RIO VISTA — Since Jeff Stockton took over as head football coach in Rio Vista on April 1, 2014, he has preached a family atmosphere. And that family atmosphere and close-knit bond he’s instilled in the Eagles has never been more apparent and needed than the past month.
On Sept. 25 for the Eagles’ homecoming game against Tolar, Rio Vista senior Tucker Downs was running downfield in punt coverage when he was on the receiving end of a vicious hit. Downs went to the ground and was motionless. And at that moment, everything changed for Downs, Stockton and the Eagles football team.
The senior lineman was airlifted to Fort Worth from Eagle Field. It was later determined he suffered a severed nerve in his spine between the T7 and T8 vertebrae. Downs, who is mostly confined to a wheelchair, said he has no feeling in his legs but he’s able to slowly get around with the use of a cane.
“The doctors said it may take up to a year, it could be several years and it could be never for him to get feeling back in his legs,” said Tina Cumins, Downs’ mother. “We just don’t know.”
There through the entire struggle has been Stockton, Downs’ teammates and the Rio Vista community.
“These coaches have been so great,” Cumins said. “They stayed up at that hospital until 4 a.m. with us in the ER. They weren’t going to leave until they found out what was happening. And when they weren’t up there, they were calling to check on him. It’s emotional for me that they have so much love for him.
“Rio Vista hasn’t really been known for the coaches in the past when it comes to sticking around and truly caring for our kids, but every one of those coaches were up there until 4 in the morning knowing they had to get up the next morning and get back to work. I have nothing to say but great things about Coach Stockton. They’ve gone above and beyond to do everything they can for Tucker. All the kids love him and he’s brought them together as a team and that’s what matters the most.”
Stockton said he’s constantly stressed a team atmosphere in the football program from day one, and that has been taken to the next level since Downs’ injury.
“We preach all the time about being a family, and you never really know what that means until you face this kind of adversity,” Stockton said. “As coaches, we love these kids and we’re going to do anything we can to help when any kid needs something. In the situation with Tucker, it’s one of those moments we rally together as a team to support that young man and his road to recovery.
“As much time as we spend with these kids, they become a lot like our own kids. To have one suffer that serious of an injury is really hard. The moment it happened, it was one of the toughest moments of my life. The roller coaster afterwards of trying to find out exactly what’s going on and what the long-term process will be has been tough. Tucker’s a great kid and a leader on this team. For him to go through this is tough to see but he’s a fighter. He’s a kid that’s not going to give up. He’s always upbeat and he’s one of the most positive kids I know. His ability to stay positive even through all this is a lesson for all of us to learn.”
One example of Stockton’s dedication to Downs that Cumins recalled was something simple but spoke volumes. The medics had to cut Downs’ jersey off that night, and Stockton ordered another No. 54 jersey for Downs, even though he won’t be back on the football field for the Eagles.
“They include him still in everything they do, whether he’s there or not,” Cumins said. “Coach Stockton cares so much for each and every one of his players. When we were out on the field and Tucker was knocked out, Coach Stockton was in tears just as much as I was. Each one of those coaches were crying. That, to me, spoke volumes to what these coaches put into these kids and how much they care. ... These kids will do anything for Coach Stockton because they know he loves them.”
Senior Austin Hodshire, one of the Eagles’ team captains, said Stockton’s leadership has been undeniable.
“Coach Stockton is definitely a leader every one looks up to,” Hodshire said. “He believes in every one of us and understands what all we’ve been through. Not only is he a phenomenal leader on the field, but as well as off the field. Coach Stockton has really been the centerpiece of this team and will continue to coach to the best of his ability and lead us in the right direction.”
Senior running back Brady Wise echoed similar feelings towards the Eagles' coach.
"Coach Stockton is a very good man and coach,” Wise said. “He has personally helped me on and off the field, whether it is football-related or something going on in my personal life. We pray as a team after every single practice and game. He’s always talking to and about Tucker to try to help him out during his recovery. Coach Stockton has brought us all closer together as a team, especially throughout the past few weeks. It’s been a tough road for us all, and it’s only getting started, but coach has been there for all of us and I couldn’t be more thankful to have him as a head coach.”
