Roosevelt football struggles to accept dedicating another season to loss

The emblems arrived in a package at the athletic office a week after their first game, a reminder another season would be filled with moments of silence for the ones they’d lost.

It had been 18 months since Roosevelt High football’s beloved assistant coach Richard “Dicky” Guillen died at 70 from COVID-19. Nine months since they last wore “All Work, No Glory” emblems on their helmets — one of Guillen’s favorite sayings. Three and a half months since graduation, the day that should’ve marked a close to an emotional year.

Yet tragedy found them again. While on a drive to the field for a late July practice, head coach Aldo Parral was unable to shake the past.

“I just kept on saying, ‘Why? Why?’” Parral said.

There were new helmet emblems in that package. Not just “All Work, No Glory,” but a No. 44 decal. It was the number of a Rough Rider role model with a scruffy beard, a lion’s strength and a sweet smile that masked a childhood he fought to escape.

“None of us thought we were going to have to play another season for someone again,” senior Jared Andrade said.

Years ago, coaches would emerge from the locker room after practice had ended to hear weights crashing next door. Boom. Boom.

That’s how you knew, assistant coach Ernesto Ceja said, that Santos Rivera was still there.

An All-City running back in his senior season in 2018, Rivera was revered for his work ethic by Roosevelt coaches and players that would follow. Every night, Ceja said, he’d have to kick Rivera out of the gym so they could lock up.

Block like Santos. Run like Santos. Work out like Santos. Coaches preached him, and players wanted to be him. Seniors like Isiah Wright, Alexander Arroyo and Andrade never had the chance to play with Rivera in a Rough Rider uniform, but he was the community legend that was real, the kid who’d seen enough to last a lifetime and channeled it into a Rough Rider uniform caked in dirt.

“Hopefully, some day,” Wright said, “some of us can fill his shoes.”

Rivera was in that weight room to survive his past, to bloom, said his aunt, Andrea Rivera.

“It was supposed to be like, ‘This kid beat every odd,’” said Roberto Ortiz, Roosevelt’s offensive line coach.

Instead, his aunt was left in late July to gaze across her dining room table, losing herself in a photo of her nephew’s smile she’ll never see again, wearing his No. 44 and giving him a kiss on the cheek after a Roosevelt game.

“My poor baby,” she sobbed.

Rivera’s aunt provided a safe haven. He grew up with a drug-addicted mom who was a victim of domestic violence and violent herself, sleeping in a car for a time on the streets of Eagle Rock, Andrea Rivera said. His aunt eventually became his legal guardian, loving him like another son.

When his mother was shot and killed in April 2017 — a crime remaining unsolved — his aunt offered to take Santos to counseling. He’d be OK, he said, because he had her and his football family.

“He comes from a lot of traumatizing stuff, and the way to let go through all of his emotions was through football,” Wright said. “A lot of people, they look up to that.”

After spending time at Sacramento State University and in the Army, Rivera was living with his aunt, trying to figure out his next step. On June 2, he left her house around 11:45 p.m. He liked to run at night. His aunt didn’t think much of it.

He didn’t come back the next morning.

“Pop, where are you?” Andrea Rivera texted. “I’m starting to get worried.”

She didn’t find out until days later. According to Sarah Arbalani of the L.A. County coroner’s office, Rivera was walking on a dimly lit stretch of the 110 freeway in the early morning of June 3 when he was struck by a car. He was admitted to the hospital at 2:47 a.m. and died 20 minutes later.

It’s unclear why he was on the freeway. His aunt believes he was robbed and left there. The case is under investigation.

The Rough Riders didn’t find out until a week later — graduation day. As Parral was eating a celebratory dinner at an Applebee’s, his son came in and broke down, saying Rivera was dead. Andrade remembers the team’s group chat blowing up as he sat stunned in his room.

“It’s like one thing after another,” Ortiz said. “Who are we going to be mourning next year?”

Rivera wanted to avoid being a statistic, his aunt said, another kid from a poor area in East Los Angeles who succumbed to a traumatic background.

The same night the team found out, Andrade texted Parral, he said, telling the coach he wanted to “keep Santos here with us.” They came up with the idea to add a No. 44 sticker on their helmets, alongside the decal for Guillen.

“He’s not forgotten,” Andrade said. “And he still has a big legacy for us at Roosevelt High School.”

There’s a limit to how much the team can overcome, Ortiz said. But they know Rivera is still watching, Ceja said, in the best seat in the house with Guillen.

“We gotta do it again,” Wright said. “Gotta do it for both of them now.”

Andrade has a vision for his first touchdown of the year, whenever it comes. He’ll cross the goal line and throw up four fingers on both hands. An ode to No. 44.

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