DENNIS SILVA II | STAFF WRITER
“Ay, mijo,” he told Flores. “The things you’re thinking about.”
A shirtless Flores had arrived Sept. 6 at Knapp Medical in Weslaco needing staples on his head and multiple stitches on his ear and lip after he was pistol-whipped during a home invasion at the family’s six-acre ranch seven miles outside of Elsa.
“I was wide awake,” said JJ, a junior receiver on Edcouch-Elsa’s varsity football team. “It wasn’t a blur. I didn’t feel anything. When we left for the hospital, I even checked my hair. I hadn’t gotten a haircut in awhile.”
JJ was asleep that Sunday night when the attack happened. He remembers his mother, Jennifer, waking him up. He started to get up, and he guessed he started to go at the intruder, who had a gun and had followed Jennifer into the bedroom.
“He hit me and I fell. He started asking for money, and I said I don’t know what he was talking about,” JJ said. “He kicked me a couple of times, and he was hitting me, and the next thing I knew I was on the floor. He told me not to look at him or he’d shoot.”
JJ’s father, Jorge, said he thinks the intruder might’ve just been in the wrong house.
“I was getting ready to watch the news, sitting on the couch, and (Jennifer) was laying down there next to me,” said Jorge, who added police are still working on the case. “Next thing I heard was the dogs start growling. I got up and looked through the peephole. But he had kicked the door down. I left to go get my gun, because I had hidden it, and by the time I’m looking for it, he’d followed my wife and did what he did.”
Jorge said the intruder told JJ to hurry up and give him the money because “they’re waiting for me outside.”
JJ started the high school football season strong, catching nine passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns as the Yellowjackets split their first pair of games. When he went to bed early two nights after Edcouch-Elsa’s Week 2 loss at Los Fresnos, it was because he wanted to be at school early Monday morning to work out.
But when he woke up a bit before 10 p.m., JJ was wiping blood from his eyes instead of sleep. By the time Jorge arrived after his finding his gun in a room on the opposite end of the house, it was too late. Jennifer had already dialed 911 with JJ curled on the floor and younger brother Justin Jacob hovering and protecting younger sister Jaelynn Justine.
In the ambulance ride to the hospital, the first words out of JJ’s mouth were: “Am I going to play Friday? Am I going to be alright?” The responders laughed politely.
When he was with the doctor, JJ asked the same thing. The doctor laughed, and then asked JJ to put a shirt on.
“Yeah,” JJ gushed, “we don’t want all the girls falling in love with me.”
Though he was in good spirits, others close to JJ were not.
“It was tough on me,” said A.J. Rodriguez, JJ’s best friend and also a receiver on the Yellowjackets’ team. “I consider him my brother. It took me a long time to function and get through my head what happened. I just was there for him and tried to do everything I could to make him get through it all so he could get back on the field with me.”
Throughout the night, JJ made jokes and seemed anything but scared.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “It already happened. It’s still in the back of my mind, but when I’m on the field it’s just about football. Sports, in general, just let me clear my mind, especially from something like this.”
JJ was on the Yellowjackets’ varsity football roster last season, but hardly played.
“I had a senior in front of me,” he said.
This season was going to be a big one for him, however.
“JJ’s not just a talented receiver, but a talented individual,” Edcouch-Elsa coach Joe Marichalar said. “We knew he was going to be something special. He’s blessed with the ability to catch a football. Just throw it up, and JJ’s going to get it. That’s the mentality we have.”
JJ stands only 5-feet-8, 160 pounds. But Marichalar praises his impeccable timing, athleticism and balance that allow him a knack for pursuing passes at the right exact time.
“I’ve been playing football since the third grade,” JJ said. “I don’t really know what it is, it just all comes naturally. Teams put their best guy on me sometimes, but I’ve still managed to be successful.”
BACK AT IT
JJ only missed one game because of the incident (he never did play that next week’s game). Through the first six games of the season, he led District 32-5A in receptions (32), receiving yards (665) and was tied for the lead in touchdowns (6). He averages 20.6 yards per catch.
“I was worried more about his train of thought than anything physical,” Marichalar said about Flores returning to the field in Week 5 against PSJA High. “Going through something so traumatic like that … how is he going to bounce back? Is he going to be thinking about it? Will it affect how it goes about his life?
“But JJ is a very tough individual. He’s yet to even bring it up. It’s like nothing ever happened, and that’s a testament to his mental toughness.”
Marichalar credits the environment the coaching staff tries to emphasize and family upbringing for a kid’s mental toughness. When seeing JJ’s response to the situation, Marichalar was not at all surprised.
He’s seen a similar reaction this season in senior quarterback Andrew Segura, who lost his brother in a car accident less than a month before August training practices started.
“It’s something we try to install in our kids,” Marichalar said. “Life is about ups and downs, and the more mentally tough you are the better percentage you will have overcoming adversity. Even though to us on the outside, we look at situations like those and see a huge, traumatic event. To them, it’s like they’re being built this way. They’re supposed to overcome this.”
Jorge has since moved his family to his mother’s house a few blocks from Edcouch-Elsa High School. In the meantime, he is having a fence, burglar bars, security system and cameras being installed at the ranch.
“I’m more aware,” he said. “Real angry. Upset. I wish I knew who it was, and I wish we could catch him. He’s a good kid, and he’s always been a good kid.”
JJ is still wary of coming home late at night after practices, asking his parents to open the door before he gets home. But other than that, little else has changed.
“He’s come back even stronger than he was before,” Rodriguez said. “Playing football helped him a lot. He just wanted to get back on the field, and that’s what he wants most.”