Football Player Who Assaulted a Referee Seeks a New Start

EDINBURG, Texas — Emmanuel Durón, 19, was scheduled to leave for college last Friday. A surprise pool party was arranged to send him off to restore a ruined football career. But the trade school he plans to attend in Atlanta was still trying to secure a field for its inaugural season. So Durón will have to wait at least a few more weeks before starting a new life, aiming to become someone other than a forever villain who attacked a referee.

Fred Gracia, 57, spent last week traveling across South Texas for a grocery chain, placing meats and other items in their proper cases, on their designated shelves. He drives 500 to 1,000 miles a week, trying to restore the ordinary rhythm of his life, seeking what almost every referee wants, to be invisible.

For seven months, Durón and Gracia have been trying to escape the brutal, viral reason most people have heard their names.

Their violent encounter came during a high school game in December. Durón was ejected after being flagged for three penalties on the same play. He went to the sideline, then rushed back onto the field, slamming into the referee. Gracia seemed to levitate before falling backward to the turf, his legs helplessly in the air.

Until that moment, Durón, then 18, was mostly unknown beyond his circle of family, friends and teammates in the Rio Grande Valley, on the border with Mexico. He was a star defensive end and wrestler at Edinburg High School, 6 feet tall, 250 pounds, with scholarship possibilities. Four college scouts were reportedly in the stands that night.

Then Durón rammed Gracia, breaking one of sport’s most inviolable rules. With that loss of control, he became a national outrage, jailed, charged with misdemeanor assault. Video of the incident spread in a digital sprint. Within hours, social media was aflame with fury, condemnation, threats.

Iris Gracia, a musician and Fred’s daughter, wrote on Twitter of Durón, “I hope he’s never allowed to step on the field and play a sport ever again.”

Then she reconsidered and wrote: “I’ve had some time to reflect on what I said yesterday. I know it may have come off as harsh to some. It’s tough in the heat of the moment. Prayers and good vibes for everyone at this time. We could all use a little bit more positivity this year.”

Gracia’s reassessment suggested a number of important questions. When a young athlete commits an egregious act, where should punishment intersect with compassion? Does the athlete deserve a second chance? And how does a teenager begin again after facing nationwide disgust and cancellation?

Even while he lay dazed on the field, Fred Gracia said in an interview, he forgave Durón. He is glad, he said, that Durón seems to have a chance to rescue a self-sabotaged athletic career. Gracia said he also faced the law as a younger man, spending 24 hours in jail after he was arrested on a drunken-driving charge in 1990. In that moment, he said, he found himself. Perhaps, Durón will find himself, too.

“I wish him the best,” Gracia said in the interview, conducted by video last week. “I hope he’s made peace with himself. He’s just starting his life.”

In trying to put the incident behind them, Gracia and Durón have much in common. Both have struggled to sleep at times. Both have grown weary of the public stares, the whispers of recognition, the dreaded question: Are you that guy?

“I’m trying my hardest to forget everything and be someone in life,” Durón said last week in his first interview since the December attack. “I want people to see the real me. I’m not just a kid who did something wrong.”

He spoke at his home after a day of rain left his neighborhood flooded. Visitors had to be ferried in and out in pickup trucks. His father, who is also named Emmanuel and erects scaffolding at refineries, sat on a sofa in the living room and spoke of the importance of his son becoming the first person in the family to attend college. Durón’s lawyer, Jose Antonio Solis, stood in the room and repeated a familiar admonition.

“This is the beginning of your story,” he told his client. “What you do going forward will determine how the story ends.”

The outburst on the football field was not Durón’s first. Ten months earlier, he had shoved a referee in a soccer match and been suspended from Edinburg High’s team. Weekly counseling sessions, Durón said, have taught him to control his anger. He has learned to calm himself with breathing techniques, to think before he acts, to forgive himself when others will not.

Perhaps it is best that he is going far away for college. No one knows him in Atlanta. It’s a chance for a fresh start.

“I don’t want people judging me every single moment without knowing me,” Durón said.

Yet he understands that the judgment will continue. Earlier this summer, while working a construction job, he was recognized at a Walmart in Nebraska. It struck him“how the world knows in a matter of seconds,” he said. “One mistake can ruin everything.”

One of Durón’s best friends, Arturo Gonzalez, 18, went into a local store two months ago, wearing a T-shirt, known as a fan shirt, that bore Durón’s name and jersey number on the back. Gonzalez said one of the store’s workers told him: “That’s the guy with the referee, right? Maybe he should get some more time in jail.”

And then there are the threats on Durón’s social media accounts like, “Where do you live so I can go kill you?” He has learned to ignore such hatred. For a while, he said, it left him depressed, overwhelmed.

“It was basically the whole world against me,” Durón said. “That’s how I saw it.”

Durón has not spoken to Gracia since the attack. The assault charge against him is still pending. On Christmas Eve, he sat on the sofa at home — wearing a tie and dress shirt, flanked by his parents, all of them in somber contrast to the decorated tree in the corner — and said in a video that he was sorry.

He clasped his hands, the anger from a few weeks earlier gone from his eyes, and said in a calm voice: “To Mr. Fred Gracia, I would like to apologize to you personally. I hope you’re doing well. I am extremely sorry for my actions towards you, and I hope one day you can accept my apology.”

“He touched my heart,” Gracia said.

In the holiday spirit, Gracia said, he considered asking that the assault charge be dropped. But he demurred. Though he had forgiven Durón, he said he could not condone his behavior. In April, Gracia testified before a state legislative committee and supported a bill, signed into law in June, that prohibits Texas athletes who attack a referee from playing high school sports again, with certain exceptions.

“The last thing I would want anyone to see is a fellow official getting paralyzed out there or losing their life,” Gracia said.

