identified Gracia to make use of profanity. He stated Gracia “calls the game by the book, is professional, gets along with everybody, has one of the better crews in the Valley.”

Upon being ejected, Durón went to the sideline and Gracia picked up his flag and started strolling upfield. Then Durón, his helmet eliminated however his shoulder pads nonetheless on, charged again onto the sphere. A teammate and a coach gave chase however couldn’t cease him as he rammed into Gracia. The referee rolled onto his abdomen and was later helped to his ft. He left the sport and was examined for a attainable concussion and a shoulder harm, in response to information accounts.

He stated he nonetheless doesn’t perceive why Durón assaulted him. They had no harsh phrases earlier than the ejection, Gracia stated, including, “I just announced it.”

He by no means needed to be locked up once more.

After he hit Gracia, Durón was escorted out of the stadium by the police and spent a night time in jail.Credit…Joel Martinez/The Monitor, by way of Associated Press

Durón was escorted from the stadium by cops and booked into jail in Edinburg, nonetheless carrying his blue soccer pants. His father introduced him a pair of sweatpants. His cleats had been taken, and he stated he spent the night time in his soccer socks. The subsequent morning, he was booked into the Hidalgo County jail, and later launched after posting a $10,000 bond.

He spent about 24 hours locked up, as Gracia had three many years earlier. He realized, as Gracia did, that he by no means needed to be in a place like that once more. No Edinburg coaches or college officers visited him in jail, Durón stated. Nor did any coaches communicate to him, he stated, when he briefly returned to high school to take state evaluation exams.

“I was one of the best and people would say, ‘Durón, he’s a good player for his school,’” he stated. “Where are they now?”

He was suspended from college for 3 days. His highschool sports activities profession was terminated. He completed his senior yr, as did his classmates, by distant studying. Edinburg High gained the Dec. three sport however forfeited its spot within the playoffs. Its coach was eliminated. Durón misplaced any probability to play soccer or wrestle at a high-profile school.

The solely coach who confirmed curiosity was Derek Jenks of the start-up Atlanta Institute of Business, an internet commerce college on the fringes of post-high college soccer. The crew’s fall schedule contains different commerce faculties, prep faculties, junior faculties and an N.C.A.A. Division III school. Last week it was nonetheless negotiating to play house video games at an Atlanta soccer complicated. Players have delayed their scheduled arrival till Aug. 1.

A poster of Durón celebrating his choice to play for the Atlanta Institute of Business. The poster is meant for use at his going-away celebration.Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times

Jenks stated in a telephone interview that he grew up in foster care, felt a reference to Durón and needed to present him a second probability. “I’m not going to let 30 seconds of his life dictate the next 30 years of his life,” Jenks stated.

Last week, after the water receded in his neighborhood, Durón, Gonzalez and one other pal went to an amusement heart to bowl and shoot pool. Durón observed the acquainted stares and whispers. As he left within the drizzly, muggy night, he scrolled via his social media accounts on his telephone and skim the most recent insults.

“Did you kill that ref?”

Then he replayed the notorious video, himself working onto the sphere and charging the referee. It is Durón’s goal and burden to show that this indignant participant was not his true self. The video performed repeatedly, and he watched with seeming detachment, as if he had been seeing another person.

Michael Levenson and Neil Vigdor contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed analysis.