It’s not hard to imagine them younger. Imagine them not as principals and teachers, or as NTX Rayados hunting an Open Cup dream, but just as kids. With the right kind of eyes, and a little squinting, you can see them roving those same locker-lined halls. Carrying on. Cracking wise. Skipping class – irritating, and secretly delighting, their teachers the same way their own students do today.
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(A light training session at Richland College for the NTX Rayados)
Salas is a motivator. The first from his family to graduate high school. He’s an operator in the best sense of the word. He’s a natural leader in his hallways, on the soccer field and in all those in-between spaces where good advice takes root and deals get done. He founded NTX Rayados eight years ago as an outlet to keep playing after the heat and fire of college competition. He won two national junior college championships with the Richland Thunderducks, and he’s got a giant gold ring on his finger to prove it. A lot of the Rayados players, friends since they were kids, had dreams of going pro. But we all know how dreams can go. After starting his career in education as a substitute PE teacher, Salas moved fast in the Dallas Independent School District. Soon, his old friends in the team were asking how they could get involved. There are now five professional educators who pull on an NTX Rayados jersey every Sunday.
Role Model Rayados
“We came from neighborhoods like this, so we know what it’s like to not have enough to eat,” said Victor Pinal, a second-year Spanish teacher at nearby Edward H. Cary Middle School, who created the winning goal in the Rayados’ Third Round 2018 U.S. Open Cup game against FC Wichita. He pounced on a poor clearance and charged toward goal, drawing panicked defenders before squaring the ball for Christian Okeke to slam home. “I try to tell my kids the simple things – that life isn’t always going to be easy, but you need to get up when you fall.”
Luis Salas, Tito’s younger brother by two years, is all smiles. He works down the hall from Pinal at the middle school. His classroom is the gym – where bouncing basketballs echo off the walls and young energy gets burned away. “I love what I do. I wake up every morning with a smile on my face,” said Salas, a forward for the Rayados. “I see myself in a lot of these kids. A lot of them come from tough families and we don’t know what they go through when they leave here. You never know what’s going to be something big for them – something so small to you might make a huge difference in their lives.”
(All hands on deck for the Rayados - who've captured the spirit of the Open Cup with a run to the Fourth Round)
Many Cary Middle School students turned out to cheer on their teachers and the rest of Rayados on their dream run in the Open Cup. They played the first three games at home – at Richland College on the very field where so many of them starred before moving on to four-year schools and unlikely successes – none of them handed over easily. With every win, first over Fort Worth Vaqueros of the NPSL and then full USL pros OKC Energy FC, the crowds grew. It was the same kids up in the stands that challenge Mr. Pinal and Coach Salas to pick-up games at lunchtime. “We tell them ‘OK bring ten of your friends around and the two of us, we will play all of you.’ And of course, we beat them,” laughed Salas, who this year coached the school’s soccer team to a first district championship in 15 years. “But you get respect. The kids look up to you a little more after that. Soccer is so big here that it really matters.”
The Challenges of High School
It’s all a little different at the High School a few miles up the road. From ninth graders just up from the middle school to seniors on the verge of college or the workforce, you have a beehive of possible problems that require a steady hand and cool head. “I never had anyone looking out for me when I was in school, so I want to be that person for a kid coming up,” said Alberto Rodriguez in the school’s auditorium. That’s his classroom. He teaches Theatre Arts there, a few paces up the hall from a hand-painted, student-made banner wishing he and Mr. Salas luck in the Open Cup. “We want to be the people in the lives of these kids that says ‘hey, it’s ok. You’ll get through this. Keep pushing through.”
(The team is loaded with current college talent, old friends & one old pro in Jose Burciaga Jr.)
Many of his teammates will tell you, without prompting, that Rodriguez is the best striker they ever played with. Here at school in his polo shirt and pressed khakis, getting kids ready for a performance, you’d never know it. He’s humble. All these Rayados are. “I was an athlete all my life, and so I didn’t really know anything about the fine arts,” said Rodriguez, who earned all-American honors at Richland in 2006. He also scored the fifth goal in the rout of OKC Energy this year. “But it’s not hard to connect the two. A rehearsal is like practice. I know about practice. And the nerves are just like before a game. It’s my job to let them know, ‘hey, you know how to do this – it’s just like rehearsal.’ I just try to prepare them for anything.”
