Just before stepping onto the field for his team's TSSAA state tournament opener this week, Jose Pascual will bow his head to reflect on the journey that brought him to that moment. If the game becomes difficult, the Howard senior knows he has overcome adversity before.
After a year in which so much was taken away from him, first the ability to play the game he has loved since he was old enough to kick a ball, followed by true loss — the death of his baby brother last May, then one month later his mother to COVID-19 — Pascual pauses before each game to find inspiration before taking the field.
"I bow my head and ask God to protect me and my teammates, then I call my mother's name and ask her for the strength to play in a way that would make her proud," Pascual said Monday evening as his team prepared for their trip to Murfreesboro for the Spring Fling.
Wanting to provide a better life for his family, Pascual's father moved to the United States from a tiny village in Guatemala — where the family had to gather water from a nearby river to bring back into their home, which had no running water. Once he had found steady work, it took five years before Pascual's father was able to bring his wife, two sons and three daughters to rejoin him here.
"It was hard times in Guatemala, but you didn't know how much because you had your family," Pascual said. "From the time I can remember, playing when I was very little, my mom never missed one of my games. We were close. Very close. I miss her so much and this has been a hard time for our family, but I can still hear her voice in my mind sometimes and that makes me happy because that's when I can feel her presence.
"She would always tell me that if someone tells me I can't do something, don't listen to the negative things. Those are the things I remember before our games and her memory drives me to play better than I thought I could."
Vowing to dedicate every goal he scored this season to the memory of his mother and infant brother, Pascual has found the back of the net 12 times so far this season, including twice in last Saturday's sectional win at Cumberland County. His goal total is second most on the team behind fellow senior Amos Vyizigiro's incredible 28 scored.
Having a pair of strikers capable of putting so much pressure on opponents has helped Howard advance to the state tournament for only the second time in program history, where the Hustlin' Tigers (12-2-2) will face top-ranked Page (17-1-1) Tuesday at 8 p.m.
"I've had other coaches and teaches who've watched him say that they've never seem the kid play like he has this season," Howard coach Jose Otero said. "The grit and intensity he plays with now, he has something he feels like he has to play for. It's his motivation on the field and even every day in school.
"We have 22 players, two from Africa, and the rest are Guatemalan, and the game is their common language. It's what they love to do together and they remember what it was like to not get to play together. The kids lost out on a lot last year, not getting to play their season. I think Jose has even more perspective as a young guy than most. He has a determination and purpose and you can just see the change in him just in how he helps lead this team."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.