SAN ANTONIO – Years from now, when the players on this season’s Memorial High School football team are old and gray, they’re going to remember 2017 as the year they discovered that victory, like defeat, can be infectious.
After finishing 0-10 last year, the Minutemen are 5-3 overall and lead District 28-5A with a 5-1 record. Memorial hasn’t won five games in a season since finishing 5-6 in 1998, the only time it has made the playoffs in the 50-year history of the school.
“This is exciting. This is beyond words,” longtime Memorial assistant coach Leon Aleman said during a workout this week. “It’s something that’s long overdue. It’s great for the kids, great for the community.
“The whole school is excited. The kids feel it. They talk about it. They’re proud of the team, their friends. They look forward to going to the games now. It’s just a great thing to see.”
The Minutemen, who play Highlands on Friday night at Edgewood Veterans Stadium, already have clinched a playoff berth and can win their first district championship with victories in their last two games of the regular season.
But even if it were to lose to Highlands and Edgewood ISD rival Kennedy in the annual Salsa Bowl next week, Memorial still would finish 5-5 and snap a streak of 22 consecutive losing seasons. The Minutemen haven’t had a winning season since 1994, when they finished 5-4-1 under coach Oscar Valenzuela.
Memorial, which opened in 1967, has had only six winning seasons in school history. Long a doormat in San Antonio high school football circles, Memorial has gone winless in 18 of its previous 50 seasons.
Given their history, the Minutemen’s turnaround easily has been the most compelling story in area high school football circles this season. That Memorial is having success on the 50th anniversary of the school’s opening has made the season even more special.
At the center of it all has been second-year head coach Kemmie Lewis, who was promoted to head coach in 2016 after Alex Guerra resigned to become head coach at La Villa. Lewis, 34, coached the Minutemen’s secondary for four seasons before landing his first head-coaching job.
Even after Memorial went 0-10 for the ninth time in 13 seasons last year, Lewis saw better times on the horizon – even if few others did.
“I really thought that if we worked hard and our kids made a commitment to get better every day, we had a chance to win six, maybe seven, games this season,” Lewis said. “I’m one of those guys who believes in heart-to-heart talks and I’m not going to sugar-coat anything when I express how I feel.
“I brought the kids in after our last game and sat them down. I expressed what I felt at that moment. I said, ‘Guys, I know we can win. We have to find a way. We have to buy in and be committed. I put it on the line that I trust them and I love them for their effort. I told them I was there for them.”
The Minutemen went to work in the offseason and made getting better every day their mantra.
“We did a lot of team-building things,” Lewis said. “I wanted us to build more trust. We as coaches helped them become bigger, stronger and faster, but we also worked to help them become more football savvy. But the main focus was team. It was always team first.”
Senior nose guard Julian Esparza talked about the large number of players that participated in summer workouts.
“Everyone was working as a team,” he said. “We’re all family. That’s how we say it. We’re just family and we work hard.”
Born and raised in Collins, Miss., a town with a population of about 2,600, Lewis has won over his players by raising expectations and infusing them with a confidence grounded in their mutual trust.
“We know he believes in us and we believe in him,” Esparza said. “We know he cares about us. He gets us pumped up. He just tells us to work hard in class and work hard on the field, and everything is going to come up on Friday nights.”
Junior two-way end Jose Perez said the team’s goal is to win the district championship.
“We put in the work during the summer,” he said. “It’s a different team, different people. We believe the process of our coaches, and we believe the work they put in for us every day, and we follow it. That’s why we’re winning.”
Aleman, who has been on the Memorial coaching staff for 16 years, sees Lewis’ good works on and off the field every day.
“He brings a strong motivation and a strong work ethic,” Aleman, 51, said. “He brings energy and the players and coaches feed off it. He’s very passionate about what he does and you can tell he loves the kids. He’s our athletic coordinator and he supports all our programs.”
Edgewood ISD athletic director Robert Gomez, who hired Lewis in 2012, has seen him turn around the program with a quiet confidence and his ability to connect with his players.
“He is a pied piper,” Gomez said. “The kids follow him. He’s surrounded himself with good coaches who work really hard and relate well to the kids.”
Gomez said that although the Minutemen finished 0-10 last year, he could see signs that Lewis was changing attitudes and moving the program in the right direction.
“As you drove up to the school, you saw kids running to the practice field, ready to go,” Gomez said. “You could tell there was a different attitude. It’s contagious. The girls volleyball team was district co-champion this year and our team tennis team won three or four matches. The success of the football team has lifted the whole school, the whole community.
“A lot of people don’t see this, but on Friday nights when the team is getting back to Memorial, there are people lined up all around the school welcoming them back. Even people who didn’t go to the game. There’s a big difference in the community. We’re getting calls from people wanting to go to Memorial games.”
Lewis played college football at Jones County Junior College in Mississippi and Louisiana-Lafayette before starting his coaching career at Pearsall High School in 2010. He joined Guerra’s staff at Memorial two years later. A principal in the Pearsall ISD who had played softball for Gomez in Hebbronville called her former coach to recommend Lewis.
“That’s how I found about him,” Gomez said. “We brought him in and Alex (Guerra) was impressed with him right away. He told me, ‘We’ve got to bring him in.’”
Lewis embraced the challenges he found at Memorial wholeheartedly.
“I’ve always been the kind to take on challenges,” he said. “When I got to Memorial, I saw kids who were respectful but didn’t take constructive criticism, as far as football goes, very well from their coaches. It’s like they were too proud. They were defensive. They took it too personal. It’s almost like they felt you were demeaning them or talking down to them.
“I didn’t really understand that because all I was trying to do was help them. Then I realized that a lot of these kids get criticized all the time. They’re always coming across negative things in their lives. It was like they felt that nobody cared about them.”
Lewis formulated a plan that focused on breaking down barriers to win his players’ trust and start building relationships.
“Once we broke things down, things started moving in the right direction,” Lewis said. “The first season was rough, but there were some kids in the program who began to understand what we were trying to do. Now I see the passion of all those kids.
“Now I see the fight and they’re listening because they trust the coaches. Winning always helps, but trust was a big thing and so was building relationships. That helped us start building a foundation.”
Perez said Lewis nurtures that trust every day.
“The way he coaches is different than all the other coaches that we had before,” Perez said. “He understands our problems. He always helps us out, on and off the field.”