Mission's Jeremy Duran (3) listens as coach Koy Detmer gives him instructions on a play duringa game against PSJA North at Tom Landry Hall of Fame Stadium on Friday, Nov. 27,2020 in Mission. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

MISSION — At the corner of Conway Avenue and Tom Landry Street sits a shrine to one of Mission’s earliest hometown heroes.

Just a few miles north of the Rio Grande and a few blocks south of the stadium that bears his name stands a mural of Mission High legend and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Tom Landry.

Before Landry became the first coach in Dallas Cowboys history and patrolled the sidelines in the NFL for three decades he started off in Mission, leading the Eagles to their first unbeaten regular season in school history in 1941 during his senior season.

That historically great squad has been the measuring stick against which every Mission High team has been compared for generations.

The 2020 Eagles, however, will have an opportunity to join Landry’s legendary team as one of the few Mission High teams to ever complete an undefeated regular season. But that’s far from the only thing this highly motivated Mission squad is playing for this season.

“I think everyone can agree that this year has been one of the toughest years as far as lost loved ones and, well, uncertainty,” said senior wideout Joe Louis Cortez, the team’s leading receiver. “We’re extremely blessed to have the opportunity to play this season with covid going on. A lot has been sacrificed and none of it has gone unnoticed.”

More so than ever before, the Eagles are playing for a collection of their hometown heroes and to cement their legacy as one of the top teams in this football-crazed town nestled in the Rio Grande Valley.

Mission’s Jose Cortez (1) makes a catch against PSJA North defender Oscar Garcia (33) during the first half of a high school football game at Tom Landry Hall of Fame Stadium on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020, in Mission. Cortez caught the ball and scored on a 40-yard scamper. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

Mission High has carried a blue-and-white American flag since the 2019 season in honor of one of their fallen hometown heroes: Mission PD officer Jose Espericueta.

Espericueta, who had gained notoriety for his work within the community and appearances on the popular TV show ‘Live PD,’ was killed in a shootout in June 2019 while responding to a 9-1-1 call.

He’s one of four law enforcement officials who have died in the line of duty in Hidalgo County since the beginning of 2019, making it the most dangerous of all Texas’ 254 counties for law enforcement officials during that stretch.

“I believe all this got started last year around midseason. It was after an officer-involved shooting incident, in which unfortunately one of our very own Mission police officers lost his life,” said junior safety Luis Briseño. “We just wanted to come together and show our support to law enforcement officers. We understand the dangers they go through on a daily basis and the type of work they do to keep us safe. Bringing out the flag to show our support was the least we could do.”

The Eagles are also playing for two of their own: Briseño and senior linebacker Ram Garcia.

While his team was busy battling into the District 31-6A championship game, Garcia has been hard at work determined to win his battle against Leukemia.

Garcia, who has not been able to see his teammates in person since his treatment began, has watched every Eagles game this year from a hospital in San Antonio. He’s motivated his teammates to play on in his honor and consequently, the Eagles have built the Rio Grande Valley’s toughest defense in his honor.

“We have been playing for him. Every game we’ve played was dedicated to Ram,” said Briseño, who leads the team with three interceptions this season. “He has been truly missed on and off the field, he is a great teammate, person and friend. There hasn’t been a single practice or game in which his name was not brought up. Defensively we know how much he would love to be out there on the field, which is why we never take any practice or game for granted. I know and I pray that Ram will beat this, and make a full recovery.”

Briseño, meanwhile, was putting together one of the top seasons of any defensive back across the RGV until an intense leg injury in the Eagles’ 41-7 win over PSJA North ended his season in a victory that clinched 31-6A’s south zone title.

