His mom has never seen him play: This is football and life on the border

Football an outlet for students living at Mexico's border (0:57)

Jorge Ramos tells the story of students in Brownsville, Texas, just 2 miles from the Mexico border, where drug cartels and violence are prevalent. For the full story, tune in to E:60 on Sunday at 9:00 a.m. ET. (0:57)

SAMS MEMORIAL STADIUM in Brownsville, Texas, sits 2 miles from the Mexican border and a world away from the home of Leo Ramos' mother on the other side. It's senior night for the Lopez High School football team, and Leo, a 17-year-old running back/defensive back for the Lobos, stands on the field waiting to be announced, looking up at the crowd. His mother has never seen him play and won't tonight either.

The stands are full. People file back from the concession stand with bags of chips and elote. Family, friends and players' girlfriends have painted paw prints on their cheeks and wear bedazzled T-shirts that say "Seniors 2019" and "Lobos." Leo stands on tiptoes to see into the parking lot over the crowd at the gate. He borrows a cellphone from his coach, Armando Gutierrez, hoping to reach his uncle Juan, who had to work late and is rushing with Leo's aunt Nancy to get to the stadium in time to walk him onto the field.

"It's OK, man. If they don't make it in time, I'll walk you out," Coach Gutierrez says. He knows this stadium and this moment well. He played for a nearby school and had his own name called on senior night in 1996.

Leo's aunt and uncle arrive as the names of the Lobos seniors are being read: Campos ... Garcia ... Mendoza ... Ramirez, and then, Ramos. Together, they walk onto the field with their arms linked, Leo in the center, and pause for photos. Aunt Nancy wears a yellow tank top with the number 28 to match Leo's jersey. Leo smiles as the crowd cheers for him, but as soon as the camera flashes, he dips his head and thinks of his mother. He walks into the locker room alone, stealing a last glance into the stands.

Leo doesn't allow himself the luxury of sentiment, though. This is a fall Friday night in Texas, and there is football to play. He and his teammates gather in the locker room for their last home game huddle.

This is not one of the done-up locker rooms of the bigger programs in Dallas and other parts of the state. There are no team colors painted on the walls, no names and numbers above the lockers. There are no lockers at all. Leo sits on a dark, worn wooden bench-his back to an open cubby into which someone else's initials are carved. Coach Gutierrez takes his place in the center of the circle his players have formed and pauses for a moment.

"What kind of men do you want to be? You know where you're from. You know what people expect of you. You need to go out there and prove everybody wrong every single day." Coach Armando Gutierrez to his team

"What kind of men do you want to be?" he asks. "You know where you're from. You know what people expect of you. You need to go out there and prove everybody wrong every single day." Coach meets the eyes of each player, one by one, his voice rising. "Be proud of who you are. Be proud of who you've become. The next time you talk about tonight, it's gonna be a memory, so make it a good one."

Football in Brownsville is different from in other American towns. The jersey on Leo's back is a symbol of the life and the opportunity he seeks on this side of the border. Leo is the only member of his family to be born in the United States. As an infant, his mother brought him back to Mexico but sent him to Brownsville to live with his aunt and uncle when he was 8 years old. "It was the most difficult decision of my life," she says.

She and Leo's four younger siblings live across the international bridge in Matamoros, in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, and cannot travel to the United States. Tamaulipas is designated with a Level 4 warning by the U.S. Department of State -- the same warning assigned to travel in Syria and Afghanistan -- due to high rates of violence and kidnapping carried out by drug cartels in the region. Despite these realities, Leo and his teammates try to find a sense of home on each side of the border.

MATAMOROS AND BROWNSVILLE are sister cities, separated naturally by the Rio Grande river and more noticeably by a 20-foot-high steel fence authorized under the Secure Fence Act in 2006 that runs along the river's northern bank.

In downtown Brownsville, Mexican cumbia music plays from the open doorways of small groceries and stores selling silk flowers. Brownsville's population of roughly 180,000 is over 95 percent Latino. The city is poor, the second-poorest in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many of the people working in these shops cross the bridge each night to go home to Mexico, where the cost of living is much lower.

From the right angle, you can almost forget which side of the border you're on-but widen your view and it becomes clear. Brownsville is a militarized city with unrelenting surveillance. Moving about feels tense. Vehicles and uniforms emblazoned with the logos of Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Brownsville Police, Texas State Troopers and the U.S. National Guard patrol the streets night and day.

Leo lives about 2,000 feet from the border at the very southern tip of Texas, in a part of town called La Southmost. People there love their football sons and they love their Dallas Cowboys. After each Cowboys victory, La Southmost is home to La Pitada, a celebration at which hundreds of cars form a makeshift parade and honk their horns through the streets. People in Cowboys jerseys stand on truck beds and hang out of windows waving American flags and Cowboys banners.

There was a time in Brownsville -- at least until the late 1990s -- when people would drop a coin into the turnstile on the international bridge, the southernmost point of entry into Mexico from the U.S., and cross into Matamoros for lunch, shopping or a night out. In high school, Coach Gutierrez and his friends would go to Mexico during sixth-period lunch and be back in time for seventh-period athletics. For the most part, people remember feeling safe visiting Matamoros, a much larger city of nearly 450,000, but that all changed in 2010.