He and his lawyer also want the Edinburg school district to begin administering mental health screenings to athletes, along with traditional physical examinations.

“He was 18; people deserve a second chance,” Richard Hinojosa, Gracia’s lawyer, said of Durón. “But he was put in a very bad situation. He had done this before, and nobody gave him the tools to learn to cope with whatever issues he had.”

Gracia has been a referee for 30 years, finding pleasure in clearly defined rules, equitably applied. But he is not sure that he will continue officiating. His neck has begun bothering him and his back aches. He said the pain could be related to the hit by Durón.

“My heart and my mind say yes,” Gracia said about continuing. “Sometimes my body doesn’t agree.”

He felt fear, too, he told The Monitor newspaper of nearby McAllen in May. “Sometimes,” Gracia said, “I don’t know how I’m going to react if somebody charges at me and wants to confront me about a rule.”

The public response to the incident has been whipsawing. Gracia said he was stunned and grateful about the number of people who took time to wish him well amid a pandemic that ravaged the Rio Grande Valley. But he could only muster a single word — “Really?” — when a friend crouched into a football stance as if to playfully attack him. And he tired of people who approached him, asking whether he was the referee who had been assaulted.

“That’s not me,” he said at times.

Because the criminal case remains unresolved, Durón’s lawyer declined to let him give details about what happened in that explosive moment on Dec. 3.

The Edinburg High Bobcats, their season shortened by the coronavirus pandemic, entered the game that night with a 2-2 record, needing a victory to reach the playoffs. In those first four games, Durón had been credited with an extraordinary 102 tackles. He seemed positioned to be named again as the best defensive player in District 31-6A, whose teams play among Texas’s largest high schools.

Durón had also been named the area’s top wrestler as a junior after building a record of 44-8 and finishing fifth in the 2020 state tournament in the 220-pound class. He was an early favorite to win a state title in his senior year. Area coaches described him as an athlete with raw strength and kinetic intensity.

“He never stops,” said Koy Detmer, the high school football coach in Somerset, Texas, and a former N.F.L. quarterback.

The rules of football and wrestling permit controlled antagonism. But Durón strayed far beyond the permissible in Edinburg High’s game against the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High Bears.

This is Gracia’s description of what happened: With Edinburg ahead by a touchdown in the second quarter, Durón complained that he was being held illegally. Gracia told Durón not to talk to him. He preferred to have these discussions with coaches, not players. Durón went to the sideline, spoke to his coach, then charged into the opposing quarterback on the next play. Gracia flagged Durón for a late hit.

The line judge then assessed two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against Durón — one for taunting a rival player, the other for saying something untoward about the line judge’s mother. The infractions called for an automatic ejection. Gracia raised his right hand, thumb extended, and said over the public address system, “Number 88 on the defense has been disqualified.”

The night of the game, Durón’s father told The New York Times that the referee had cursed his son. The Washington Post reported similar accusations from unnamed Edinburg players. Gracia denied them. Lupe Rodriguez, the coach of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, said that he had heard no cursing and had never known Gracia to use profanity. He said Gracia “calls the game by the book, is professional, gets along with everybody, has one of the better crews in the Valley.”

Upon being ejected, Durón went to the sideline and Gracia picked up his flag and began walking upfield. Then Durón, his helmet removed but his shoulder pads still on, charged back onto the field. A teammate and a coach gave chase but could not stop him as he rammed into Gracia. The referee rolled onto his stomach and was later helped to his feet. He left the game and was examined for a possible concussion and a shoulder injury, according to news accounts.

He said he still does not understand why Durón assaulted him. They had no harsh words before the ejection, Gracia said, adding, “I just announced it.”

Durón was escorted from the stadium by police officers and booked into jail in Edinburg, still wearing his blue football pants. His father brought him a pair of sweatpants. His cleats were taken, and he said he spent the night in his football socks. The next morning, he was booked into the Hidalgo County jail, and later released after posting a $10,000 bond.

He spent about 24 hours locked up, as Gracia had three decades earlier. He realized, as Gracia did, that he never wanted to be in a place like that again. No Edinburg coaches or school officials visited him in jail, Durón said. Nor did any coaches speak to him, he said, when he briefly returned to school to take state assessment exams.

“I was one of the best and people would say, ‘Durón, he’s a good player for his school,’” he said. “Where are they now?”

He was suspended from school for three days. His high school sports career was terminated. He finished his senior year, as did his classmates, by remote learning. Edinburg High won the Dec. 3 game but forfeited its spot in the playoffs. Its coach was removed. Durón lost any chance to play football or wrestle at a high-profile college.

The only coach who showed interest was Derek Jenks of the start-up Atlanta Institute of Business, an online trade school on the fringes of post-high school football. The team’s fall schedule includes other trade schools, prep schools, junior colleges and an N.C.A.A. Division III college. Last week it was still negotiating to play home games at an Atlanta soccer complex. Players have delayed their scheduled arrival until Aug. 1.

Jenks said in a phone interview that he grew up in foster care, felt a connection with Durón and wanted to give him a second chance. “I’m not going to let 30 seconds of his life dictate the next 30 years of his life,” Jenks said.

Last week, after the water receded in his neighborhood, Durón, Gonzalez and another friend went to an amusement center to bowl and shoot pool. Durón noticed the familiar stares and whispers. As he left in the drizzly, muggy evening, he scrolled through his social media accounts on his phone and read the latest insults.

“Did you kill that ref?”

Then he replayed the infamous video, looking at himself running onto the field and charging the referee. It is Durón’s aim and burden to prove that this angry player was not his true self. The video played again and again, and he watched with seeming detachment, as if he were seeing someone else.

Michael Levenson and Neil Vigdor contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.