Jeff Fleener is adamant that he doesn’t have all the answers, and the right way to handle the last 31 months can’t be found inside the coach’s manual. Yet, here he is, about to pull out a move from that very same handbook.
He signals to the player manning the aux cord inside the visiting locker room at Rockwall’s Wilkerson-Sanders Stadium to turn off the music. He then calls for the team’s attention. Take a knee, touch a shoulder, he says, as the Mesquite Skeeters get into position. They’re looking at the 40-year-old coach now, prepared for motivation, a scene you’d assume is playing out in every locker room across Texas on the first Friday night of November.
White walls, fluorescent lights and a dry-erase-board backdrop are hardly a stage, but Fleener — tall, clean cut, with a little gray in his scruff — is at the center of it. It’s time for a play right out of that coach’s manual.
“Play for the guys in this room,” Fleener says, the volume rising with each passing word. “Play for the brothers that can’t play tonight for whatever reason and decide we’re going to put on for Mesquite tonight.”
There’s more to Fleener’s pregame speech, but let’s stop there, because every story about the Mesquite football program since April 2017 has been about the teammate who isn’t there.
Jordan Edwards would’ve been a senior this season. He probably would’ve been a key part of this playoff-bound team. With plenty of talent and room to grow, he probably would’ve been recruited to play defensive back in college, his best friends say.
But Jordan is gone. He has been since that April night in 2017 when a white Balch Springs police officer fired five shots into a car full of unarmed black teenagers driving away from a party, one of which killed 15-year-old Jordan.
The story became national news from the moment it happened until Roy Oliver was sent to prison last year, the first North Texas police officer convicted of murder for an on-duty killing in 45 years. Reporters from all over the country came to Mesquite to tell the same story, and when it was over, they left.
But the story hasn’t ended for those inside the Mesquite football program. It’ll never end. And it’s a different story now than you might have heard: It’s not about death; it’s about life, a legacy, and looking back with a smile, not tears. It’s about a team America witnessed through its grieving process, and the closure it's found this year, away from the spotlight.
To get there, it takes time.
Grieving is a process, and in the first stage there’s no expectation but to cry. Fleener, a coach’s son and a former Allen assistant, was hired at Mesquite two months before Edwards was killed. Since then, he says he’s only had one team meeting where everyone showed up and did so on time.
All 150 players and coaches were at the first spring football meeting of 2017. So was a pastor, school administration, and Jordan’s family, including his older brother Vidal Allen, a senior on the team.
Jordan had only been gone for a few days. Fleener didn’t know what the right way to handle it was, but his players looked to him.
“The message for us was: if you're mad, be mad. If you're angry, be angry. If you're sad, be sad. If you are sick to your stomach, go throw up,” Fleener recalled. “Whatever emotion you're feeling right now, it's OK. Feel it.”
And they did. They bawled, they prayed, and then all 150 of them lined up and hugged every member of Jordan’s family that was there.
At this point, everyone was still coming to terms with Jordan’s death. Most didn’t want to believe it. Ja’Darion Smith, a senior receiver and one of Jordan’s childhood friends, heard that Jordan was shot the night it happened. He dialed Jordan’s phone, hoping his friend would pick up.
When he didn’t answer, Smith tried again. And again. And again.
“All night,” Smith said, recounting how many times he tried, “until a friend’s mom who was at the hospital told me, and I just went in there and cried to my momma.”
High school students, especially the freshmen who grew up with Jordan, were dealing with a tragedy. And because it was a white officer who killed Jordan — a choir singer and an excellent student — it wouldn’t be a private healing process. He was the latest story in a tense, national trend.
Daryl Washington, an attorney for the Edwards family, would later say Jordan’s case was about more than one death.
“It’s about Tamir Rice, it’s about Walter Scott, it’s about Alton Sterling,” he said, referencing other black Americans who were shot and killed by on-duty white police officers.
Those instances happened in Cleveland, Charleston, S.C., and Baton Rouge. Jordan’s case was unfolding right in Dallas’ backyard.
“You knew this was a national news hot topic for everything going on in the world right now, and we were going to be right in the middle of it,” Fleener said.