THE GULF CARTEL is one of the oldest organized crime syndicates in Mexico, active since the 1930s. Its main business is drugs. Other crimes-money laundering, extortion, kidnapping, murder-are all tributaries feeding the river of drug trafficking. In February 2010, a faction of the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas, broke ties. A cartel war immediately erupted in Matamoros over control of the territory, and thus began what has become nearly a decade of indescribable and indiscriminate violence throughout Matamoros, including kidnappings, beheadings, torture and murder.

Meanwhile, the violent crime rate in Brownsville is lower than that of Texas as a whole, highlighting the dual reality not only for Leo and his family but for so many border towns and families throughout the Southwest. Their lives are not wholly defined by the violence on the other side of the border, but like seeing a storm cloud build in the distance, it makes for a constant unease.

"You can see [on the news] there was this shooting in Mexico, but the reality is that it's right next door," says Aunt Nancy. "What can I do? How do I stay away from that?"

Leo and his aunt and uncle try to visit his mother, brothers and sister every Saturday, but some weeks it is too dangerous. "Everything just becomes scarier, because anything can hit you out of nowhere over there," Leo says. "I'm more aware of my surroundings. I start looking everywhere."

Each time he leaves his family to come back to the U.S., Leo stares out the car window as the roads become smoother, wondering if they will be safe until the next time he can see them. He knows-they all know-he is working to build what he hopes will be a better life for all of them, but sometimes he feels like he's on the clock. His brother is 14, and Leo worries he soon could be recruited into the cartel.

"I think he says goodbye in a happy manner, like, 'OK, Mom, goodbye. I'll see you next week,'" Nancy says. "Yet he still doesn't want to show that feeling of, 'Oh my god, I'll be gone for one more week, and if I don't come next week, it'll be the following week.' You know, that sadness, but he expresses it with happiness just so that his mother and his siblings don't see that."

Detailing life at the border for HS football star

Jorge Ramos travels across the border with Brownsville, Texas student Leo to visit his family in Matamoros, Mexico, an area surrounded by violence.

LEO IS FAST. He pushes himself on the field as if there is a dare between his will and his body to see which will break first. After back-to-back long carries in a November rivalry game, he leans over a trash can on the sideline waiting to see if he will throw up, then jogs back out to line up for the next play.

Leo likes football for many reasons, not the least of which is the hitting. When so much of your life is shaped by violence that you can't control, the violence you can control feels good.

"The hitting took my fear away from everything that was going on around my family," he says. "[When] I'm playing football, I don't think about anything negative-the situation with my family, them living in Mexico. When I play football, I play it with a passion because I know I'm playing it for them."

Coach Gutierrez knows the feeling well. He's first generation American too -- the eldest son of a single mother who was a migrant worker when he was a child.

"My father left when I was 4, and football was my only way to take out aggression," he says. "I think Leo has that same fire. When he gets on the field, his demeanor changes. He's just focused and locked in. ... Out of everybody else, he'll step up."

Coach Gutierrez played football in Brownsville, went to college at the University of North Texas and coached high-profile high school programs in Dallas and Denton, Texas. After 10 years there, something -- God's plan, an upcoming 40th birthday, the ineffable instinct to return to the places we come from -- brought him home in August 2018.

Early in the season, Lopez High played Donna High and Leo scored a 65-yard touchdown off a punt return with 30 seconds left to put the Lobos up three. It was a play worthy of a highlight reel, until it was called back on an illegal block. The Lobos lost 17-14.

"He came in here ... and he just cried for like 30 minutes," Coach Gutierrez says.

Leo is generally shy. He has a thoughtfulness and gentleness about him, but like most 17-year-olds, his emotions are as tangled and far-reaching as the roots of an oak. Coach Gutierrez knew Leo was crying about more than the play. He knew it wasn't even any one thing in particular, that the weight of living life beyond your years, of straining on emotional tiptoes to hold together a family and live a life worthy of its sacrifice, can catch up with a young man.

"I told him my story too," Coach Gutierrez says. "He sat down and he goes, 'So you understand?' I go, 'Completely.'"

Football is a luxury in Brownsville. It is what comes after work is done and the family is looked after, but it is also the trellis on which Leo has grown up and continues to find his way.

"That play meant a lot to me because of the fact that I had done it for my team," Leo says. "[Coach] was telling me how this sort of thing happens in life. He told me that when you least expect it, somebody is going to take something away from you that you worked so hard for."

AS HE NEARS the Mexican border, Leo wrings his hands and looks out the window. His leg bounces as if all the things on his mind are in desperate need of a way out.

He has made this trip for nearly a decade, but the risk is never lost on him.

His mom and aunt check Facebook every day, sometimes every hour, to see which parts of town are active with shootings and cartel activity. When the violence metastasizes, everyone stays inside. This week, though, it's OK to visit.

