Roughly an hour before kickoff every week, Kennedy (Richmond, Calif.) quarterback Roman Espinoza spells out “U-L-I-S-E-S” in art stickers on his right cheek and puts a “75” sticker on his left cheek. He then puts on his helmet and heads to the field to warm up.
Espinoza does it to pay tribute to his friend and fallen teammate, Ulises Grijalva, a 16-year-old junior who was shot to death in August while walking across the street from his home the day before Kennedy was scheduled to start two-a-days.
“It’s just something small that I do,” Espinoza said. “But it has a big impact on me.”
Espinoza’s pre-game routine is just one of many ways the Eagles have kept Grijalva in their memory this season.
The most prominent daily reminder is Grijalva’s locker, which the team decided not to touch.
Espinoza likes being able to peer across the locker room and see Grijalva’s equipment thrown into his locker “the same way it always was.”
“You’d think that would make us sad,” Espinoza said. “But honestly it makes us feel more normal than anything. I look at his locker every day and I miss him. Then I think about something funny he did and laugh.”
On a team full of dominant personalities, Grijalva was the biggest joker. He was the guy who kept everything light and fun, never one to take things too seriously.
He was also extremely talented. This would have been Grijalva’s second season starting on varsity.
“He had the potential to play in college for sure,” Kennedy coach Mack Carminer said. “He died for nothing – just a senseless act of violence. He was a great kid, and we decided to honor his memory this season. It’s just hard to accept at times.”
At Kennedy’s Sept. 7th home opener, the team presented Grijalva’s framed jersey to his family and handed out stickers with his initials and jersey number.
“We just wanted to play in his memory because he’s not able to play,” Carminer said.
At first Espinoza worried that anything less than an undefeated season would “feel like we were letting Ulises down.”
“But when I really thought about it that’s not what it’s about,” Espinoza said. “It’s just about going out and giving it our all. That’s what he did. I don’t care how many we win or lose as long as we play as hard as he did.”
The Eagles are 3-4 but have won two of their past three.
Win or lose, the team has made other changes to its approach. Espinoza’s favorite? The new way the team breaks huddles.
“We all clap at the same time and say, ‘Ulises’ instead of ‘Eagles,” he said. “I swear every time we say it, it makes me want to play harder.”
“The whole situation makes me value my life even more,” added senior Jacob Qualls. “I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t. I know he’s looking down on us now. I hope he’s proud.”