Wade Miller didn’t feel comfortable retiring the No. 21.
The Uvalde High School head coach fielded several phone calls asking if he would do just that in the weeks after the horrific shooting at nearby Robb Elementary School that claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers. Ensuring the number was never worn again in the wake of the tragedy didn’t sit right with the coach. He didn’t want to forget to remember.
Miller pulled his senior captains aside in the team’s weight room during one of their grueling summer workouts for an impromptu meeting. In the same vein as LSU giving the No. 18 to a senior who epitomizes their program or Ole Miss handing the No. 38 to their defensive lynchpin, Miller asked his team leaders what they thought about awarding the No. 21 to a Uvalde senior who represented their football program and community’s values.
Instead of retiring the number and forgetting to remember the lives lost, they would honor them by starting a new tradition and begin to heal in the process.
The coach and his captains decided in the weight room on that summer evening the seniors and coaching staff would vote for one senior to don the jersey. The only caveat was that the captains in that circle couldn’t vote for themselves.
Three players were neck-in-neck for the honor, but when the votes were tallied Miller saw that all the captains except for one had cast their support for linebacker Justyn Rendon. The one exception hadn’t voted for Rendon because he had followed Coach’s rule. He wasn’t allowed to vote for himself.
Justyn Rendon isn’t going to put on the No. 34 anymore. When he leads the Coyotes out of the tunnel this Fall in his final season of high school football, he’ll do so as the first in a long line of 21s.
And Uvalde will begin the process of remembering to forget.
“It’s a great honor to be able to represent the 21 lives that were lost on May 24,” Rendon said. “It’s a blessing that I get to go out on Friday nights and represent the lives and my community.”
Devon Franklin felt everyone staring at him the first day he walked into the Uvalde locker room. He was the new kid.
Most of the athletes in the room had lived in the community their entire lives. Franklin was a rare transplant, having moved from Dallas to Uvalde in the middle of his freshman year. He didn’t know anyone on the team, but he knew he wanted to play football. On that first day, it was impossible for Franklin to blend into a town that was roughly 80 percent Latino.
“I’m going to keep it real, I was the only Black guy on the team,” Franklin said. “I was just trying to fit in. Out of nowhere, Justyn Rendon talks to me, that’s when everybody started treating me like family, helping me out. It’s a really good feeling.”
Franklin never did achieve his goal of trying to fit in, because he and Rendon stood out as leaders. Just under three years later, they were in the Captains’ circle with other seniors brainstorming with Miller on how to honor the 21 lives lost. The captains have been on varsity since their sophomore seasons. They’ve endured a coaching change, a global pandemic that sent them to virtual learning and now a horrific mass shooting in their community.
“These guys, after all they’ve been through and the bond that they’ve formed, it’s as tight as any group I’ve ever had,” Miller said. “I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years.”
In the days after the shooting on May 24, Uvalde High School sent all its students home during the investigation. The football team couldn’t practice in their facilities because of the overwhelming police presence, so the players improvised to hold workouts at the local junior college or nearby parks.
At their first evening workout back on campus after the investigation concluded, Miller gave them some unfortunate news. He had to cut the practice short. He’d made plans with his wife to go to the movies.
“At 7 p.m. I went to leave and they didn’t want to go home,” Miller said. “They had been stuck in the house and they wanted to be around each other.”
Sure, the teammates have all forged friendships. After every practice the players load up the pickup trucks and dash off to the nearest Whataburger or Sonic so they can eat together. But they also want to stay at the facility to keep working. Rendon and the other captains are trying to change the narrative surrounding Uvalde football.
“Our senior class, there’s not a bunch of them, but they’re all good kids,” Miller said. “They’ve bought into what we’re doing wholeheartedly and they’ve done a good job of getting the younger kids to follow. They’re a really good group and Justyn is an example of that leadership.”
The senior class is trying to provide an example they didn’t have. They’ve experienced over the last two seasons what happens when players freelance and look for their own touches. The losses pile up. Frank Salazar, the Coyotes’ free safety, and his fellow captains have one more chance at a winning season.
“Compared to last season, you don’t want that to happen again,” Salazar said. “What we’ve been through, we don’t want that to happen again.”
Miller was brutally honest with his team in their first meeting after the 2021 season.
“You’re one of the weakest teams in the country,” Miller said.
