Richard Heredia-Arriaga held tightly to his brother’s old No. 58 jersey Friday night. He waved Salvador’s old Natomas maroon at the players kneeling next to the track at Paul Shimada Stadium. He turned and pointed to the crowd.
“That’s my brother,” he said loudly.
Salvador would have approved of the emotion.
The fiery football player and coach at Natomas died at the age of 26 in 2010 when he walked in on a home invasion. On Friday, the school retired Salvador’s number and unveiled a plaque that could become part of a Hall of Fame wall the school hopes to build at the stadium.
The honor didn’t come because of his athletic prowess, though he played on the offensive line as a tackle for the Nighthawks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. His family says Salvador was, at best, an average athlete. But he worked hard, and when he became a coach at Natomas in his mid 20s, it became his mantra to the players: Don’t give up. Work.
He never gave up on the kids.
His mom, Natomas Unified School District School Board Member Susan Heredia, smiled as she remembered the night Salvador went driving around a rough neighborhood looking for one of his players. The boy had left home and could be getting in trouble.
“I remember Salvador coming down to the kitchen and saying to me, ‘I’m going to go out. I’m gonna get a kid who’s on the street. I gotta look for him. I’m gonna bring him home,” Susan said. “And he said, ‘I just want you to trust me.’ ”
She reluctantly agreed. True to his word, Salvador found him and brought him home. The boy ate dinner, did homework and spent the night, she said.
Salvador’s family also talked about how much he loved mentoring and coaching Tahjee Smith, who Salvador felt was overlooked as a player. He’s now a senior defensive back at Southwest Minnesota State.
Salvador Heredia-Arriaga’s dad – named Salvador Arriaga – said his son never knew how to quit. Born two months premature at Stanford Medical Center, Salvador had to fight just to live. It became a part of who he was, his dad said.
“He gave the kids encouragement. Never give up, despite whatever they were going through. That was his bottom line,” Salvador Arriaga said.
His bottom line was inextricably tied to football. Susan Heredia said the Natomas football field is where she thinks of her son the most. She didn’t talk of his playing days but his boisterous, animated years as a coach.
“He needed to keep himself in check, not the kids,” she said with a laugh.
Harold Williams, whom Salvador played for and later coached with, laughed at the memories of Salvador’s sideline behavior. He wasn’t crazy. He was passionate about coaching and the kids at Natomas, Williams said.
“He outcoached me. He taught me some things. I was like, ‘wow, really,’ ” Williams said. “He told me I was the best mentor he ever had. I told him he was my mentor.”
Salvador’s brother, Richard, showed some of his brother’s same passion Friday. After he proudly showed off the retired jersey, he paced the sideline, shouting encouragement at players on the field during a 34-7 loss to Rio Vista. The brothers were always fired up on the football field. Richard smiled as he remembered an alumni game – a 17-0 win – where things got a little testy with his brother. Nobody was going to push around Salvador.
“He always felt like he was looked over, passed up, Roseville, Jesuit, Granite Bay,” Richard said. “He said, ‘We’re good enough and we’re going to show them we’re good enough.’ He brought a sense of empowerment here.”
Not bad for an average athlete at a school not known for its football prowess. It wasn’t about wins and losses – though his brother certainly enjoyed winning.
“What his legacy means is any individual can contribute to the community in any capacity they have,” Richard said.