WILMINGTON — Wilmington is giving you a chance to relive a piece of Chatham sports history.
The Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington is hosting a virtual event to honor the 20th anniversary of Jordan-Matthews’ famed soccer program on Wednesday, June 9.
The hour-long affair will begin with a showing of an episode from the six-part television series, “Los Jets,” which originally aired on NUVOtv in 2014. The episode will be followed by a discussion about the TV series and the soccer program, which will feature J-M men’s soccer coach — and the man behind the soccer program’s formation — Paul Cuadros, along with a couple of Jets alumni.
“I was notified by the person in charge of the event — her name is Jorey Stanley — and she wanted to do a program with ‘Los Jets’ and do some history,” Cuadros said. “This is going to be a conversation, kind of like a gathering.”
This isn’t the first time that the Jets have been the focal point of a museum’s attention.
In 2016, the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh dedicated a small bilingual exhibit to J-M’s soccer program entitled “Los Jets: Playing the American Dream,” which included photographs and memorabilia from the Jets’ early days — including the trophy and game ball from the 2004 1A state championship game, which the Jets won, 2-0, over Lejeune.
The story of the Los Jets soccer team began to gain traction with Cuadros’ 2006 book, “A Home on the Field,” that documented his journey to starting the soccer program at J-M and navigating a tumultuous time for the Latinx community in Siler City.
Cuadros — an investigative reporter for Time magazine, among other outlets, prior to becoming a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007 — moved to Siler City from Chicago in 1999 on a fellowship to research the impact of Latinx poultry workers on rural towns in the South.
He’d found his home.
“I ended up staying on, and I’d never lived in a rural community before and I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Cuadros said. “So I started coaching soccer.”
But as Siler City’s Latinx population increased, so did animosity in the community, according to Cuadros in the documentary. Some residents were opposed to sports like soccer, a sport that hadn’t yet gained much popularity in this part of the state.
Despite public backlash and qualms over the program costing too much money, Cuadros was persistent in fighting to give his mostly Latinx athletes a chance to play organized soccer at J-M.
And in 2001, it finally happened.
“It was a struggle to get the program together and it took two, almost three, years to get the school system to say ‘yes’ to creating the soccer program,” Cuadros said. “It was a difficult thing to pitch in and convince people that it’d be a good idea.”
A mere three years later, in 2004, the Jets won the NCHSAA 1A state title, forever changing the way people viewed the soccer program both in Chatham County and across the state.
It was the perfect way to add to Los Jets’ story.
“I knew there was a championship program in Siler City when I started coaching middle school kids with Chatham Soccer League,” Cuadros said. “I could tell there was enough talent to do something in high school soccer.”
For years after his book’s publication, he strove to have it made into a television film, pitching it to directors multiple times before finally receiving an offer.
His primary motivation for pitching the story was not to glorify his book, give publicity to the school or brag about what he’d been able to accomplish. Instead, it was about using the TV screen to bring Latinx representation to sports in the U.S., which is notorious for a lack of Latinx players.
In 2011, he was contacted by director Mark Landsman, who wanted to turn his book into a six-part series that would air on NUVOtv, a network geared toward the Latinx community with English-language programming. Cuadros obliged.
Interestingly enough, popular actress and singer Jennifer Lopez was the chief creative officer for the network, which led to her becoming one of the show’s four executive producers.
“It was a little bit out of the blue, but not too unexpected since we were actively working on this for a while,” Cuadros said. “And it all kind of came together. I just didn’t think that it was going to come together through Jennifer Lopez.”
During the Jets’ 2013 season, a year removed from falling to Carrboro in the NCHSAA 2A Final Four, camera crews followed the team around during their conference season, capturing the highs and lows of a typical year at J-M.
There were cameras on them during practices, games and even some off-the-field activities. As high-schoolers who weren’t used to being filmed, many of them being seniors, it was a difficult adjustment to make.
Playing and coaching while being “mic’d up” and filmed isn’t easy.
“It was hard because we had cameras on us all of the time,” Cuadros added. “If I’m coaching a game, I know the cameras can shoot me from 50 yards away, 100 yards away and I’m mic’d up, so I’m trying to present a good character and leadership. But it’s pretty hard to do when you’re being filmed.”
That doesn’t mean it was any less fun.
“The experience as a whole was pretty cool, just to get to know the producers and directors and the cameramen, basically the whole crew,” said Daniel Estrada, senior goalkeeper for the 2013 Jets and one of the series’ featured players. “I feel like it was a little nerve-wracking at first, but as the season progressed, it kind of became a new norm.”
Estrada was one of the players who accompanied Cuadros to the premiere of the series in New York City at the annual convention for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), where a “sizzle reel” — short trailer — of the series was played.
Some of the players had never even been on a airplane before, Cuadros said, much less been showcased in front of thousands of people at an event in New York City that included Michelle Obama and Lopez as featured speakers.
“It was a little surreal,” Estrada said with a laugh. “(Siler City) being a small town, we kind of know everybody here, you know everyone in the school and everyone knows you, but being in New York is like completely random people coming to see a group of us from a really small town, so yeah, very weird.”
If you’re interested in streaming all six episodes of “Los Jets,” you can find it for free on Pluto TV (pluto.tv).
Cape Fear Museum’s free virtual event will take place from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. on June 9. You can find more info, including the Zoom link, at https://www.facebook.com/events/936536743582113/.
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.