The passing of an Edcouch-Elsa JV football player brings the two communities together.

EDCOUCH — Nick Montañez enjoyed the paradoxical nature of his nephew, Martin: a mature young man with a goofy sense of humor.

“He’s tried to mess with me and his dad in the past,” Nick Montañez said. “Martin would wrestle with his dad a lot, and he would even try to stand in front of me. I’m an MMA fighter, so he’d try to act like he’d fight me. ‘Come on, Tio, I’ll kick your ass.’ He was a fun person to be around. And he was always asking the stupidest questions just to make people laugh, I guess.”

Martin, as his uncle tells it, enjoyed a swim every now and then, but he wasn’t a big fan of fishing.

“We used to have trouble with him and get mad at him because he would hook a fish that we already caught and throw it back in the water when we weren’t looking,” Nick Montañez said. “He’d act like we caught a new fish, but it was the same fish that he already threw back in the water. And he would do it over and over and over until we’d finally say to him, ‘Just leave them alone!’”

When he wasn’t joking around, Martin Montañez Jr. was coming into his own as a defensive and offensive tackle in the Edcouch-Elsa football program. Former Edcouch-Elsa freshman head coach and current Edcouch-Elsa junior varsity defensive coordinator Earl Arispe believed the 5-foot-10, 220-pound Montañez was ready to turn some heads as a sophomore starter on the JV team.

“This incoming sophomore class is a very athletic and talented team,” Arispe said. “If you’re starting on that team, you’re one hell of an athlete. And Martin was one of them. He moved well for his size. He never made excuses, even when it came to conditioning. He would try to encourage the other players his size to work like he did. ‘Hey, if I could do it, you can do it. Let’s go. Don’t make excuses.’”

On the morning of Aug. 3, fellow Edcouch-Elsa JV defensive end Jacob Cruz had a seemingly brief and innocuous exchange with Montañez on campus.

“I saw him that morning, and I just told him to be careful,” Cruz said. “And he said, ‘Yes, I will.’”

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, Martin Montañez was driving a Ford Mustang carrying two passengers westbound on Farm-to-Market Road 1925 at approximately 7:30 p.m. that night. Montañez lost control of the Mustang and veered into the opposite lane, where he collided with a Ford pickup truck. The passengers in Montañez’s Mustang were transported to the hospital, but Montañez died on the scene, hours after seeing Cruz for the last time.

“It doesn’t seem real,” Cruz said.

“It’s hard to accept it,” Arispe said. “I was going through our roster, and I saw Martin’s name on there. What was I supposed to do with his name? I didn’t want to scratch it off. At the same time, all these kids are going through a tougher time than I am.”

“Obviously, you don’t want to start the season like this, with tragedy,” Edcouch-Elsa varsity head coach Joe Marichalar said. “It’s unfortunate that things like this go down, especially to a young man like Martin and his family. We have to leave everything in the Lord’s hands and try to be supportive and do things right. As coaches, we need to be strong for our kids. We need to let them know that whenever there’s adversity, we have to be strong and find a way to overcome.”

The anguish that comes from the sudden death of a player is a familiar one for Marichalar and his program. In 2015, Edcouch-Elsa football player Anthony Segura was killed in an accident when a tractor-trailer collided with the Segura family car on Interstate 10 in GonzalesCounty.

“These are the sons of mothers and the sons of fathers, and you don’t want to establish a template of what happened in the past,” Marichalar said. “Being strong and finding a way to get the right mindset is what we’ll take away from experiences like these. If I could have these kids back, I’d change it in a heartbeat.”

The already close-knit communities of Edcouch and Elsa grew tighter in the wake of Montañez’s sudden passing. A GoFundMe was started last Friday on behalf of Montañez’s family. Sixty-two donors have already contributed $3,014 of a $5,000 goal to help pay for the family’s funeral expenses.

“They have been awesome. I want them to know that,” Nick Montañez said. “The kids, the students, the coaches have all pulled together. It was crazy to see. He had so many friends that loved him and cared about him. My family and I are appreciative of everything they’ve done. We mean that from the bottom of our hearts.”

Beyond his wisecracks and businesslike approach to football, Nick Montañez and his family decided how they’ll remember Martin.

“My mom and other family members agreed: he was an angel,” Nick Montañez said. “She said, ‘I think he was an angel. God sent him, this angel. He was too perfect.’ That’s how they feel.

“He just had to leave. That’s how good of a person he was.”