In the city of Georgia Mill Town, football provides a new opportunity

Dalton, Georgia – Old people are mostly white and carry in pizza boxes and portable seats in the stadium to prop up their backs. Young mothers are predominantly Hispanic, and some hold sleeping babies to their breasts. There are also students and parents. Much of Whitfield County is hosted at Bill Chapel Stadium at the spring event: El Clásico, the annual football match for boys between Dalton County High School and South East Whitfield High School.

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

To understand what happened in this place, look at the football field, where for 80 minutes the two teams performed a crazy ballet, while the ball was thrown from one, seemingly Velcro foot to the other. The only person on both teams who was not Hispanic was Dalton coach Matt Cheeves, who came here 28 years ago to evangelize football and found students in first-generation immigrants brought up in the game.

Tune in to “Monday Night Fútbol,” a high school summary program on WDNN, or explore the mural on the side of Oakwood Cafe with its illustrated Dalton story, long known as the “Carpet Capital of the World”. () More than 80 percent of the carpet made in the United States is made in and around Dalton.

Or visit James Brown Park, where the “cages” are known as modernized tennis courts filled with 6-, 8- and 10-year-olds who play fast-paced football matches until five. The winners remain.

Only then will you understand how this city of nearly 35,000 residents – now 53 percent Spanish – has become an unlikely hub for America’s slow inclination toward football and why it now calls itself Soccer Town USA

Perhaps it’s not so much breastfeeding as the title “home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States” that Dalton had in the 1970s. It’s not as sexy as the “hometown of blonde killers,” as it was announced in The Washington Post in 1990, when Marla Maples ’beloved daughter was linked to a married New York developer named Donald J. Trump.

However, this new identity was hard to earn not only on football fields, but also in factories, town halls and neighborhoods whose demographics have changed.

“We came here to work in factories,” said Juan Azua, a field services consultant whose family was one of the first half a dozen Latin American families to come here in the 1970s. “Parents called their brothers and cousins ​​and said there was work here. It was like a boom, another wave swept over the city and kept coming. “

Immigrant workers, who in good times were wanted in factories, were not so desirable when jobs became less. After the Great Recession, Georgia passed a law establishing an Immigration Oversight Board to investigate citizens’ complaints that municipalities do not comply with immigration laws. Sheriffs used checkpoints to catch undocumented people and handed them over to the federal government for deportation.

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

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

Georgia has since resigned from the Immigration Control Review Board, but Gruner said anti-immigrant sentiment persists in Whitfield County, where Trump received 70 percent of the vote in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

However, there are victories: Dalton recently opened a football complex with two fields with a lawn that complies with FIFA rules.

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

On a warm Thursday evening, about 2,800 people are here to see the Dalmont High School Catamonts battling Southeast Whitfield High School raiders. The most famous classic, of course, is any match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, but the rivalry here is also intense, and cousins ​​against cousins ​​and players of the club team against each other.

On the sideline before the game, Chives calms down the presence of his players. His cap is tucked low, his encouragements are quietly uttered with the southern lit. He fell in love with football at the age of 5 and played in high school and at the college club level.

“I thought it was an explosion the first time I hit the ball,” Chives said. “I was good at it and thought there was 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 that as a football coach he would change, which would make him outstanding in a state where football is king.

“I grew up with old coaches who told you you were a communist,” Cheese said.

A few days after his arrival, he discovered the Dalton Football League, unofficially known as the Mexican League. In a field near high school, Chiwz watched as two teams of middle school students exchanged excellent passes as if the ball were on a rope.

“There was talent, a lot of speed and work ethic,” he said. “I didn’t need to develop fundamental skills, I just needed to keep them sharp.”

The challenge was to get them to join the high school team.

Chivsa’s first team had six Hispanic players. One was 43-year-old Roy Alvaran, the son of migrant workers who collected oranges and peaches for 50 cents a bag before finding a permanent, paid job in Dalton. Alvaran loved football, but felt pressured to follow what he called a “Mexican route”. He said high school athletics and college ambitions were not on that route.

