Originally Published in The Washington Post
Kyle Melnick - March 30, 2021
Nineteen months earlier, Lara Navarrete had boarded a plane from Mexico City to New York with dreams of playing high school football in rowdy atmospheres and with college coaches watching. But after tearing his right ACL, and with his senior season postponed multiple times, Lara Navarrete finally played his first football game in the United States on Friday in Bethesda. It was one of just three chances he’ll have to prove himself and potentially earn a football scholarship to attend college here.
After D.C.-area schools ruled out a fall football season, many have conducted condensed spring seasons. Lara Navarrete’s county, Montgomery, is holding a three-game football campaign.
“It’s really my last chance to play high school,” Lara Navarrete said. “I don’t really have the words to explain that.”
Growing up, Lara Navarrete said he tried Mexico’s popular sports, such as soccer, baseball and water polo, but he discovered his passion for football in 2008. His father, Octavio, explained the rules, and a young Lara Navarrete couldn’t keep his eyes off the New York Giants’ upset of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
About five years later, Lara Navarrete played on his first club football team. In his initial contact practice on a spring afternoon, a teammate hit Lara Navarrete and pushed him back five yards. “Now I want to hit him,” Lara Navarrete thought, so he kept tackling until he fell in love with the sport.
But only a handful of schools in Mexico have football teams, so Lara Navarrete had to wait to join a squad until 2019, when his mother, Alejandra, said she received an offer to work as a liaison officer at a nonprofit in Washington. Knowing they could get more football exposure in the United States, Lara Navarrete and his younger brother, Octavio, went with their mom.
Lara Navarrete and his family said they received visas to live temporarily in the United States, but with President Donald Trump’s strict immigration laws, they worried about whether they would be accepted. Trump had referred to Mexicans as “rapists,” drug dealers and harmful to the U.S. economy. Lara Navarrete’s family said others in the Bethesda area sometimes walked away from them when they spoke Spanish.
Football provided Lara Navarrete an outlet. Two weeks after moving to Chevy Chase, Lara Navarrete joined B-CC’s team. In the squad’s first scrimmage, he chased an opponent as a defensive tackle and felt another player hit his right knee. His knee caved in and popped, and he couldn’t walk without pain.
Lara Navarrete said his family hadn’t signed up for U.S. health insurance. For the next three months, Lara Navarrete said he hopped around school on crutches without knowing his diagnosis. He learned in November that his ACL was torn, and he underwent surgery.
“I really thought I wasn’t going to be able to come back,” Lara Navarrete said. “I was just so discouraged. I was like: ‘I can’t bend my knee. How am I going to go back to play?’ ”
Still, throughout the 2019 season, Lara Navarrete went to every practice, film session and game. His family didn’t own a car, so his mom rented cars and arranged for Ubers. Lara Navarrete wanted to remain in good standing with the team so he could play the following season.
Then, in March, the coronavirus pandemic consumed everything. Not only did that threaten Lara Navarrete’s senior season, but it created more obstacles for him to attend a U.S. college. Lara Navarrete doesn’t have a Social Security number, which limits his scholarship opportunities. Instead of meeting regularly with a local Social Security office, the family said appointments were harder to come by and were required to be scheduled about three months in advance.
While multiple colleges have accepted Lara Navarrete, he said he may need financial support to attend any of those schools. One of Lara Navarrete’s last hopes to remain in the United States beyond high school, he thought, was obtaining a football scholarship. But he had no game film. Returning to Mexico for college became his backup plan.
In February, Montgomery County began allowing football practice and created a three-game schedule. But the county council ruled March 12 that football competitions were too dangerous. Lara Navarrete cried. The next week, he volunteered to speak during the public hearing segment of the council’s meeting.
“Since coming to B-CC two years ago, I haven’t had the opportunity to suit up with my team,” Lara Navarrete told the council in a two-minute speech. “I want this three-game season so I can have that opportunity, and not just with my football family, but with my brother, Octavio, who is a junior at B-CC.”
The council flipped its decision, and games began the following week.
Lara Navarrete couldn’t sleep Thursday and admitted he didn’t pay attention to online classes Friday. After shutting off his laptop in his Bethesda apartment, he wrote “30” and “74” in black marker on his right arm; those are the numbers that his best friends from Mexico, Emiliano and Carlos, wore in games. He threw on his blue-and-gold No. 59 jersey, tied a black bandanna around his forehead and slipped a black sleeve over his left arm.
On the car ride to the game, he listened to the anthem for the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the college near his home, to recall his journey. Minutes before kickoff, Lara Navarrete, 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, led his team in prayer. Teammates slapped his helmet as he ran onto the field for the first drive.
When he moved to Maryland, Lara Navarrete imagined cheerleaders and packed bleachers for his first game. But it didn’t matter that no spectators were allowed Friday. He played most of the game as an offensive lineman and made a key block in the second quarter as his team scored a two-point conversion. (No score was recorded because the game was played in a scrimmage format.)
“He always felt if he got one game, he’ll play his hardest,” said Lara Navarrete’s 17-year-old brother, Octavio. “If we don’t play, he’ll have still worked for it. He never lost hope. I truly look up to him because of that.”
As he removed his pads after the game, Lara Navarrete said his mind went to how he would make the most of his two remaining chances to attract a college coach. Because of the pandemic, there’s no guarantee Lara Navarrete will play another game, but all he can do is prepare.
Regardless, Lara Navarrete may have taken his largest step toward changing his future. Late Friday night, B-CC coaches sent his first game tape to recruiters.