After Downs spent three weeks in the hospital and going through therapy, he made his first appearance with the Eagles on Oct. 9 as Rio Vista faced Corsicana Mildred in their District 9-3A Division II opener. The team wheeled Downs onto the field to lead the team out, and the Eagles proceeded to put a 49-22 whipping on Mildred, one of the district favorites. It was Rio Vista’s first district win since 2012, but that wasn’t the story.
“As a team, we dedicated the rest of the season to Tucker and playing for him,” Stockton said. “When he got to that game, it was a huge lift to our kids. They know he would give anything to be out there playing with them. There’s an element of playing for him and for each other that has helped get us through this.”
With Downs on the sideline, the Eagles went out and put together their best performance in years.
“It was really emotional because I really wanted to be out there with them,” Downs said. “They all just hugged me and told me they loved me. It’s awesome they’re dedicating the season to me. It’s emotional but great at the same time knowing they all really care about me as much as they say they do. Ever since the coaches came here last year, they’ve told us they love us, and they’ve really come through on that.”
“They won the game for him and they played better than I’ve ever seen Rio Vista play before in their lives,” Cumins said. “Mildred is one of the top teams in district. I don’t think we were supposed to win that game. But those boys showed up and showed out for Tucker and won that game for him. It means everything.”
Downs said he has countless examples of teammates seeing him at the hospital and keeping in touch with him. Hodshire, Wise and fellow senior Brandon McNeely have been friends with Downs since elementary school, and their special bond has been strengthened through this experience.
McNeely, the Eagles’ punter and kicker, even changed positions for Downs and started playing linebacker, something Downs had been pressuring McNeely to do all season.
“It was weighing on me because I didn’t really want to play the position but after all that happened to Tucker, I felt like it was something I needed to do for Tucker,” McNeely said. “I feel like letting him know I was playing it for him would raise his spirits a little bit. I can only do as much as I can and I’m trying to do everything I can for him.”
McNeely said he and Downs, who live right down the road from one another, have been like brothers since the first grade when they started playing pee-wee football together.
“It was really hard standing on the sidelines seeing him down on the field and taken away in a helicopter,” McNeely said. “It was really hard to deal with the first 12 hours. Once I saw him kind of making his way back and how high his spirits are, it raised my spirits. The game against Mildred was powerful. It felt like him being there gave us an edge we needed to get the job done. The school and community support has been incredible. Everybody’s looking out for us and for Tucker. This year has been the turning point for Rio.”
For Hodshire, who plays tight end next to Downs at strong tackle, it’s been a change on the field as well without his lifelong teammate next to him.
“Austin came up to us at the hospital and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do without Tucker beside me,’” Cumins said. “He had tears in his eyes saying, ‘I’ve played next to Tucker all my life.’ These are a great group of kids.”
“It’s definitely different now not having someone I’ve played with ever since I’ve been here by my side,” Hodshire said. “He’s always played next to me. We’ve always had a partnership. I wouldn’t even have to say anything to him and he’d know what to do. Everything we go out there and do, it’s for him. There’s nothing we do that doesn’t go to him. We have to keep working for him and just get after it.”
The Eagles host Rice at 7:30 p.m. Friday in their second district game, and Stockton and Wise said they expect another great outing with Downs as their inspiration.
“He’s going to lead us onto the field and his presence on this team is felt every day,” Stockton said. “Him being there in person will give us a huge lift for our team and let us rally around to help him as well.”
“Last Friday night, having that win was special because we haven’t had a district win in a while, but it was even more special winning it for Tucker,” Wise said. “We’re dedicating everything we have for him and we’re going to do everything we can to help him. It will be emotional. I’m sure there will be a rather large crowd. I expect us to come out and play hard for Tucker and come away with another W.”
A GoFundMe account has been set up to help with Downs’ medical bills. Visit www.gofundme.com and search “Team Tucker-Help Tucker Walk again” to donate.