When Hurricane Harvey tore through the town of Refugio, residents looking for a little redemption turned to the one place they can usually find it – football.
This is not an underdog story.
The Refugio High School Bobcats are a powerhouse in Texas high school football. The program has just 13 losses in 11 years. They regularly shut out opponents, running up the score to double-digit differentials. In the town of Refugio, you can count on the Bobcats winning.
“You hear about football being king,” says the Rev. T. Wayne Price of First Baptist Church in Refugio. “Football literally is king in Refugio.”
But 10 weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey churned through Texas, bringing record flooding to parts of the state. Refugio was hit particularly hard. The coastal town is just 25 miles inland from Rockport, where the hurricane made landfall in Texas.
The town was battered by 140-mile-per-hour winds, driving rain and even tornados – and that was only the beginning.
Like many Refugians, Jason Herring, head football coach for the Bobcats, was left scrambling after the storm – trying to find basic necessities like toothpaste and underwear while also trying to repair tattered roofs, replace blown-out windows and remove waterlogged sheetrock.
“It’s a shame there’s not a manual for how to deal with the hurricane,” Herring says. “Because – I’m going to be honest with you – I’ve never been through one and the hurricane after the hurricane is 10 times worse than – a thousand times worse than – the hurricane itself.”
So, Herring and the hurricane-ravaged town looked for redemption where they usually find it – football.
“No amount of heartbreak can take this away. No storm can take this away,” Herring says. “This is what we do. This is who we are. This is what we know how to do.”
The Storm After The Storm
Phones were down, power was spotty, and city and county leaders were dealing with problems they’d never encountered before. But as officials reset, contractors and volunteers from across Texas began pouring in to help with the cleanup.
Mayor Wanda Dukes says that on-the-ground volunteer presence meant more than relief efforts from the federal government, which denied some Refugians' claims.
“They’ve brought us a lot of supplies – water, food, clothing, lots of things like that,” she says. “With FEMA, we’ve been just a little bit disappointed. We have a lot of people that have been denied. I talked with Gov. Abbott and he said he was going to be working on that for us – for people to appeal their FEMA denials. So, hopefully, they’ll get help.”
So far, Dukes estimates, $1.5 million in emergency funds have been routed toward Refugio. But, she says, the town will still need twice that amount to climb back to where it was.
Dukes is even waiting for her own storm relief.
“I’m one of the displaced people,” she says. “Right now, I’m not living in my home. I had a lot of roof damage, some inside damage with walls down.”
While volunteers helped drive the recovery early, Refugio needed a win to get back to normalcy. It needed football.
Two days after Harvey hit, Violet Gonzales and her family were sheltered in the town’s martial arts studio.
With their home heavily damaged and a majority of close family members inside, she and her daughters began to wonder what was next for their hometown.
“Football!” she says, laughing. “You know, Bobcats! Refugio Bobcats. And now that’s even postponed. No game this Friday. We don’t know about next week. This is a football town.”
A week before Harvey, Principal Brandon Duncan was set to begin his first year at Refugio High. The school had just put the finishing touches on an expensive remodel. Teachers were finalizing lesson plans.
“Everything was done,” he says. “We were getting into a new school and then the hurricane hit and pretty much tore everything apart. We don’t have an auditorium. We don’t have a band hall. We lost both gyms. Our middle corridor of our high school, the office area, is completely gone.”
The stadium was damaged, too, but the field house somehow survived. So, just 10 days after Harvey made landfall, Refugio Coach Jason Herring decided to get back to business.
But getting back to two-a-days and drills was easier said than done.
Many players evacuated to inland towns or were forced to leave temporarily because their homes were compromised. Some slept on Red Cross cots in the weight room at the football facility while the coaching staff rotated as chaperones.
There was no power – and no air conditioning. The moisture left by Harvey made it hotter, more humid and muggier than normal. But Herring says the routine of football provided structure for kids whose lives had been upended – that was why he and the other coaches were so quick to start back up. Price, who is also the Bobcats’ chaplain, said that decision went a long way.
“To be able to go to Goliad two weeks after the storm, it was a very smart move by our superintendent and our coach,” he says. “That brought some normalcy, and we probably had about 2,000 people – literally – at that game in Goliad.”
But the normalcy came with another hurdle for the team.
Because of the hurricane, cancellations and stadium damage, the Bobcats would not be able to play a home game until the last week of October – week eight of the Texas high school schedule.
Most of the season would be played on the road.
Refugians’ dedication to high school football is well-founded.
The team has won two state championships since 2011, has a record of 141-13 under Coach Herring, and started the season ranked No. 1 in the Texas Associated Press rankings among 2A teams.
For Herring, the program’s consistency is a point of pride.
“For 10 years in a row, we’ve never been less than the quarterfinals. That’s four rounds deep,” he says. “That’s December football, 10 years in a row.”