Just through the border on the Matamoros side is an area Brownsville locals call the "green zone" -- a few small stores, a pharmacy, a taqueria -- where it is considered safe to visit. Continue on and the buildings fall into deeper disrepair, and foot traffic becomes sparse. The houses are set right against the road, each brightly painted with a small, enclosed patio behind an iron gate.

"It's a lot of pressure knowing that if I mess up, I'm failing them, and I don't want to do that." Leo Ramos on living in Brownsville while his family lives in Matamoros

Because he was born in Texas, Leo is afforded rights and opportunities not available to his mother and siblings. It is hard being away, of course-separated by laws and policies beyond their control-but in a different way, being with them for short stints can be hard too.

Angel greets him at the gate of his mother's home. The two brothers text each other throughout the week-mostly about girls and track or football-but it's been different the past year or so. The distance, both figuratively and literally, has become increasingly difficult to narrow.

"I mean, being away from my family, it really distanced us a lot," Leo says. "And I'm gonna be honest about it, sometimes when I go to Matamoros, I don't spend my time wisely with my family. Sometimes I just go to my room and lock myself inside there. ... I feel guilty about it, because instead of me communicating with my family, I lock myself up for no reason."

Leo has brought a video of his recent track meet. The whole family gathers around the kitchen table and watches him run -- even his two 8-year-old brothers are attentive and quiet. Leo's mother cries quietly, smiles sadly at the screen. She is raising Leo's four siblings alone, making around $7 per day working in a nail salon. She knows these opportunities wouldn't exist for Leo in Matamoros, but it doesn't ease the difficulty of watching her firstborn son live his life without her.

When it comes time to leave, Leo lingers in the doorway. His sister holds him tight around the waist and closes her eyes. It's not long before a familiar heaviness creeps into his thoughts like a fog rolling in.

"It's a lot of pressure. It's a lot of pressure knowing that if I mess up, I'm failing them, and I don't want to do that. I honestly want to succeed, you know? And to prove to them that anything is possible. I'm over here, like, having a good education, having sports without having to pay," he says. "Sometimes I do question myself, like, 'Why me? Why couldn't it be all my other brothers living up here and having a good life?' It's pretty difficult to think about it sometimes."

COACH GUTIERREZ watches from the 30-yard line as the seniors do a lap around the stadium track. Their friends join them, everyone in navy and gold, and together they sing and cheer and take photos, reveling in a moment for which many of them will someday grow nostalgic. The Lobos lost the game on senior night but never gave up against the best team in the district. Leo rushed for a touchdown. There is plenty to be proud of.

Leo and his two best friends lead the seniors as they take their final lap. Theirs is a team of young men, some of whom line up on the international bridge before dawn and cross the border each morning to come to school, some of whom are undocumented and unsure of what comes next for them, some of whom have lost loved ones to the violence in Matamoros, and some of whom have seen family members lured into the cartel. Their stories are different, but each is defined by fences, fears, bridges and marked SUVs.

There is a duality to each of them, as there is to football here in Brownsville. This is their American experience as they navigate what it means to be Mexican-American, or American-Mexican.

After the crowd has thinned, Leo and the same two friends walk out to the 50-yard-line. In the center of the field, the state of Texas is painted in red, white and blue. They take a knee right in the heart of it, and with hands on one another's shoulders, they pray.

"We prayed for better days," he says. "Because all of us go through something every day."

A few months later, Leo walks out onto the field again. This time, he's in a navy blue graduation robe. The stadium lights are on, and the stands are full again. He knows his mother isn't there, but he still looks for her face in the crowd. He takes a seat among his classmates and waits for his name to be called.

Near the end of the ceremony, the Lopez Early College High School class of 2019 turns its tassels, and with that, Leo achieves what his mother hoped he could do when she sent him to Brownsville 10 years ago. Afterward, his aunt and uncle greet him with balloons and hugs.

"I finally made it. That was the moment. I finally made it," Leo says. "I accomplished one of the goals that I told my mom I was going to accomplish, which is to be a senior and I'm going to graduate."

He isn't sure what comes next. He has an offer to run track for Central Methodist University in Missouri, should his latest test scores come back high enough. His mother is conflicted about the possibly of him going so far away, and it weighs on Leo. "There was no happiness in her. She just said a few words and looked at her phone and just got up and walked away," he says about the moment he shared his college prospects.

Leo believes she will come around, however. Now that he's 18, he hopes to legally apply to bring his mother and siblings to the United States so they can be together, even though it will require navigating an intimidating and ever-changing immigration system.

"Every day I tell myself, 'You're gonna do this, and you're gonna do it right. You're not gonna mess up. You've got this opportunity and you're not gonna let it go,'" he says.

He sometimes wonders about what life might be like outside of Brownsville and Matamoros, about opportunities he might find beyond the Rio Grande Valley, but it's hard to look beyond the fence and the river, the gulf that divides and defines the only life his family knows. Even as he looks forward, Leo is drawn home.

"Just to keep making her proud," Leo says. "That's my goal."

E:60 feature producer Jeremy Williams contributed to this story.