In the city of Georgia Mill, football represents a new opportunity

DALTON, GA – Old people are mostly white and carry pizza boxes and portable seats in the stadium to support their backs. Young mothers are predominantly Hispanic, and some crush babies who sleep on their breasts. There are students and fathers. Much of Whitfield County gathered at Bill Chappell Stadium for the spring event: El Clásico, the annual football showdown for boys between district rivals Dalton High School and Southeast Whitfield High School.

The match is a celebration of high-level football: each team rules as a national champion in its class and is ranked in the top 10 at the national level. But the game has a deeper meaning: it shows how immigration and white-and-black soccer ball have transformed this city at the foot of the Appalachians in Georgia.

To understand what this place has become, take a look at the football field, where two teams performed a frenetic ballet for 80 minutes, with a ball flying from one seemingly velcro strip to the other. The only person on both teams who was not Latin American was Dalton coach Matt Cheaves, who came here 28 years ago to evangelize football and found students in the first generation of immigrants raised in the game.

Join the Monday Night Football program, a high school resume program at WDNN, or study a mural by Oakwood Cafe, illustrating the history of Dalton, long known as the “carpet capital of the world. ”(More than 80 percent of the tufted carpet produced in the United States is produced in and around Dalton.) Catherine Evans Whitener, commonly referred to as Dalton’s first lady of the carpet, is shown on the mural, but also as a football goalkeeper.

Or visit James Brown Park, where the “cages”, as the reconstructed tennis courts are called, are full of 6-, 8- and 10-year-olds playing fast-paced football games until five. The winners remain.

Only then will you realize how this city of nearly 35,000 – now 53 percent Hispanic – has become an unlikely center for America’s slow focus on football and why it now calls itself Soccer Town USA

It may not be as bloated as Dalton’s “home of more millionaires per capita” than any other city in the United States in the 1970s. It’s not as sexy as “the hometown of the blonde killer,” as the Washington Post headline reported in 1990 when a favorite daughter, Marla Maples, was in a relationship with a married New York programmer named Donald J. Trump.

However, this new identity is hard to come by, not only on football fields but also on factory floors, town halls and neighborhoods whose demographics have been disrupted.

“We came here to work in the mills,” said Juan Azua, a field services consultant whose family was among the first half a dozen Hispanic families to come here in the 1970s. “My parents called their siblings and told them there was work to be done here. It was like, boom, another wave hit the city and kept coming. ”

Emigrant workers who were sought after in the mills in good times were not so welcome when jobs became less. Following the Great Recession, Georgia passed a law establishing an Immigration Verification Committee to investigate citizens’ complaints against municipalities that do not enforce immigration laws. Sheriffs used roadblocks to catch paperless people and deport them to the federal government.

America Gruner, president of the Coalition of Latino Leaders in Dalton, said hundreds of undocumented families left the city from 2009 to 2012. Thirty percent of the Hispanic population remains unauthorized, she said.

“It was a kind of ghost town because people were afraid they would be stopped, detained and deported,” Gruner said. “The hardest part was the children who were afraid that their parents would be sent and that they would have to stay here.”

Georgia has since left the Immigration Verification Committee, but Gruner said anti-immigrant sentiment still exists in Whitfield County, where Trump won 70 percent of the vote in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Still, there’s a win: Dalton recently broke through at a football complex that features two lawns the size of FIFA regulations.

“I couldn’t have imagined a football field being built a few years ago,” Gruner said. “We felt an anti-immigrant feeling in sports and our culture. It is changing little by little. It’s not perfect. We have a long way to go. But there is more understanding. “

Nearly 2,800 people are here on a warm Thursday night to watch the Dalton High School Catamounts fight the Southeast Whitfield High School Raiders. The most famous Clásico, of course, is any match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, but the rivalry here is intense and opposes cousins ​​and players of the club team against each other.

From the side before the game, Cheaves calms down his players. His cap is low, and the encouragement quietly utters a Southern overtone. He fell in love with football as a five-year-old and played in high school and at the faculty club level.

“I thought it was an explosion when I first kicked the ball,” Cheaves said. “I was good at it and I thought I had something to contribute.”

He arrived here in the summer of 1994 with a degree in health and physical education from the University of West Georgia. He hoped to make a difference as a football coach, making him extraordinary in a country where football is king.

“I grew up with old coaches who told you to play communist sports,” Cheaves said.

A few days after his arrival, he discovered the Dalton Soccer League, informally known as the Mexican League. On the field near the high school, Cheaves watched as two teams of high school students exchanged great passes as if the ball were on a rope.

“There was talent, a lot of speed and work ethic,” he said. “I didn’t have to develop basic skills, but keep them sharp.”

