LAFAYETTE — The 8-man football team at Justice High School jumped into a 15-passenger van and headed on a five-hour trek to play their first game of the season in the mountain town of Hayden. It was Labor Day weekend traffic. And its head coach, Nels Thoreson, was driving.
Long team van rides like this was time Thoreson could think — think how his small team would fare on this day, think how his players with little or no organized sports experience would manage their new responsibilities. His team's roster on Game 1 of the season had already seen its share of turnover, too. He'd brought only 13 players to Hayden — two players, Thoreson said, had been incarcerated.
It's the kind of tough circumstances that are commonplace for a team made up of at-risk students who have been spurned by the traditional school system. Here, the 81-student Lafayette school welcomes those dealing with issues ranging from home problems, to past school concerns, to legal ones.
Garnering enough cohesion for a football team in this environment is nothing short of a daunting task.
"The biggest struggle every year is trying to get 15 to 20 kids from all walks of life to become one, to be on the same page and have each other's back" Thoreson said. "It is difficult because we play a lot of teams that have played together since elementary school and middle school. And the first day of practice some of my guys are introducing themselves to each other. ... Team chemistry is always a huge challenge every year because I never really know who I'll have until the first day of practice."
Mario Diaz and younger brother AJ have done their best to change the alternative school narrative. Returning for their fourth seasons, the two have given the program some rare continuity on the gridiron.
Mario, a four-year letter winner, will lead the Phoenix all over the field — on offense, defense and special teams. A year ago, the undersized linebacker led the team with more than 100 tackles in eight games.
AJ, meanwhile, will serve as the team's manager, a job he's done since eighth grade. The junior is unable to play contact sports because of a traumatic brain injury he suffered when he was younger.
Football brings the brothers closer
Separated in birth by only nine months, there was some friction between Mario and AJ when the eldest brother first wanted to play football as a freshman. With Mario eager, and AJ wanting but unable, the family initially had a hard time embracing the idea of the game. The boys' mother said it was only when the two agreed to work as one did the sport finally bring them joy.
"At first it was a little rough," Cheryl Diaz said. "Ultimately they found their peace by working as a team.
"AJ was timing his brother running, going to the games and trying to feel a part of that team." And Mario was helping make sure his brother was accepted and taken care of by the other teammates.
Older brother Mario has long been protective of his younger brother. And AJ has never taken that for granted.
Cheryl said the brother's bond has been intact ever since AJ's premature birth more than 16 years ago. Their relationship only grew to a greater importance the day of AJ's life-altering accident.
It was a summer afternoon seven years ago
Mario had received a strange call from his friend, telling him that his brother had fallen off a tree around their mobile home community.
When Mario found AJ, he was lying on the neighborhood road, seemingly concussed. And when he helped his brother to his feet, AJ quickly lost balance and fell into some nearby bushes. The family later learned from the neighborhood kids that AJ was up about 15 feet on the tree when his branch snapped and he fell onto the back of his head.
Unknowing of these exact details at the time, Mario picked AJ up and carried him home to his parents. The family first took AJ to urgent care but eventually ended up at Children's Hospital, where doctors found bleeding in AJ's brain. Things got worse when complications arose in the middle of the night and AJ was forced into emergency surgery.
To save his life, surgeons sawed off a piece of AJ's skull to get to the bleed in the brain. The piece of skull remained unattached until the brain reduced in swelling several weeks later. It was finally reset in place with screws and metal plates.
The whole ordeal felt like "four years" at the hospital, Cheryl said.
In the weeks and months after, Cheryl said she noticed a change in AJ. The obvious: a fresh scar extending from behind AJ's ear to near his forehead. But underneath that, Cheryl said her son's personality had changed and he tested about two school grades lower than he did before the accident.
Today, AJ takes classes as part of the Individualized Education Program at Justice and is doing well.
Cheryl said the focus is on today's reality, not expectations of the past.
"When you ask have we gotten back (to normal) I don't even know how to say that," Cheryl said. "I think one of the hardest things as a mom I had to learn is there is no 'what it was yesterday.' We're working on today. ... I know no different at this point. That's just my kid."
As for the lingering effects of the surgery: Cheryl said, "If you were to walk in this door and AJ had a baseball cap on you would have no idea what this child has overcome."
Diaz family remains strong
Cheryl has lived in Lafayette all her life. This is the place she met her husband, Alberto, 21 years ago and had her two sons. Today, she is the park manager of the mobile home community where she resides, while Alberto serves as lead maintenance of the park.
Asked about the Diaz family, Thoreson said they are known around town for their charitable work. He said Cheryl sets up gift donations for disadvantaged families every Christmas and instituted a study hall every Tuesday night in a commons area of their mobile home community to help children with their homework.
