ONEONTA, Ala. (WIAT) — Alma Vazquez waved to her brother.
It was October 10, 2013, just as Isai Vazquez was finishing up a pickup soccer game outside Oneonta High School. Alma, then a junior at Oneonta, was just getting to the field to try out her new cleats and get a little practice in. As Isai left, she waved to him. That was the last time he saw her alive.
“I felt the need to go hard and tell her I was excited for her,” Isai said. “For some reason, a parent called my attention away and I wouldn’t see her later.”
Not long after getting home, Isai got a call from one of his brothers about how Alma had collided with another player during practice and was unconscious. Alma was lying down on her brother’s knee as he cried on the phone.
“He was freaked out,” Isai said. “He was trying to do something.”
Alma died later that night after going into cardiac arrest. She was 17.
“It brings back memories that hurt,” Isai said. “At the same time, having a faith in God, it gave us hope that she was better off, that he took her with him.”
Nearly 10 years after her death, Oneonta is honoring Alma’s memory by retiring her jersey number, a gesture reserved for the community’s most memorable athletes. The team retired her jersey in a ceremony Thursday night during their game against Susan Moore High School.
“It’s heartwarming to know that people have not forgotten about her,” brother Luis said.
Ahead of the new season, Luiz Vazquez was going through jerseys for the girls team. Rummaging through different jerseys, the head coach of the team came across Alma’s number: 7. Vazquez asked the group who wanted to take the jersey. No one said a word.
“Someone toward the back said, ‘Coach, we can’t wear No. 7.’ That’s Alma’s number,'” Luis said.
For Luis, it was a tender moment for him. Nearly 10 years after his sister had been gone, his own players–many of whom were just children when she died— still knew her number.
“Obviously, being her brother, with everything that happened, it was really emotional,” he said.
The way Luis and Isai tell it, the Alma on the field was much different than the Alma at home. On the pitch, she was a fierce striker.
“She was the little girl that wanted to become someone all her own,” Isai said. “She was very aggressive when it came to the ball.”
As gung-ho as she could be in soccer, Alma was very different at home, a quiet honors student who normally kept to herself. However, if she was getting ready for school in the mornings, that was a different story.
“The first thing I would hear was her singing Christian songs, every morning,” Luis said. “All she would do would listen to Christian radio and worship.”
What made Alma’s death that more heartbreaking was not how quickly it happened, but how she had things she wanted to do when she graduated, such as becoming a police investigator one day.
“She always wanted to do things that were kind of crazy,” Luis said. “I think it would be an honor to be an officer. She never got the opportunity to do so, but she would’ve been a great officer.”
Alma’s death hit the Vazquez family at their lowest point. Just the year before, her father, Panfilo, had died from heart issues. A few years before, her brother, Juan, had died, also from heart issues.
“We were just trying to recover from my father’s loss,” Luis said. “My father wanted to have my sister close by.”
Isai said no one in the family knew Alma had heart issues, or that her own health problems could’ve been connected with what her brother and father had. After her death, they became more conscious of their own health.
“At this point, we all are aware of this is thing going on with the family and we all take care of each other,” Isai said. “We take care of our doctor checkups.”
Isai hopes having his sister’s number immortalized in the community will help younger players not only know her story but her love of the game.
“Maybe we can give kids the opportunity to have a better future in doing soccer, maybe get them a scholarship, maybe get them a career,” he said.
Luis wants Alma’s legacy to be one of love.
“All I hope is that number signifies hope, that it signifies courage, perseverance and endurance,” he said. “It’s a story of compassion. Beyond anything else, it’s about loving God.”