ONEONTA, Ala. (WIAT) — Alma Vazquez waved at her brother.
It was October 10, 2013, just as Isai Vazquez was finishing a football game in front of Oneonta High School. Alma, then a junior at Oneonta, had just arrived on the field to try out his new cleats and practice a bit.
As Isai left, she waved at him. It was the last time he saw her alive.
“I felt the need to go out there and tell her I was excited for her,” Isai said. “For some reason a relative diverted my attention and I didn’t see him again.”
Shortly after returning home, Isai received a call from one of his brothers about how Alma had collided with another player during practice and was unconscious. Alma lay on her brother’s lap as he cried on the phone.
“He was freaked out,” Isai said. “He was trying to do something.”
Alma died later that night after going into cardiac arrest. She was 17 years old.
“It brings back painful memories,” Isai said. “At the same time, having faith in God gave us hope that she was better, that he took her with him.”
Nearly 10 years after his death, Oneonta is honoring Alma’s memory by retiring his jersey number, a gesture reserved for the community’s most memorable athletes. The team retired their jersey in a ceremony Thursday night during their game against Susan Moore High School.
“It’s comforting to know that people haven’t forgotten her,” Brother Luis said.
Ahead of the new season, Luiz Vazquez was going through shirts for the women’s team. While searching through different jerseys, the team’s head coach came across Alma’s number: 7. Vazquez asked the group who wanted to take the jersey. No one said a word.
“Somebody in the back said, ‘Coach, we can’t wear number 7.’ That’s Alma’s number,” Luis said.
For Luis, it was a tender moment for him. Almost 10 years after her sister left, her own players – many of whom were just children when she died – still knew her number.
“Obviously, being his brother, with everything that happened, it was really emotional,” he said.
According to Luis and Isai, the Alma in the field was very different from the Alma at home. On the pitch, she was a ferocious attacker.
“She was the little girl who wanted to become a whole person,” Isai said. “She was very aggressive when it came to the ball.”
As enthusiastic as she could be about football, Alma was very different at home, a low-key student who normally kept herself to herself. However, if she was getting ready for school in the morning, that was a different story.
“The first thing I heard was that she was singing Christian songs, every morning,” Luis said. “All she would do is listen to Christian radio and worship.”
What made Alma’s death even more heartbreaking was not how quickly it happened, but the fact that she had things she wanted to do after graduating, like becoming one day police investigator.
“She always wanted to do some crazy things,” Luis said. “I think it would be an honor to be an officer. She never had the opportunity to do so, but she would have been an excellent officer.
Alma’s death hit the Vazquez family at its lowest point. The previous year, his father, Panfilo, had died of heart problems. A few years earlier, her brother, Juan, had died, also of heart problems.
“We were just trying to get over losing my dad,” Luis said. “My dad wanted to have my sister around.”
Isai said no one in the family knew Alma had heart problems or that his own health issues could have been related to what his brother and father had. After his death, they became more aware of their own health.
“At this point, we’re all aware of what’s going on with the family and we’re all taking care of each other,” Isai said. “We take care of our doctor visits.”
Isai hopes his sister’s number immortalized in the community will help young gamers not only learn about her story, but also her love of the game.
“Maybe we can give the kids the opportunity to have a better future playing football, maybe get them a scholarship, maybe give them a career,” he said.
Luis wants his Alma’s legacy to be a legacy of love.
“All I hope is that this number signifies hope, that it signifies courage, perseverance and endurance,” he said. “It’s a story of compassion. Above all else, it is about loving God.