SPRINGDALE -- Yonathan Raya was standing in the middle of a fork in the road of life as an at-risk eighth-grader at Southwest Junior High.
The middle son of immigrant parents who came to the U.S. from Mexico when they were about 15, Raya was constantly in principal Shannon Tisher's office and usually for all the wrong reasons.
AT A GLANCE
SCHOOL Springdale Har-Ber
POSITION Defensive line
NOTABLE Had a team-high 5-0 sacks, 4 quarterback hurries, 4.0 tackles-for-loss and 30 total tackles. … Younger brother Jorge also plays on the defensive line. … Was voted to the Har-Ber leadership council this season.
ON THE WEB
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"I was hanging out with people who were drinking and doing drugs," Raya said. "I was not making the right choices."
Tisher, who is now the principal at Springdale's School of Innovation, remembers Raya as being intelligent and friendly, but a student who was teetering on the edge of falling out of the system.
That's when Keith Fimple entered Raya's life through a program Tisher helped implement called SCORE -- Student-Centered Opportunities for Reaching Excellence.
"Coach Fimple ran the program, and he did such a great job connecting with Yonathan," Tisher recalled. "You could tell they hit it off immediately."
The SCORE program is an intervention program that targets students who are having issues with grades or truancy. Raya was admittedly struggling with both.
"I was doing all the things that I shouldn't be doing," he said. "The people I was hanging out with were into gangs. I was just trying to find a place to fit in, but I was always in trouble."
Fimple was the defensive coordinator on the Har-Ber football staff, and that resonated with Raya, who said he liked football but did not play the sport mainly because of transportation issues getting to and from practices.
"Coach Fimple, he is like a second father to me," Raya said. "He was there for me, and he helped me get to where I am now."
Fimple said through Yonathan, he was able to get to know the entire Raya family. He and other coaches at Southwest and later at Har-Ber provided Yonathan with transportation to practices. Fimple also said the perks of providing Yonathan rides were well worth the time and effort.
"One time his mom made me a whole plate of tamales," Fimple said. "I told him I'd be glad to keep doing that. Those tamales were awesome."
Raya admits that without the SCORE program and Fimple, he likely would not have made it to his senior year at Har-Ber.
"Coach Fimple, he helped me see that I could be more than what I thought I could be," Raya said. "I love him so much for that. Honestly, if I had never met him, I don't know where I would be right now."
There have been other forks in the road for Raya that could have derailed him. Raya played on the junior varsity team at Har-Ber as a sophomore, but a position switch from fullback to the defensive line put the 5-foot-11, 260-pounder in a position to be a major contributor for the Wildcats last season as a junior.
Then he got a text early one morning in June that crushed that opportunity.
"I still remember that day," Raya said. "Coach (Mark) Taylor texted me and told me I wasn't going to be able to play on the varsity on Friday night's because my GPA was too low. It broke my heart, honestly, because I was ready for it."
Raya said he briefly considered walking away from football but then realized the impact the sport had on his life since Keith Fimple encouraged him to play back at Southwest. And he took ownership in his setback.
"I failed because I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing," Raya said. "I put myself in that situation, and yes, it sucked. But I knew if I walked away, I would be letting a lot of people down. I just felt like I needed to stay in the program because of all the support the coaches and my teammates gave me."
Raya stayed with it and focused on being a member of the scout team and another season of playing on the junior varsity, trying to help the varsity team prepare each week for their next opponent.
Wildcats coach Chris Wood, who has led the Har-Ber program since the school started playing varsity football in 2006, said Raya's commitment to stay in the program even after he was declared academically ineligible shows the character Raya has.
"He stayed the course when he could have just as easily quit," Wood said. "He just continued to work hard, and his teammates and coaches saw that. That's one of the reasons he was voted to be on the leadership council this season.
"Coach Fimple cultivated that relationship and saw a young man who could use football in a positive way. He created that circle of trust that Yonathan needed."
Raya, who had 5.0 sacks and more than 30 tackles this season, had another reason to stay. Just a few feet away on the defensive line is his younger brother, Jorge, a 5-9, 235-pound junior. Yonathan said playing with his brother this season under the Friday night lights has been special.
"We've gotten closer because we both love football," Yonathan said. "When you're playing something you love with someone that you love, it's a great experience."
Until recently, Yonathan worked 30 hours a week at an after-school job to help his family financially. Balancing the demands of football, academics and a job were tough, he said.
"It's hard, but then I look at my father and how hard he works, and then I see what I'm doing is not that much," he said. "My parents risked their lives to come here to make a better life for us. I want to make them proud."
Fimple said he remains in touch with Raya and other students he bonded with through the SCORE program even though he is no longer part of the Springdale Public Schools system.
"I could not be more proud of anyone than I am Yonathan, but it's all because of that program at Southwest," Fimple said. "Seeing what he's done just makes you feel like you're doing it for the right reasons."
Sports on 11/04/2018
Print Headline: PREP FOOTBALL: Raya Hope