Garrett Self brought home a top-10 finish in his first cross country meet last Wednesday in Slidell – but it was his actions well after he completed the race that made him the champion in the hearts of many.
Seeing Slidell freshman Jose Zuniga fighting to complete his race, the Tioga sophomore took it upon himself to help him to the finish. Self ran back on the course to join Zuniga for the final 800, encouraging him with every step.
“It felt good to help him out,” Self said. “I was happy. I did something I didn’t have to, but wanted to.
“He didn’t give up. He kept fighting and pushed through it.”
Self thought his day was over after completing the 5K race in 20 minutes and 17 seconds to finish seventh. He was sitting on the bus with his teammates getting ready to head home. He then saw Zuniga out on the course.
“I saw him off in the distance with the coaches behind him,” Self said. “I told my friends, ‘Let’s go cheer this guy on.'”
But once they got over to Zuniga, Self and some of his teammates started running with him rather than just cheering.
“It was crazy. Actually four kids got off the bus to run with him,” said Tioga coach Cody Patton. “It surprised us all. But Garrett kept going with him.”
Self said something took over him to help Zuniga, who he had never met.
“It felt better to me to run with him,” he said.
Zuniga himself was shocked to see Self but appreciated him and his words.
“I was kind of weirded out at first,” Zuniga recalled. “Then he started encouraging me to keep going.
“It was cool for him to do that. He said, ‘Don’t give up and keep running!’ He encouraged me to keep moving forward and not to slow down.”
The two reached the finish line together and exchanged a hug. Self then went to get several cups of water for Zuniga.
“He was too out of breath to say anything but he gave me a hug. I could see in his eyes the thanks,” Self said. “His mother thanked me. His little brother was also funny. He was trying to push him on the track.”
Self’s show of sportsmanship impressed Slidell Athletic Director Todd McCormick.
“It was a very nice gesture,” McCormick said. “I know Jose appreciated it. A lot of times competition and athletics bring out the best in kids.”
Self’s selfless act earned him acknowledgment at his school from Tioga Superintendent Charles Holloway and others.
“The principal and superintendent made a big deal about it and it, got all over Facebook,” Self said. “I’ve never had this much attention.”
Self and Zuniga have not spoken since reaching the finish line last week. But they would like to meet again soon.
“I’d like to tell him thank you for what he did for me and encouraging me,” Zuniga said.
Self would like to congratulate Zuniga again on finishing his first race.
“I would like to get with Jose and congratulate him on his effort,” Self said. “Not many people would have finished without walking. I almost walked. He outworked all of us. He didn’t give up.”
Patton points out that Self’s actions capture what he hopes all his students gain from athletics, which is more important than trophies and medals.
“When you see students do things like that, it makes you feel good about leading them,” Patton said. “Athletics last only a short time. The most important thing is teaching the young men to do the right thing.”
This story was first published Sept. 27 in the Pilot Point Post-Signal. Richard Greene is managing editor of the Post-Signal and is former sports editor of the Messenger.