Robert Varela came home from football practice last week with big news.

“Mom! You’re going to the football game Friday night, right?” he eagerly asked his mom, Merlinda Varela. She wouldn’t think of missing a game. It’s Robert’s senior year and in his world, football is everything.

“Of course we’re going,” she replied.

“Good! They’re making a play for me,” Robert explained. “They’re going to throw the ball to me... in the game!”

For Merlinda, it was a lot to take in. She could see her son’s excitement so that made her excited. She likes football, but she is nowhere near as passionate about the sport as her son. Few people are.

For most of this season though, Robert’s first year on varsity, the sharp-looking and athletic 18-year-old’s role has been that of a back-up receiver on the sidelines, patiently waiting and hoping for his turn. Varela is a teen-ager with adult deficit attention disorder and is a part of an Alice High School program for students with intellectual disabilities.

But above that, Varela is proud of being an Alice Coyote and content with simply being a part of the football team.

However, right now, on Alice head coach Kyle Atwood’s to-do list is getting the ball in Varela’s hands in a game.

Atwood’s plan is a play simply called, “Robert.” Technically-speaking, the play is run out of a Quad formation, which is an empty backfield and four receivers lined up in a bunch. The catch here is that Varela lines up as a tackle and he’s designated as an eligible receiver. His route is a simple “go” route straight down the field.

With so many receivers lined up and Varela coming off the line of scrimmage, the play is almost a sure thing, and it nearly worked too when it was called in the first quarter of last Friday’s game against Tuloso-Midway. As designed, Varela was open, but the Warriors covered the play by pressuring Alice quarterback Trey Jaramillo and his throw was high.

“I was nervous,” Varela said. “I was like, ‘They’re going to throw it to me.’ I was open too, but it was just a little too high.”

It was the first time this season that Varela got into a game. He said coaches haven’t scrapped the play, and it could be used again at any time, maybe even this Friday in the Coyotes’ 30-5A InterZone playoff game against Corpus Christi Moody.

“We’ll see,” Varela said. “If they called my play, I’ll be ready.”

And although Varela didn’t make the catch, he was still a big-time winner Friday. See, earlier in the day, he was recognized by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football and given the publication’s Unsung Hero Award, which recognizes young men around the state who don’t always get the spotlight but are the inspirational leaders of their teams and communities.

Atwood said Varela’s unwavering dedication to the program, despite any obstacles and all of the demands and sacrifices that come with being a part of a football team makes him a worthy recipient of the award.

“He’s the perfect young man for that recognition,” Atwood said.

Nancy Martin, Varela’s teacher at Alice High School, agrees.

“He’s just always so helpful and respectful to everyone he comes across,” she said. “One thing you’ll find out about him right away is that he loves football.... everything football.”

Atwood first met Varela in his first weeks at Alice High School in April. Varela’s love of the sport and his passion for the program stood out, especially when the team began meeting for early-morning weights. With most of the boys slowly making their way into the weight room, each morning, Varela was usually the first one there to greet Alice’s new coach.

“He was always there, and he’d say, ‘Get your mind right coach!’ That how he started each morning,” Atwood recalled. “He put in all the work and did everything we asked of all of our boys. He deserves to be a Coyote just as much as anyone out here.”

Atwood was so impressed by Varela’s attitude that when he read about Texas Football’s Unsung Hero Award in the spring, he immediately nominated him.

Rudy Klancnik from Dave Campbell’s Texas Football said Varela is exactly the kind of student-athlete they try to highlight. The publication hands out only five Unsung Hero Awards around the state each year. As part of the award, Varela was also given a $500 scholarship to use at whatever college he may attend.

“Great stories from great kids like Robert are why we visit all parts of the state to recognize these Unsung Heroes of Texas high school football,” Klancnik said.