Work & Play: Keeping a Balance
Teaching is more than lesson plans and summer vacations. Sometimes we’re cynical. And sometimes we forget. It’s a job that takes heart and soul and can bleed you in ways that desks and computers just don’t. But that doesn’t keep the Rayados’ band of educators from turning up for training every few days. After all, they’re the best team in Dallas’ amateur ranks and they’ve gone a good long way in the Open Cup, setting a dream date with top-tier pros Houston Dynamo in the Fourth Round. That doesn’t come by accident.
And they’re a family – they’ll be the first to tell you. They all use the word. Again, you can see them as kids, as they were years ago, out there on the grass under a hot Texas sun. They’re chasing a soccer ball and a dream. They smile the same way their kids do in the halls while they get caught up in the jokes and play the game they’ve loved their whole lives.
(Now this is devotion - Tito Salas' NTX Rayados tattoo was his most painful)
“We’ve known each other forever,” said Pinal, a mouth full of braces making him seem younger then his 27 years. He was born in Mexico and was a former member of FC Dallas’ academy and two-time All-American at Richland. “We know each other like family and yeah, sure, sometimes it’s hard to get out to training because it’s a lot for one day, but it’s something I love doing. I get to teach and I get to go out and play the game I love. Out on the field, you just forget about everything and have fun.”
The Rayados sit on a bench in a lonely piece of shade. They take their time and share the events of the day as they change from their work clothes to their soccer gear. The young ones, some of them still enrolled at Richland and other area colleges, are shy. But they soak in the spirit. They’re there to bring speed and lungs and heart to the team, but they’re also there to learn. Training will be more laughs and keep-away than wind sprints. Tito Salas is on the phone, fielding calls. Someone’s out because he needs new tires and his car insurance expired. These things happen because this is amateur soccer and life takes up a lot of space. When his suit shirt comes off, you notice it. Up near the top of his arm: an NTX Rayados tattoo. “It’s the most painful one I ever got,” he admits about the ink there on the soft skin of the upper arm, nestled in with a full sleeve of elaborate work.
A Little Help from an Old Pro
The Rayados matter to Salas. This much is clear. To put together an amateur team as good as this one takes effort and time – it takes more than talent. It’s not just teachers and college kids in the team either. Salas even managed to convince Jose Burciaga Jr. to join in on this, the club’s seventh run in the Open Cup (they hadn’t managed to win a game in the tournament before this year). “I’ve known these guys a long time,” said Burciaga, now 36 but a former Open Cup winner in 2004 with Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer. He was born and raised in Oak Cliff, like many of the Rayados and he feels a pride for the place that’s often dismissed as halfway-to-nowhere. “But I told them, if I’m gonna’ do it, why don’t we do it right?” said Burciaga, playing in his 11th Open Cup and this time alongside his nephew, who also lines up with the team. “Take it a play at a time; a half at a time – let’s do that and we can make a real run.”
(It's a family affair for the Rayados, the 2018 Open Cup's Cinderellas, and Houston Dynamo should take note)
It’s not likely that the NTX Rayados will beat the Dynamo in Houston on Wednesday, but they could. Because they’re here. The teachers in the team don’t get caught up in what it means for them, but rather what it might mean for our kids as all good teachers call their students. They think about how it might help one of the youngsters in the team get a shot at that elusive professional dream – and if not, maybe it just might take them to four free years of college and a future like the one they all found. It’s a chance for the younger players to see what’s possible in a place where there are more locked doors than open ones.
And it’s a chance to play, to go up against the big boys they once dreamed of being. There’s that too. “I met a guy recently – 78 years old and he’s still playing,” said Tito Salas with a wistfulness in his voice. The sun sets on training and another workday creeps ever closer. “So I asked him ‘what’s the secret?’ and this wise man just said to me ‘Never stop playing; just don’t ever stop.’”