The challenge for them was to get them to go out for the high school team.

Cheaves ’first team had six Spanish players. One was Roy Alvarran, 43, the son of migrant workers who picked oranges and peaches for 50 cents a bag before finding a permanent, paid job in Dalton. Alvarran loved football, but he felt pressured to follow what he called the “Mexican route”. High school athletics and college ambitions were not on that path, he said.

“You finish school, get married, have a child aged 18 or 19 and go to work in a carpet factory,” Alvarran said. “Mexican route – that’s what I did.”

Alvarran, Azua and another friend, Todd Hudgins, are unofficial football historians in Whitfield County. They competed against each other in high school – Azua played for the Raiders, Hudgins for Northwest Whitfield High School. Together they host the Monday Night Football show.

Leaning over the chain link fence to the side, the friends continued to compete as they reminisced.

“The last three times we played with Dalton ended in a draw,” said Azua, whose cousin is the head coach of the Southeast Whitfield team.

“The tie is like a defeat for us,” said Alvarran, current president of the Dalton Soccer League.

The history of Dalton High School is rich. The Catamounts entered the playoffs in the first season of Cheaves and Alvarran. The following year, several more Spanish players appeared in rehearsals, and a few more each year thereafter. In 2003, Dalton won his first school football championship with the Spanish team.

Victories piled up: in the Cheaves era, Dalton was 436-59-19.

Like state titles: Catamounts had a 64-0 win in three unbeaten seasons that ended in titles, 2013, 2014 and 2015. In 2019, they were unbeaten in 23 games, winning their fifth title and finishing the season as No. 1 in the national place. . Covid-19 finished the 2020 season, but Dalton returned last year and added a sixth championship.

By the way, Cheaves missed opportunities to move on to bigger jobs. “I didn’t want to jump around,” he said. “I wanted to make a difference in my life. I like to see the guys around town and what they did. ”

The success of Dalton’s football program changed expectations off the field.

In the last four years, Dalton has sent more than ten players to college with scholarships, including one who went to Wake Forest.

Alvaran’s son, Jacob, a senior at Catamounts, hopes to play for Dalton State. Roy Alvarran never went to college, but he left the mills and is now selling insurance.

“I want him to continue going to school, not jumping into the carpet mill,” Alvarran said. “You can’t hate it because they make $ 15 or more an hour. It saved my family, but there are other ways to make money. ”

The stability offered by a regular salary in companies such as Shaw and Mohawk Industries retains powerful power over the newer Daltons. But now many are focused on a different path.

“Any child in this field could play in college at some level,” Azua said. “They all have a chance. The question is will he accept that offer? And will their parents let them? ”

“Our Community,” a mural by Oakwood Cafe in downtown Dalton, is the work of Mayelli Meze, whose family emigrated from Mexico. It was presented in early March after the artist spent four months on the ladder with a brush in his hand. Meza’s order was to paint Dalton’s past, present and future.

The first lady of the rug is also included; Carpet rolls; kayaker, for the city’s love of nature; and the train, due to the impact that the railways had on the expansion of the multi-billion dollar Georgian textile industry.

Two prominent elements are more personal to Meza. To evoke the diversity and empowerment of the women who ruled her city, she included teenage girls – whites, blacks, Latinos, Indians and Asians.

Then, there’s the teen goalkeeper.

“That’s my son, Isaac,” Meza said, watching nervously from the fence as the last minutes of this Clásico passed.

With his jumps in jumps and turns at the last minute, Isaac Meza stayed one step ahead of the Raiders for 78 minutes and Dalton High School was ahead 3-1. But Southeast Whitfield did not admit anything, and in 1 minute and 14 seconds until the end, Nathan Villanueva from the Raiders stood behind Dalton’s defense. Meza rushed forward, but the ball flew past him.

His mother grimaced and the Southeast Whitfield grandstand erupted – it was 3-2 and the Raiders were still alive.

At 18 seconds to go, Angel Garcia of the Raiders took a free kick. He struck an arc over the wall of the Catamounts that stood guard in front of the goal. The ball hooked to the left. Meza jumped. His fingers brushed the ball, but it fell slightly into the corner of the net.

Football language, Garcia delivered the perfect top 90.

Mayelli Meza set out to hug her muse. For the fourth time in a row, El Clásico ended in a draw.

The next morning, Alvaran managed to stay in a good mood. It was not the triumphant end he had hoped for. Instead, it was the perfect ending for Soccer Town USA residents

“I have to hear that we have been tied all year,” he said. “This game is what we look forward to every season, and the kids from both teams have never let us down. Both teams are very good, but when they play each other, they get the best out of each other. I hope you will see how this rivalry is played so passionately, but also how it unites our community. ”

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