Edinburg High’s Dylan Garza (15)stumbles as he makes in front of Mission High defender Luis Briseño (28) during the 2nd half of a high school football game at Tom Landry Stadium on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Mission. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

“They’ve been a huge motivation for us. At the start of the season we had the mindset of devoting this season to Ram after we found out that he wouldn’t be able to step out onto the field with us,” said senior defensive tackle Dante Lopez, a TSWA Honorable Mention All-State pick in 2019. “Then last week we had the unfortunate experience of seeing one of our brothers go down so this game means everything to us in playing for those that can’t be with us on the field and trying to go and get a district championship for them.”

The Mission High community was devastated twice more in the lead up to the 2020 high school football season in the RGV, which was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

First came a moment that racked the entire Rio Grande Valley football community.

Coach Omar Trujillo, a front-line hospital worker — the head coach of the Mission Mustangs state championship-winning youth football team and Mission High junior quarterback Jeremy Duran’s stepfather — passed away unexpectedly from COVID-19 complications in early September after working tirelessly to contain the spread of the virus in one of the state’s hardest-hit communities.

A few days later, the Eagle football family was dealt another tremendous blow.

Sonny Detmer, the father of current Eagles head coach Koy Detmer and a Texas high school football coaching legend who led Mission from the late 1980s to early 2000s, also passed away unexpectedly in early September weeks before the season began.

“This rough off-season has impacted us and brought us together as a team more than ever before. We didn’t know if we would even get the chance to get out there and play. Our games now hold more meaning and value to everyone,” Briseño said. “This goes back to our teammate Ram, players and coaches as well, who have lost loved ones. It’s truly become more than just a game to us. We’ve become a family and we use that as motivation to come out and really leave it all on the field for them.”

More than anything though, Detmer and Duran’s determination and persistence this season has motivated the Eagles to climb to new heights.

Mission High’s head coach and quarterback have led their team to a perfect 4-0 start, manhandling every opponent who has faced them so far. Duran has thrown for 1,116 yards and 12 touchdowns while completing 67.5% of his passes, all of which are tops among Class 6A quarterbacks in the RGV.

Now, Detmer, Duran and the Eagles, who protested and petitioned for the right to play football this year, are on the precipice of history with more to play for now than ever before.

PSJA North’s Ale Aparicio (3) escapes the pocket as Mission’s Dante Lopez (43) applies pressure during the first half of a high school football game at Tom Landry Hall of Fame Stadium on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020 in Mission. Cortez caught the ball and scored on a 40-yard scamper. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]or.com

A win over the No. 1 Edinburg Vela SaberCats (4-0, 3-0) in the District 31-6A championship game would mean much more to No. 3 Mission than just a district title or the top seed headed into the Class 6A playoffs.

An Eagles’ victory would make Duran the third quarterback in school history to lead Mission High to a perfect regular-season finish for the first time in 29 years, joining a shortlist that includes Landry and his head coach.

For Detmer, a win would make him the first man ever to lead Mission to perfect seasons on the gridiron as both a quarterback and head coach. He would also join his father, Sonny, as one of the few head coaches to ever lead the Eagles to an unbeaten season.

“Coach Detmer is the heart of the team, we all revolve around him. He’s a great person, coach and a great role model for all of us. Jeremy is one of our main guys, a great leader, person and teammate. He’ll push you to be your best at any time,” Briseño said. “This would mean everything to us, knowing how hard our coaching staff and players worked all year. To achieve something like this is truly special, especially with a season like this where everything has been a challenge.”

“We all see Coach Detmer and Jeremy as family. The unfortunate passings of Coach Sonny Detmer and Omar Trujillo affected a mass majority of the football team as we had a bond with them one way or another, especially with these tragedies happening so soon before the start of the season,” Lopez said. “When Coach Trujillo passed most of the starters on the team were affected by this one way or another he had all been our coach/role model in the game of football whether it be as a young kid in TYFA football or even last summer when he coached our 7on7 team.

“He’s always been there and it hurt for a while. On the back of our helmets, we have a sticker abbreviated OT for Omar Trujillo. Our team has faced many challenges from the start of the season till now  so to win this upcoming game would be a major moral victory not as much for us but for those who couldn’t be a part of it.”

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch