Pasco’s Meraz-Rodriguez brothers have forged quite the bond
Pressure on the soccer field doesn’t have much effect on Emilio Meraz-Rodriguez. Not after what he and his brothers have been through.
Emilio, Jesus and Kevin were born in the U.S., raised in Mexico, and moved to Pasco when Emilio, the eldest, was 9 years old. Their mother, Maria, came back stateside with her children for a time with a permit, but complications arose and she had to return to Mexico, her place of birth, leaving the boys with their grandparents — Jesus and Guillermina Rodriguez, and Guadalupe Moreno — and pushing Emilio into the role of a provider at an early age.
“Being left alone with our grandparents, it was hard,” he said. “Working in the fields, people don’t really make much and they have to work long hours to barely pay the bills. And then having three younger people to take care of, we’re really thankful for what they were able to do for us, not letting us just have to sleep on the street. They gave us a room to stay.
“But from there, we did the rest.”
Now a college senior, Emilio is gearing up for his fourth and final season of collegiate soccer — he’ll be at Evergreen State College in Olympia in the fall — and is on track to graduate with a degree in human resource management. Jesus attended Spokane Falls Community College this past fall and played for the soccer team, and Kevin — a senior at Pasco High School — is signed to play for Walla Walla Community College next season.
The Meraz-Rodriguez brothers are playing the game they love, getting an education and finding their way in the world. But that success didn’t come easily, and their path to it was anything but guaranteed.
Even before Emilio was 14 (old enough to legally hold a job), he was officiating soccer games, cutting neighbors' lawns, working at flea markets — anything to keep food on the table for himself and his brothers. When he became a freshman at Pasco, he was regularly missing school so that he could work more hours.
“Just working all the time, when I would have wanted to be relaxing, practicing, focusing on school, instead I’d have to be saving up,” he said. “But life’s not easy ... seeing them (Kevin and Jesus), smaller than me, suffering, it gets me sad even today to speak about it.
"They were looking up to me as the person to provide for them, buy them food. And it just sucked hearing their stomachs rumble at times. It was hard.”
Emilio and his brothers played soccer throughout their childhood, but he never considered playing on the high school team. Missing class left him academically eligible, and his work schedule didn’t permit him to commit to workouts, practices and games.
Enter Pasco coach Matt Potter — then in his third season — who didn’t necessarily know how talented Emilio was or could be, but had heard he was a soccer player. The coach convinced the freshman of his ability to balance work, school and soccer in an exchange that both remember well. By the next school year, Emilio was a full-time member of the team.
“He was right over by that pillar,” Potter said, gesturing to the northeast corner of Edgar Brown Stadium. “I said, ‘What are you doing? You’ve gotta get out here and play.’ And so we had to figure it out; mostly it was him figuring it out, and thank goodness he did.”
It was a pivotal moment for Emilio and his brothers, when he decided that he could provide for them and still make a name for himself on the soccer field.
“Coach Potter has done so much, and he never takes credit for the things that he does,” he said. “He told me, ‘We’ll get you into classes, and you’ll give me your word that you’ll start playing.’ I saw that, after practice, I could still go cut lawns and do all that stuff. ... Thanks to that, I can make something happen. I can make a change.”
He would eventually help lead Pasco back into prominence on the state scene, as the Bulldogs reached their first state tournament in four years during his senior season (2015). He was named the Herald’s All-Area Player of the Year that season, and Jesus — then a sophomore — broke the MCC single-season scoring record with 24 goals.
Emilio graduated as Pasco's all-time leader in assists, notching 29 in his three years of varsity ball. It was an incredible high school career, considering what he was dealing with away from the pitch.
“I would finish a game here, then I would run straight to SuperMex, right after the game,” said Emilio, who worked at the Pasco grocery store throughout high school. “We needed money at the time, saving up for future plans. We wanted to get our own place, afford our food, afford our clothes. All those things that one needs.”
Soccer gave him a reason to stay engaged in the classroom, and his performance in both arenas allowed him to sign at Walla Walla Community College.
“Coming from Mexico, I would have never thought that I’d be doing this,” he said. “Being the first one in my family to go to college, setting those standards for my younger brothers. To actually say, ‘We’ve gone through so much. He’s going to college. He’s still playing soccer. Why can’t that be us?’ ”
LEAVING THE NEST
As much as he loved soccer and relished the opportunities higher education could afford him, it was no guarantee that Emilio would accept his offer to become a Warrior.
When he turned 18 in August 2015, just a couple months after his high school graduation, he moved himself and his brothers out of their grandparents’ place and into their own apartment. Going to college would mean Emilio would have to leave his brothers truly on their own, moving an hour away from the two people he was closer with than anyone else in the world.
"I looked at him, and the first thing I did, I started crying," Jesus said. "I didn't want him to leave. He had never been that far away from us, and he's always taken care of us. Seeing that I was going to have to take over, do what he had done, I felt emotional, proud that he was going off to college, but at the same time sad he was leaving us."
Emilio felt similarly uneasy about leaving home.
“I was really scared. I considered sitting out a year,” Emilio said. “But Jesus told me, ‘You did your part. Now it’s my turn to do mine. You go to college. You do you.’ ”
Jesus took the baton from Emilio — both at home and on the soccer pitch — and ran with it. While helping to pay the bills and keep tabs on Kevin, “Chuche” finished his Pasco career as a two-time all-league and All-Area Player of the Year. He scored a school-record 86 career goals (also had the top three single-scoring seasons), and as a senior led the Bulldogs to the state championship game, falling to Todd Beamer 2-1 in the title tilt.
Emilio, meanwhile, continued juggling work, school and soccer as best as he could.
“First thing I remember, before the first practice even, I was looking for jobs,” he said. “I had to pay rent here (in Pasco) and I had to pay rent there (Walla Walla).”
He worked in landscaping and helped his college coach get the field ready before games and practices. When the season was over, he kept up his landscaping job and also worked at Walmart, while still working hard in the classroom.
“It didn’t matter if I stayed up until 1 in the morning, that struggle was going to be worth it,” Emilio said.
All the while, he notched 15 goals and 10 assists in his two seasons at Walla Walla, being named an East-West region All-Star as a freshman in 2015 and helping the team reach the conference playoffs both years.
That success brought about an even tougher choice for the eldest brother: an offer to play this past fall for Upper Iowa University in Fayette — no less than a 24-hour trip by car from Pasco and not much closer to Spokane, where Jesus was getting ready to start his college career.
Emilio decided to accept. It was a tough call for him and even tougher to hear for Kevin, heading into his senior year at Pasco High. He now was on his own in the Tri-Cities with his big brothers off to college.
“At first I was happy. It was the next step, a higher level, and I knew (Emilio) was capable of playing at that level,” Kevin said. “But toward the end, I was kind of like, ‘Whoa. Twenty-four hours away. He can’t just drive 52 minutes to come see me.’ ”
Emilio’s first season at a four-year university was a little rough on the field. He scored just two goals — one in the season opener — but fell out of the starting lineup midway through the season. His team went 7-10 and missed the postseason.
But that was nothing compared to the heartache Emilio felt so far away from his brothers.
“When I was there by myself, I was really sad. I wanted to see their faces. I wanted to play with them, talk to them,” he said. “We have a really strong bond.
"When we grow up, we don’t say we want to live in separate houses or move away from each other. We want to be able to afford one big house, for all three of us to live in there.”
And there’s little doubt as to where that house will be.
“Definitely we want it to be in Pasco,” Emilio said.
BRINGING IT BACK HOME
Emilio and Jesus are back in Pasco for the spring. The eldest brother is taking online courses through Evergreen State College to stay on course for graduation and maintain eligibility for his senior soccer season in the fall.
The Pasco alums spend some afternoons helping Potter run practices at the high school, which could be a preview of Emilio's future.
“I want to come back and coach here. I want to be able to give speeches to different players from here in my hometown,” Emilio said. “There’s a lot of people here who have been through similar situations, so I feel like we can understand them. ... We always tell them, ‘It’s not that hard, just go to school, keep on playing the game that you love, and it’s going to help you.’
“It’s not good to work in the fields, I’ve been there. So yeah, we want to be that example for them.”
He’s instilled that attitude in his brothers already.
“I wasn’t really thinking about college, I was just thinking about playing, playing, playing,” Kevin said. “But Emilio was like, ‘You’ve gotta go to college. They’re not just gonna pick you up straight to the pros.’ When he went and got his A.A. (degree at Walla Walla), I saw that it was a chance to get a free education.”
Added Jesus: "I see (Emilio) as a dad to me, because he's the one that raised me. So seeing him go off to Walla Walla and keep playing, repping it up there in college, I wanted to do the same."
Jesus said he will stay in the Tri-Cities for the next year, helping to raise his 6-month-old son Jaziel Jesus Meraz. He plans to enroll at Columbia Basin College to work toward completing his associate's degree.
Emilio, Jesus and Kevin Meraz-Rodriguez were placed in a situation so difficult, it’s hard for most to even imagine. They worked hard, and now are on track to achieve great things. The grit they showed in the face of adversity will seemingly spur them to overcome whatever else life can throw their way.
“I’m just thankful for everything that I was able to live, and actually live past it. To not be separated from my brothers — that would have been tough,” Emilio said. “No one can have it so bad that it can’t be worse. Someone always has it worse than you.
“We always had that saying in our mind; it’s not so bad. Someone has it worse.”