Dualities define many aspects of life in the Rio Grande Valley, from ties to family on either side of a physical barrier to the tradition of a storied rivalry told partly by geography and also shaped by events beyond residents’ control.
No contrast was more stark to E:60 producer Jeremy Williams than that of the tension enveloping Brownsville’s sister city, Matamoros, and the serene calm of those headed to nearby South Padre Island.
“When I was at the airport, there’s a lot of people with sandals and shorts on, ready to go to the beach,” Williams said. “Clearly they were on vacation. And it just struck me of how close they were to a world that they never knew existed — meaning cartels and poverty, where the minimum wage is seven dollars a day. They were so close to heartbreak and tragedy, and they were going on vacation to the beach.”
The veteran ESPN producer was at the helm for the creation of the E:60 episode “Southmost: Football and Life on the Border” which aired July 7 and chronicled the stories of Brownsville student-athletes, their families on both sides of the Rio Grande and the Lopez-Porter football rivalry.
After reading a 2016 Sports Illustrated article by Tim Rohan about the perilous lives many Brownsville students live, frequently crossing the border to visit family in Matamoros, Williams was compelled to pursue a story of his own. So he called Lopez coach/athletic coordinator Armando Gutierrez and Porter coach/athletic coordinator Carlos Uresti, and decided to head down to the Rio Grande Valley alone, with only his camera in tow.
“I basically just told these guys, ‘Hey, I’m not here to exploit you,’” Williams said. “‘I’m not here to shove a camera in your face. I just want to show the rest of the country what kind of people you guys are, and how strong you guys are.’”
The coaches at Lopez and Porter allowed Williams to set up shop, and he invited the players from both programs to share their stories, offering the protection of anonymity. Some who came forward declined to conceal their identities, saying they wanted the world to know who they were and what they were going through.
“We thought there would be one or two kids,” Williams said. “And there was a line out the door.”
His ambition — to tell a human interest story that transcended the politics that have engulfed the Rio Grande Valley and subjected the region to international scrutiny — was a daunting proposition, with headlines about conditions in migrant shelters and President Donald Trump’s shadow casting a pall of uncertainty around the fates of many families like the ones depicted in “Southmost.”
Williams had done his research and the legwork in the field two years in advance for the documentary. Then an idea from his ESPN bosses required a flight to Miami, three hours north of the southernmost point in the continental United States. There, he was to meet with renowned Univision host and reporter Jorge Ramos.
Williams and ESPN pitched the Mexico City native on the opportunity to tell a story from a unique angle and provide a thorough account of daily circumstances for some families that were unlikely to be seen prior by the average American viewer.
“(Ramos) was 100 percent all-in on it,” Williams said. “He’s a very busy man, and he was willing to put the time in to go down (to Brownsville) as many times as we needed him to. He was a dream to work with.”
Six months after shooting game footage of the 2017 Battle of the Southmost — a 35-7 Lobos victory — Williams met with his supervisors and colleagues to determine the fate of his E:60 project. ESPN made a “collective marketing push” to promote the story across all of its platforms, packaging it with a written feature by writer and producer Tonya Malinowski and unveiling the documentary on social media.
The visual component of the story took two years to complete, with much of the time spent cultivating the faith of the boys and the families whose stories are documented.
“You have to take that time to develop trust,” Williams said. “These kids are telling you stories that are really personal to their hearts.”
Williams grew up poor in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a town with an overall population that is nearly split 50-50 between black and white residents. Therefore, he knew he needed to go to Matamoros to tap into a culture that was distinct from what he had previously experienced.
“I had to be cautious, being a Caucasian telling a cultural story, without any prior examples,” Williams said. “I knew I needed to go to Matamoros to experience what these kids experience every single day.”
He said “Southmost” has all the elements of a quintessential American story — young men maturing very quickly to take care of their families in whatever way they could, no matter the toll it took on them mentally or physically.
Another layer to the story is the central characters’ devotion to service despite extraordinary hardship.
“You have a kid whose father was murdered by a drug cartel, an undocumented kid who swam across the (Rio Grande) six times and a kid whose mother was in prison for drug trafficking,” Williams said. “All three of those kids want to be in some level of law enforcement. People in this country are saying that these kids who don’t belong here, and here’s this kid who doesn’t have proper identification to be here and he’s going to die for his country? Come on.”
Because the political context of the border crisis has been on the forefront of the American conscience in 2019, Williams wanted to separate those elements from the story and instead hone in on the humanity behind the headlines.
“I wanted people on either side (of the immigration debate) to understand the facts,” Williams said. “Living on the border is not easy, and there’s really great people that are struggling and fighting. They are, quite honestly, some of the best Americans I’ve ever met.”