Odds are pretty good that if your team plays Refugio, it’ll get beaten – by a lot. Herring’s team was the subject of a 2011 ESPN Outside the Lines report that highlighted their ability to light up a scoreboard. Herring argues that by resting his starters after halftime in a lopsided game, they would be de-conditioned and, possibly, lose in the playoffs against better competition.
During that 2011 season, Herring started playing his starters through at least three quarters in those blowouts, and they won the state title.
Since then, they’ve won another and been runner-up twice. Herring doesn’t have a “one game at a time” approach like many coaches. And, this year, he is squarely focused on a championship – not for personal glory or resume-padding, but for the town of Refugio itself.
Football, he says, drives the town of Refugio.
“I want to win it bad, bad, bad for this community,” Herring says. “Because I’m telling you, this community is hurting. The one positive thing they have in their life, still, is football. Can’t take that away. We’re really good at football. We’ve always been good. They love it.”
In the second game of the season against Edna High School, the game that had been so good to the town created another hurdle.
One of the Bobcats’ leading wide receivers, 17-year-old Casey Henderson, was injured on his first snap at defensive back. His father, Charlie, says he went for a tackle, and he didn’t get up.
“He’s just laying there,” Charlie recalls. “We knew something happened. Something bad happened.”
Casey broke his neck and was eventually taken to San Antonio for surgery and rehab.
“When something like that happens to one of your kids that you love, it puts everything in perspective,” Herring says. “Casey and his family lost everything, and then, on top of that, a week later he gets paralyzed. I just felt, God put it on my heart that that kids deserves a home to come home to and there’s not one.”
Charlie and his wife, Nichole, lost their roof in the storm, and much of what was inside was ruined.
So, Coach Herring is doing what he can to help, organizing a fundraiser and wrangling volunteers to repair the Hendersons’ home.
“I think any coach that’s gone through this will tell you there’s a little bit of guilt,” Herring says. “You wonder, did I teach tackling right? Did I do this right? Did I do everything? Did I tell him enough to keep his head up? ... [S]o there’s this sense of responsibility that I know I feel, and I just want to do everything that I can to help that kid and that family.”
Nichole says Casey’s rehab is going well. He’s doing something new every day, and his range of movement has been increasing in tandem. She says every movement is a milestone to her.
The Hendersons have had to move temporarily to a smaller house about a 30-minute drive away. With Nichole staying much of the week with Casey in the hospital, their other son, Sylvester, who starts at linebacker and fullback for the Bobcats, drives his two other siblings back and forth to school.
The Hendersons say they think Casey will be released later this month. Their contractor says the Hendersons should have a repaired house with wheelchair accessibility by then, as well.
'You're Not Going To Overcome It By Yourself'
Refugio Offensive Coordinator Cameron Cox says Casey’s injury, coupled with the hurricane, has humbled the team that planned on focusing solely on defending its state title this season.
“Both things, the hurricane and Casey’s injury, is a lot to overcome and you’re not going to overcome it by yourself,” he says.
And, so far this season, they haven’t.
At nearly every stop, Refugio High School has collected something else besides much-needed wins: donations. Schools and towns on its schedule have been generous to both the Henderson family and Refugio.
Ben Bolt High School players and a coach stopped in to present Sylvester a check for his parents’ house before practice one afternoon. In addition to a donation to the school, Navarro didn’t charge admission for Refugio fans. Hallettsville’s booster club came by and provided the team a meal.
All this belies the team’s reputation as the big bullies of 2A football fields.
“You know there’s not a lot to be real cocky about when you’re getting food from FEMA,” Cox says. “All you can do is be extremely thankful and really realize how blessed you are.”
Last week’s homecoming game wasn’t just a homecoming for the Bobcats.
It was a chance for Refugians to sit and watch their first home game of the year – like any other Friday night – and, perhaps for a little while, get away from the stress of relief and recovery. And it’s not just therapeutic for the fans. It helps the coaches, too.
“For that three hours, it’s awesome, because I’m not worried about the hurricane,” Herring says. “I’m not worried about the $40,000 damage at my house. I’m not worried about Casey’s house. I’m not worried about how I’m going to fix Mrs. Perez’s roof. I’m not worried about Mrs. Jones’ stump in her yard. I’m not worried about Mrs. Smith’s air conditioner. All I’m worried about is football and putting the best team I can on the field.”
In Bobcat fashion, Refugio shut out the Kenedy Lions, 78-0.
But the homecoming game isn't the end.
Refugio’s recovery story goes on. Residents will continue filing insurance claims, negotiating with contractors, prioritizing donations and reopening businesses.
There’s always more work to do for Jason Herring, too, including visits to Casey Henderson in San Antonio and helping his family repaint their home.
But, he also plans on coaching eight more weeks this season into the playoffs.
Herring says he's going to get his own roof fixed, eventually, but that will have to wait until after the season ends, perhaps, with another state championship title.