“You finish school, get married, have a child at the age of 18 or 19 and go to work at a carpet factory,” Alvaran said. “The Mexican route is what I did.”

Alvaran, Azua and another friend, Todd Hudgens, are unofficial football historians in Whitfield County. They competed with each other in high school – Azua played for the Raiders, Hudgens – for Northwest Whitfield High School. Together they spend “Futbol Monday Night”.

Leaning over the netting on the curb, the friends still competed, remembering.

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

“A draw for us is a loss,” said Alvaran, the current president of the Dalton Football League.

The history of Dalton High School is rich. The Catamounts reached the playoffs in the first season of Chives and Alvarran. The following year, several more Spanish-speaking players appeared for rehearsals, and a few more each year thereafter. In 2003, Dalton won the school’s first state football championship with the Spanish-speaking team.

Victories continued to accumulate: in the era of Chives Dalton – 436-59-19.

Like state titles: Catamounts were 64-0 during the three unbeaten seasons that ended in titles, in 2013, 2014 and 2015. In 2019, they were unbeaten in 23 games, winning their fifth title and finishing season number 1 in the national rankings. Covid-19 finished the 2020 season, but Dalton returned last year to add a sixth championship.

Along the way, Cheeves missed opportunities to move on to a larger job. “I didn’t want to jump,” he said. “I wanted to change my life. I like seeing the guys around town and what they did. ”

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

Over the past four years, Dalton has sent more than a dozen players to college on scholarships, including one who went to Wake Forest.

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

“I want him to keep going to school, not jumping into the carpet factory,” Alvaran said. “You can’t hate it because they earn $ 15 plus an hour. It saved my family, but there are other ways to make money. ”

The stability provided by regular wages in companies such as Shaw and Mohawk Industries retains strong power over the new Daltonians. But now many are focused on a different path.

“Every child in this field can play in college at some level,” Azua said. “Everyone has the opportunity. The question is, will they accept this offer? Will the parents allow it? ”

“Our Community,” a mural on the side of the Oakwood Café in downtown Dalton, is the work of Maiela Mesa, whose family emigrated from Mexico. It opened in early March after the artist spent four months on the stairs with a brush in his hand. Mesa’s order was to reflect Dalton’s past, present and future.

Included are First Lady Carpets; carpet rolls; kayak, for the love of the city to the outdoors; and the train, for the impact of the railways on the expansion of Georgia’s multibillion-dollar textile industry.

Two notable elements are more personal to Mesa. To diversify and empower the women who exist in her city, she included teenage girls – white, black, Hispanic, Indian and Asian.

Then there’s the teen goalkeeper.

“This is my son, Isaac,” said Mesa, nervously watching from behind the fence as the last minutes of this Classic receded.

Thanks to a save in the jump and deviations at the last minute, Isaac Mesa remained one step ahead of the Raiders for 78 minutes, and Dalton High School was ahead, 3-1. But Southeast Whitfield conceded nothing, and 1 minute 14 seconds before the end, Nathan Villanueva of the Raiders stood behind Dalton’s defense. Mesa rushed forward, but the ball flew past him.

His mother winced, and the Southeast Whitfield grandstand erupted – it was 3-2, and the “Raiders” were still alive.

With 18 seconds left, Angel Garcia of the Raiders made a free kick. He drew an arc through the wall of Catamounts, which stood guard at the gate. The ball hit the left. Mesa jumped up. His fingers touched the ball, but he gently hit the corner of the goal.

In football language, Garcia put the perfect top 90.

Miley Mesa headed to hug her muse. For the fourth time in a row, “El Clásico” ended in a draw.

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

“I need to hear that we’ve been in touch for a whole year,” he said. “We look forward to this game every season, and the kids from both teams never let us down. Both teams are very good, but when they play with each other, they show the best. I hope you will see how this rivalry is so hot, but also how it unites our community. “

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