Media, both local and national, immediately came to Mesquite, the same town where Micah Xavier Johnson lived before he ambushed and killed five Dallas police officers at a protest about nine months before Jordan was killed.
Reporters were there for the first day of spring practice. Some stayed the whole week. The same thing happened a few months later when Mesquite took to the field for the first time against Lake Highlands. Tripods and cameras were in the locker room that night. Players and coaches noticed. Some players acted out of character, not knowing what to do. Some answered questions because they felt responsible to tell Jordan's story, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.
Mesquite, wearing “JE” stickers on the back of their helmets, lost that game and eight more that season.
Football was supposed to be an escape, but it’s hard not to think about a tragedy when you know that’s the only reason cameras are there.
After that game, the media attention dwindled, but returned a year later. Oliver’s trial was originally scheduled for the summer, but was delayed, falling right on the week of Mesquite’s first game. Painful memories were brought back, especially for a few of Jordan’s teammates and best friends who were asked to attend closing arguments. There was a moment when a photo of Jordan smiling — Smiley was one of his nicknames, along with J-Bird and J-Money — flashed to a photo of his dead body.
“All of us melted down,” Fleener said, “because no kid should ever have to see that.”
Oliver was ultimately convicted of murder. HBO and other media returned for that first game, once again. The story had shifted, but at its core it was still about the death of Jordan.
But this season the Mesquite football team has felt that remembering Jordan, and his life, has happened on their own terms.
Jordan’s teammates will tell you that there’s no moving on from this. They were too close to simply turn a page and forget. It would be impossible to even try, because his legacy is all around Mesquite.
Jordan’s brother, Vidal, wore Jordan’s No. 11 during the 2017 season. De’Wayne Adams, one of Jordan’s best childhood friends, has been wearing it ever since. To him, it’s a reminder: to be as competitive as Jordan would have been, especially because he never got the chance.
Gary Green started at South Oak Cliff but came back to Mesquite after Jordan died. He wanted to honor his childhood friend. Every time he’s in the tunnel, about to enter the field, he looks at the JE on the back of his helmet.
The rest of the team is reminded of Jordan’s memory every day when they pass his locker. His cleats, helmet and jersey are in there, so is his photo and the notes his fellow teammates wrote to him after he was killed.
Mesquite plans to keep Jordan’s locker preserved, even after this season.
“We’re all focused on the same goal,” said senior linebacker Alec Rice. “Everybody wants the same thing: to just win and do it for Jordan.”
The truth is, in the eyes of those at Mesquite, Jordan has never truly left them. He’s been with them every step of the way. He’s on their helmets, in their locker room and never far from their minds.
On Oct. 18, Mesquite quarterback Dylan Hillard-McGill threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Ja’Travion Rudd with seven seconds left to beat Tyler Lee 18-14. The win all but assured a playoff spot for Mesquite, a certainty now for the 7-2 Skeeters. The team had a huge celebration in the locker room. They danced and sprayed water. They thought of Jordan.
We have talked about “Skeeter Fight” for 3 years and tonight we finally got to feel it! Proud of this team and coaching staff for playing til there was zeroes on the clock! Hope you enjoyed it JE...we know you had our back up there! #SkeeterFight #LLJE #WaterFightAmbush pic.twitter.com/H62dVS9jOA— Jeff Fleener (@CoachFleen) October 19, 2019
“I told them anytime something like that happens, don’t forget, we’ve got a guy on our side sitting up there, and I bet he enjoyed the show,” Fleener said.
“It’s fun to see guys thinking of him, and the smiles on their faces, because for so long when they were thinking about Jordan, they were thinking about that Jordan got shot and how sad they were. Now, they’re to the point in the grieving process where they can talk about Jordan and they can miss him, but they do it with a smile on their face.”
On Friday, Mesquite will have its annual senior night. They will read off the names and honor all the seniors, including Jordan.
Odell Edwards, Jordan’s father, is hoping he can make it. He’s kept in communication with the team and the coaches over the last two years. He works as a truck driver, which means he’s on the road every week from Tuesday until Friday or Saturday. This, he said, would mean a lot, so he’s doing everything he can to be there.
“When they told me about it, I got excited,” Odell Edwards said, “because they still treat him like he’s still here.”
To them, he is.
On Twitter: @JoeJHoyt