Family before football (Column)

By Louie St. George III
The Daily Times

Dustin Davis raced 94 yards for a game-tying touchdown.

Up in the stands, Dustin’s mother, Saundra Pazuchanics, collapsed.

Last Friday night at Aztec’s Fred Cook Memorial Stadium, the Aztec Tigers capped a perfect District 1-4A campaign with a dominant win over Kirtland Central.

To celebrate their 9-1 record, gaudy state ranking and sure-fire top-four seed for the state playoffs, the Tigers prayed.

They prayed because real-life events, real-life hardships trump anything that takes place on a football field.

Dustin Davis, the one who jumpstarted the scoring with a scintillating 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, wasn’t around to bow his head with his Tiger teammates. Still in uniform, Dustin was with his mother, who was fighting for her life at San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington.

Perched near the booster club table at Fred Cook, Saundra reacted like a proud mother while watching Dustin zoom past the Broncos. She jumped up and down. She yelled, cheered for her son and for the Tigers. Then, something went terribly wrong. In a flash, Saundra hit the ground, bumping her head on a railing and then the concrete. She had a seizure and went into cardiac arrest. On the way to the hospital, her heart stopped multiple times.

Once the severity of the situation was understood, Dustin was pulled from the field. He went from being entrenched in a pivotal district football game to the sterile surroundings of a hospital.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Dustin said Saturday morning, a week after the episode. “I was so pumped at that point in the game I guess I didn’t really realize what happened. It was crazy, to say the least.”

Saundra was transferred to Albuquerque late last week. The cause of her collapse remains unknown. “It’s still a mystery,” Dustin said.

What is known — unequivocally — is that Aztec’s win over the Broncos wasn’t the most impressive aspect of the night.

Following the game, the Tigers huddled together on their sideline with heavy hearts. They prayed for Dustin and his family. Eventually, they greeted a pack of Kirtland Central players at midfield and prayed some more.

“The championship didn’t mean a thing,” Aztec senior Garry Dixon said. “You think you’d be excited to win a championship, but it didn’t mean a thing to us. You think, ‘this is the biggest game of the year, the biggest game of our lives,’ but when I heard about that it all changed.

“It went from the biggest game ever to it didn’t really matter.”

In the locker room, the tone was similar. Sure, it was nice to end the regular season on a nine-game winning streak. The 1-4A crown was a nice little reward for hours — years, even — of preparation. But, like Dixon said, it simply didn’t matter.

Perspective snuck in.

Tigers coach Brad Hirsch reportedly talked little of the game when addressing his team.

According to Dixon, Hirsch’s message was, “There are things in life that are bigger than football. Football doesn’t mean anything when it comes to family.”

Following the normal postgame routine, the Tigers didn’t head off to a player’s house to watch movies or play video games. Instead, many of the players went to the hospital. They stayed into the wee hours of the morning. Early Saturday, they came back. A few days later, a coach from Kirtland Central visited.

Thoughts and prayers haven’t stopped.

“Aztec is more than a football community — we’re a family,” Davis said. “We take care of our family. That’s just how we roll.”

The outpouring of support from teammates indeed reflects a tight-knit bunch wise beyond their 16, 17 and 18 years.

If only their NFL brethren could grasp the family-first concept. Just last week, the Minnesota Vikings fined receiver Troy Williamson thousands of dollars for leaving the team to attend his grandmother’s funeral. This was the lady who raised him. His own blood. The man felt it prudent to pay his last respects. To say thank you. To say goodbye.

He got docked a week’s pay — though the fine ultimately was reversed Saturday by the Vikings following an onslaught of negative PR.

Too often, sports overshadow the important stuff. Athletes possess a singular focus. They’re driven by success. They speed down the Interstate of Life with blinders on. It’s what makes the good ones so good. But for a group of teenagers to take the blinders off and support their teammate, that’s bigger than any game, any league championship. That’s a life lesson.

“It makes you think about so much,” Dixon said. “A lot of us realized it could be anybody. We practice until 7 each night, watch lots of film. We don’t really have a lot of time for our family.”

When it mattered most, Dixon and the Tigers made time.

With the postseason looming, Dustin expects to be back on the field helping the Tigers take aim at a Blue Trophy.

That’s where his mom would want him to be.

“Even with what’s going on, she’d want me to go play,” Dustin concluded.

Mom knows best.