Miller’s inaugural season as head coach never had a chance to build a foundation. When he got hired in February 2021, the students were still in virtual learning. Athletes showed up for the first day of practice whom Miller had never met. With limited face-to-face interaction up to that point, the summer workouts weren’t well attended.
Uvalde limped to a 2–8 record, giving up over 50 points in each of their last four games. By the end of the year they were starting nine sophomores on the Varsity and upwards of eight juniors. They were physically mismatched.
So Miller implemented a new lifting regimen for the offseason. The Coyotes would lift heavy three days a week, and every six weeks Miller would post their progressions on max lifts so the players could see how much stronger they’d gotten.
Salazar dislocated his shoulder last season and tore his labrum, which required surgery. Initially given an eight-month recovery window, Salazar instead came back in six to lift with the team. He now sees his lifting marks surpassing where he was pre-injury.
The entire team has gotten stronger so that they can physically compete with their opponents next season. Senior captain Jarrett Hernandez says the progression posts every six months have both motivated and validated his teammates.
“It gives us a boost and lets us know that the stuff is actually working, the weights and the workouts,” Hernandez said. “You see your progression going up, and you say, ‘I can really do this.’ You just want to keep getting better and better every day.”
It’s not just a sheet of paper that’s bringing the results, however.
Rendon is the vocal leader in the weight room. His teammates say he never misses a lifting session, and he’s taken it upon himself to hold his friends accountable for lifting what they are supposed to. No amount of detail is too little for Rendon, not even the smallest plate in the weight room.
“He’s on you if you’re just like one rep at least 2.5 pounds off what you’re supposed to be doing, he’s on you about that,” Hernandez said. “He’s always the guy bringing up the energy.”
But it’s not like Rendon is an outlier for his perfect attendance. In a stark flip from last off-season, Miller says he will have 45 to 50 varsity football players at every lifting session. Rendon and the other captains have changed the mentality of the football team. They knew they needed to get stronger, and they put in the work. In fact, they’ve continued to lift even when Miller tries to give them a break.
In his last 11 years as an athletic director at various schools, Miller had a practice of locking the weight room during the Fourth of July week. It allowed his teams to take a much-needed rest and hit the reset button before they returned for the final stretch of the offseason. The Uvalde senior class didn’t want to rest.
“Every team I’ve ever had has been like, ‘Awesome, we’ll do this and do that,’” Miller said. “These guys refused to go home. It was like, ‘Coach, you’ve got to open it.’ So I showed up and opened it and every single one of them was here all week.”
The senior captains have been through two consecutive two-win seasons, and have one more chance at a winning one. This season was always important to them.
Now it’s more important for the Uvalde community too.
Justyn Rendon knows the significance of his new jersey. As Miller says, it means he can’t be a knucklehead anymore.
“Being the first one to be able to represent this number, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes behind it,” Rendon said.
But while Rendon might be the focal point representing the 21 lives lost at Robb Elementary, the entire team feels an added sense of purpose for their town. It’s not a fair pressure to put on teenagers, but Miller and his players feel their performance on the field this fall can help the town rally behind them.
The coach had this conversation with his seniors when he named them captains.
“We all got together and we realized the season has to be special,” Franklin said. “It just has to be. There’s no other choice. We’ve got to make it personal.”
That’s why Frank Salazar returned to working out two months earlier than the doctors originally thought he could from his torn labrum. It’s why the seniors wouldn’t let Miller lock the door to their weight room over the Fourth of July. It’s why Rendon will get in his teammates’ face if they don’t add that extra 2.5-pound plate onto their bench.
Uvalde still has plenty of healing to do. The players themselves still have healing to do.
“Most of us, close people were in the tragedy for us, like family,” Hernandez said. “They’re with us. I feel like they’re just watching us and helping us go through this. Proving we’re here for the community.”
But no matter if they achieve their goal of a winning season or not, they’ve already proven they’re here for the community. This fall, and every fall after, they will honor the 21 lives lost at Robb Elementary when their senior leader charges onto the field.
Justyn Rendon will always be the first. He represents a senior class that has changed Uvalde’s culture, and he represents a community fighting back.
“With Justyn, from the day I got here he’s never done anything other than anything we’ve asked. And he’s done it to the best of his ability,” Miller said. “He makes good grades. He’s a good kid in the classroom. He doesn’t get in trouble. He’s the ultimate kid that you would like to coach.”
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