Her fortitude isn't lost on her own children, either.
In fact, Cheryl's desire to do best by her kids led them to Justice. She said she felt like her kids weren't getting the level of attention she wanted in the public school system and instead found that at Justice.
Her previous belief that Justice was a school only for court-appointed students was put to rest when she spoke with one of its former teachers. When she visited, she liked the small community feel, the hands-on teachers, the communication between administration and parents — she was sold.
As for the tough circumstances surrounding many of the students at Justice? Well, that's a part of life, Cheryl said.
"In any school that you go to, there are at-risk and there are troubled students," Cheryl said. "At least with this situation, it's smaller. I already know what kids my kids need to back away from and who's problematic for us. But my kids need to learn how to deal with and interact with people like this anyway.
"There's nothing found in Justice that isn't found at Centaurus, at Boulder Prep, at Monarch, at Peak to Peak. The same temptations, the same type of students, the same problems are everywhere we go in life. Ultimately it's my job as a parent to give my kids the tools on how to deal with them and how to overcome them."
Mario found a home at Justice
As a freshman, Mario, who had never played organized football growing up, was recruited to the high school team by coach Thoreson. The former University of Wisconsin-River Falls football player promised he would teach Mario the ins-and-outs of the sport. And soon, Thoreson became one of Mario's most influential mentors.
Thoreson, in his sixth year as the coach of Justice, assumes a laundry list of other duties at the school: athletic director, English teacher, Title IX coordinator, assistant registrar, attendance advocate, food service personnel and homework club director. All of it is in effort to help kids, something he said he's been passionate about thanks to his mother, Wendy.
"My mom has always been so caring and is always taking care of people," said Thoreson, who also has two younger brothers and a father who coach football. "From a young age, it was kind of instilled in us and kind of carried over into everything that we do. So, when this opportunity came up it just kind of fell into place, felt right and is beyond rewarding on so many levels."
Thoreson, a one-time travel writer, wound up at the school after taking a job that had him truck from Panama, up to Alaska and back to Denver. Nine months of exploring and writing in total. After that, he stayed in Colorado and tutored for the Justice schools at both their Denver and Boulder locations. Coaching football wasn't far behind.
As he tells it, one day he followed a couple players to football practice ... and the rest is history.
Mario then showed up in his class three years ago.
"I think I was sitting in class and he was like, 'Have you ever played football?' and I was like, 'No I've never played football.' And he's like, 'You are going to come play for us,'" Mario said. "I don't know the positions and I don't know none of the rules of football, so I'm like, 'What do you expect me to do?' And he was like, 'Don't worry, I'll teach you.'"
A bit green, Mario learned the game through his coach and older teammates. They taught him everything from the rules of the game to its techniques to the joy of it. Today, Mario said that's the reason he tries to help his inexperienced teammates.
At practice, Mario, the team's captain, leads his team on a small section of open grass at LaMont Does Park. The team runs drills on a field with no white lines or yard markers. Mario works to improve his game while helping his other teammates.
"Through hard work, Mario has grown bigger and stronger and he's kept moving up and up," Thoreson said.
Soon too, the captain will become the first known high school graduate in his family. Mario said he wants to study criminal justice — something he's gotten a taste of when he's gone on ride-alongs with the Lafayette Police Department.
"To grow up around a place where everybody doesn't like the cops — and how we perceive them and how other people perceive them — I want to help change that," Mario said. "A lot of people perceive them as people who come and pull people out and beat people up. That's not all cops, that's a lot of them, but not all of them."
Mario is already trying to lead by example. He volunteers in his community when not at school or at practice. Cheryl said Mario does everything from mowing lawns for people unable to do so themselves, to helping neighborhood kids with homework, to wrapping and distributing donated gifts to the underprivileged around Christmas.
Celebrating a birthday, and the start of the season
The Phoenix have been better lately, going a combined 9-7 in 2016 and 2017 after winning just four games in the previous five seasons.
Committed players like Mario are a big reason why.
Against Hayden, Justice traveled short-handed by van up the mountain as the Diaz's 2003 Dodge Dakota truck followed behind carrying the team's equipment. The Phoenix lost 52-26 in a game Mario, who turned 17 that day, played in all but two plays, and AJ worked the sidelines as the team's manager.
Of AJ's duties, he helps with equipment and gets his teammates water. Best of all, he gets to watch his brother on the field.
That night, the last player wasn't dropped back home until 4 a.m.
For the Diaz brothers, the long journeys together won't soon be forgotten.
Said Mario about AJ: "Every time I go out there, I play for him. I want to make him proud to see me hit people. I just play my heart out and leave everything out on the field."
Brent W. New: email@example.com, tweet @brentwnew